SUMMIT, the Liberal Arts, and the German Prison System

“What can I do with a German Studies Major?” — It’s not atypical at this time of the year to receive  e-mails that either implicitly or directly ask this question. And to those of you who are asking, thank you! You initiate an important dialogue about the benefits of liberal-arts learning and the role of foreign language and culture in the liberal arts curriculum. Of course, there is always a particularly spectacular career path that I could tell you about, or that job which involves jetting back and forth between Washington and Berlin. Yet, what’s really important is to consider learning foreign languages and cultures not as an added skill that looks good on your resumé (although it does!) but as core element of your education that shapes the way you think and solve problems. Over the next couple of weeks, I will use this blog to highlight examples where this convergence of knowing a foreign language and culture as well as having both breadth and depth in other disciplines matters.

While reading today’s NYT I stumbled across the first example, an op-ed piece titled “What We Learned from German Prisons.” Nicholas Turner, president of the Vera Institute of Justice, and Jeremy Travis, president of John Jay College of Criminal Justice, write about their experience as co-leaders of a bipartisan US-delegation that visited German prisons in order to learn about the German prison system. Their conclusion is simple: Germany is doing a much better job of returning offenders to society, thereby keeping prison populations and costs low. Why is that, the authors wonder?

After all, between 1933 and 1945, Germany has invented and perfected perhaps the most atrocious incarceration system ever, and even the post-1945 Bundesrepublik had its fair share of problems. Their question, “How do we move from a system whose core value is retribution to one that prioritizes accountability and rehabilitation?” is an exemplary liberal arts question: You need philosophy/ethics, sociology, political science, history, AND you need deep knowledge of, in this case, German culture and language, to avoid facile responses along the lines that “Germans just do it that way.”

As the authors state: But for all the signs of progress, truly transformative change in the United States will require us to fundamentally rethink values.

“Values” not as abstract ideas, but as tangibly affecting policy debates, training of prison staff, and police departments.

Comparative analyses of topics such as the prison system illustrate what Agnes Scott College’s SUMMIT can be about. And they illustrate why you should take your language and culture studies seriously. Looking at the language requirement as a four-semester long hurdle you need to overcome will not allow you to make the best of your education. Think across disciplinary lines, wonder how learning about a particular system of government or historical period or anything else might change if you were able to look at it from outside your own language and culture; then find ways to integrate these areas of learning and let them mutually influence each other.

Let’s see what other examples I can come up with. If anyone has an idea, or questions, or wants to comment, please do so!


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