Moving to a new environment comes with many challenges, especially when the cultural gaps are big. Dr Katalin Morgan discusses navigating the peculiarities of some German ‘scientific’ discourses.

I grew up partly in Germany and understand the language, but my tertiary upbringing was in the English-speaking world of South Africa. Coming back to Germany after more than 30 years meant a (re)learning process of how to navigate the new linguistic landscape in order to meaningfully contribute as a ‘guest researcher’.

At a recent society for history teaching conference, I was somewhat overwhelmed by the academic discourses. Leaning on Soviet psychologist Lev Vygotsky’s central propositions that it is language that determines thought, I decided to pay attention to certain words and try to and understand why they were causing me to experience what the psychologists would call, cognitive dissonance.Three of the words were Geisteswissenschaften, Doktorvater/mutter and Nachwuchswissenschaftler/in. Geisteswissenschaften is what would be called the humanities in English. It literally means ‘the science of ghosts’, or the spirit. It seems to assume that the human spirit can be studied and known in scientific terms.

This is a huge leap in faith because matters of the spirit have their own logic and their own substance. They belong to the realm of the transcendental that is distinct from the temporal and spatial limitations of the here and now. Matters of the spirit can be compared to the number one, meaning indivisible, unchanging and in agreement. To a German-speaking person this may seem obvious because the word eins, or ‘one’ is used to describe the very process of agreeing (sich einigen). This is not obvious to the English speaker at all. Matters of the science operate through the logic of two, meaning divisible, giving rise to disagreement and argument. The whole existence of modern science rests on the use dialectic thinking.

In English, the second word, Doktorvater/mutter, means the supervisor. To describe the relationship between the experienced academic and the newcomer as that between a father and a son introduces a whole new dimension to the picture. It is similar to the distinction mentioned above. A father-son relationship is one of the most elemental of intimate relationships imaginable. It is built on the logic of one: the same blood, the same name, the same characteristics passed down. This perhaps explains why so many new doctoral students in Germany (as was evident during the conference) focus on the Nazi period and its related themes. It was during this time that the father-son relationship was so badly damaged that its effects are still strongly felt today. It seems like sons are crying out to their (fore)fathers.

The third word is a Nachwuchswissenschaftler. It is a (usually doctoral) student who will eventually replace the professor – like the son eventually replacing the father. In its literal sense, Nachwuchs means ‘regrowth’, which in English denotes something like hair, nails or grass coming out from the roots again after the top layer is gone. It is a beautiful metaphor from the natural sciences applied to the humanities. However, something that is a regrowth is necessarily of the same substance as the original organism. But in the sciences it is precisely the fact that the protégés are different from their hosts that makes progress possible. It is through disagreement, difference, bending the rules, or trying out something new that the boundaries of the known world get shifted. Again, the irreconcilability between the logic of one and two becomes apparent here.

Now of course I don’t imagine that supervisor-student relationships in Germany are really like that between a father and son. And I also know that the Nawis (as they are affectionately known) are indeed expected to be original in their research and writing. But at the same time, it can be no coincidence that there is this thread of oneness throughout these three discourses. When put together, they form a beautiful picture of a father who wants to pass down knowledge about a spiritual, transcendental world, worthy of laborious access, to his beloved son, in the hope of preserving something more than just a tradition. It certainly raises my curiosity.

Dr Katalin Morgan was awarded an Alexander von Humboldt Postdoc Stipend for 18 months to work in collaboration with the Universität Duisburg/Essen and Universität Köln on a research project of her own design. The aim of the project, which is started in September 2015, is to find out how youths in high school history or language classes respond to a recently-published educational medium called ‘Witnesses to the Shoah – school learning with video interviews’. These digitised video testimonies of Holocaust survivors and resistors derived from Steven Spielberg’s Visual history archive (VHA) together with interactive educational software, that have been specially designed to serve the curriculum in German schools.