From the Wissenschaftskolleg zu Berlin to Wiko: Reflections on a Return after Twenty-Seven Years

By Peter Reill, Fellow 1986/1987

There is an American saying made famous in literature “you can’t go home again,” meaning, of course, that when one returns to a place one has experienced in the past, one’s expectations never completely correspond to one’s memories. This year, I had the chance to go home again after a twenty-seven year absence. It was not my former home, but the Wissenschaftskolleg where in 1986/87 I spent an intriguing and rewarding year as a Fellow. This time around, I came as a Fellow’s spouse, a rather different proposition—or, so I thought, given my memories of my past stay. But I discovered it was not so much that I was going home again as that I was going to a new place, albeit one that in many ways looked like the old one. 

This realization should not be surprising, since the original “home” was in West Berlin before the Wende. The new “home” is in a united Berlin, one of the most vibrant cities in Europe, and, once again, the capital of Germany. As Berlin has changed, so has the Wissenschaftskolleg, now usually referred to by the Fellows and by the administration and staff as Wiko. This shift in nomenclature is, in my view, symbolic of the enormous changes in attitude, organization and academic concerns that make the new Wiko so much more exciting than the Wissenschaftskolleg I experienced as a Fellow. (Obviously, not all change is for the good and the new Wiko faces problems that did not bedevil the old one of my memories, but more of that later.)

How can I characterize the changes I believe have occurred? One way may be to take imaginary comparative tours to the 1986 Wissenschaftskolleg and 2014 Wiko. Consider this a tour led by a subjective guide, influenced by time, nationality, and education. In 1986, the central campus looked very much as it does now. The “Neubau” had just been opened, the library building was the same (though there are now many more books) as was the main building. There was no Villa Jaffé and the Villa Walther did not become an option for living accommodations for the Fellows until the following year. So there was a material difference. Those of us who did not live at Wiko, mostly those with families, had apartments in nearby and not-so-nearby areas. I lived in an apartment house on the Teplitzer Straße, which we renamed the Teplitzer Autobahn because of the traffic din from morning to night. 

But more important than the material additions to the campus, the linguistic and disciplinary realities have changed dramatically. In 1986 when one attended a lunch or a seminar the normal working language was German, the topics of discussion usually dealing with issues in the humanities and social sciences that were roiling the academic world of Germany and Europe.  Of the thirty-six Fellows in residence, thirty-one of them either had German as their native language or could speak German because of their disciplinary interests. There were only four English speakers, two French speakers, and one Spanish speaker who had no workable German. The majority of those who were eating the Wissenschaftskolleg’s wonderful food and engaging in serious and not-so-serious discussions held positions in Germany, fourteen of them, followed by the United States with seven, Israel with five and France and Italy with two. The rest of the Fellows, one per country, came from Switzerland, Canada, Hungary, Spain, the UK, Algeria and Mexico. And of the thirty-six Fellows, thirty of them were concerned with the fields of literature, history, philosophy, musicology, sociology, classics, Jewish Studies, anthropology and other related fields that often are classified as the “soft sciences.” There were only five in our Fellow cohort who did “hard science,” and two of them were involved in theoretical physics. Thus, there was very little talk about laboratory experiences and the epistemological challenges one faced when doing empirical science. We also had one resident author of some renown, but he was not a very visible presence, absent more than present during the year.

But for me the most striking aspect of the 1986/87 cohort was the then dominance of male academics who virtually controlled discussions, either formal or informal. There were only six female Fellows and one or two of them were there only for a limited period. In short, it was predominantly a group of male academics, drawn primarily from the academic and scientific traditions of Central Europe, sometimes evidencing an attitude that some might call the mentality of a German Ordinarius, or in a rough American analogue, the attitude of an elite academic superstar, desiring to prove one’s own excellence while minimizing the efforts of others. And, with certain exceptions, the self-styled Ordinarien were often away for long periods of time, creating in fact, though not in theory, a two class system: those who attended the daily lunches and the organized events and those who did not or only did so irregularly. 

Of course there were many exceptions to this type of behavior. During my stay at the Wissenschaftskolleg, I made many fine acquaintances and some lasting friends, the most important being Richard Rorty; I had wonderful times both in serious discussions and in extra-curricular activities; I had the ability to experience great music performances and good theater; my daughter was able to attend the John F. Kennedy School, which at the time was totally bi-lingual, an experience that was crucial for her later development; and, due to the fact that German was the virtual lingua franca of the Kolleg, my German, which always needs refreshment, improved considerably. Still, the Kolleg was basically there for the Fellows: spouses did not get the same kind of benefits and the children of the Fellows had to fend for themselves; there was little or no attempt to integrate them into the larger Kolleg family. Thus, I can say that my subjective memories of my stay at the Wissenschaftskolleg were as a whole positive, but that at that time and even more in retrospect, I considered the collegial atmosphere to be highly problematic: too authoritarian, elitist, inward looking, and self-serving.

If one made an equivalent visit to Wiko in 2014, the campus would be largely the same but the impressions would, in my opinion, be very different. At lunch, the normal discourse would be in English, the disciplinary distinctions much greater, the national representation greater (22 nations versus 12 in 1986, where now the Americans have displaced the Germans as the largest group—12—though the Germans are the second most representative nation—7) and the gender distribution much closer to what one would hope will soon reach a rough equality. But even more striking is the collegial warmth that characterizes this group. Obviously, the chemistry generated when one assembles fifty-one academics, which now is the number of resident Fellows, from across the world and from varying disciplines is hard to predict. It cannot be generated by mere proportions or disciplinary means. Some cohorts have better experiences than others. Still, this being said, I believe Wiko’s staff and administration have created an atmosphere of openness that is infectious and helps shape the ways in which the Fellows interact. 

So let me begin with these imponderables: many of this year’s Fellows have young children who are making the difficult transition to what, for many of them, is a totally alien culture. Not only has the administration and staff helped find the correct schools for the children—they did this when I was a Fellow—but they have made them welcome in the social sphere. Because there is now a children’s dining room, or, once a month, a children’s table in the main room, staffed by wonderfully sympathetic persons, the Thursday night dinners are now as much a highlight for the children as for the Fellows and their guests. In fact many Fellows tell me that they dare not miss a Thursday night dinner for fear of disappointing their children. Wiko has also demonstrated an equal concern for the Fellows’ spouses, a policy that has benefitted me greatly. When I learned that my wife Jenna Gibbs would be a Fellow, I expected that I would not have the privileges accorded a Fellow, an opinion based on my former stay. I was amazed to learn that I would be treated in all respects as a Fellow except for the necessity of taking the daily meal. I now have the best of both worlds: I use the enormously efficient library services with abandon, attend the Tuesday seminars and the following lunch and the Thursday night meals, and benefit from the care bestowed upon us by the staff in general. In this sense, I feel as though I am part of this year’s cohort, despite my status as a spouse. This openness on both sides helps bond the Fellows in ways that go beyond purely academic concerns. Children make friends and these friendships bring parents together, no matter what their disciplines. For spouses, many of whom are creative participants in the cultural world, whether in academics, the fine arts, or business, integrating them into Wiko not only creates a feeling of belonging but also greatly expands the larger cultural-intellectual universe in which the Wiko Fellows live.

The imponderables that have helped Wiko respond positively to the changing world in which it exists are further mirrored in the more so-called objective sides of what is being done and who does it. As I mentioned earlier, just looking at the demographics, disciplinary spread, and activities of today’s Wiko compared to my 1986/87 Wissenschaftskolleg, the differences are striking. For many Germans some of these differences might be disturbing. Of the fifty-one Fellows there are, by my estimate, thirty-two with no working German at all; they are basically English speakers. There are a further ten non-Germans whose disciplinary language is English and of the Germans and Europeans in residence all speak English. There are, indeed, some English, French and Hungarian speakers who control German, but their numbers are small. Hence, by default, English is Wiko’s common language of communication (which in my case makes the recovery of my German speaking abilities more difficult). Wiko has tried to compensate for this shift in language skills by offering German courses from the beginning to the advanced levels, which help a bit, but given time restraints and competing academic demands the courses cannot bring back the days when German was a powerful form of collegiate communication, at least in the Tuesday seminars, where the Fellows present their research. Of course, there are some evening colloquia, where German has been the language of communication, but by their very nature, they are highly selective, naturally drawing those who speak German and are interested in the subject matter.

If the decline of German as the first or second language of discourse at Wiko is disturbing (at least for the German-speaking world), the shift in what is being done and supported is, in my opinion, totally positive. Since this is a personal report, I would first like to comment on what I find thoroughly new and refreshing compared to my stay, namely opening up Wiko to the performing and fine arts. Having composers, performers and artists in residence enriches the cultural scene in which we live, making it a much more fulfilling experience, both for the academic Fellows and the artists, performers and composers who have to deal with their academic Fellows. When I was a Fellow, there was one writer in residence, with whom hardly anyone had contact. There were musicologists but no musicians, whether performers or composers; there were art historians but no artists. This year’s group has five Fellows who are either performers, composers, artists, or writers. Watching the fruitful interchanges between the academics and the representatives of the fine arts is fascinating and also enlightening to see how much their interests overlap. 

The same can be said about the clear expansion of concerns and subject matter in the direction of the natural sciences. In this year’s cohort there are eighteen Fellows who do what might be called “hard science” compared to the six in mine. They form a significant part of the whole cohort, making it necessary for all of the Fellows and fellow travelers like myself to communicate with each other in a substantial and meaningful way, breaking down disciplinary barriers, and opening up new ways of broader understanding. This imperative is made more evident by the fact that many more Fellows come from different parts of the world. When I was a Fellow, only three non-European and North-American countries were represented, namely Israel, Algeria and Mexico, and one could argue that they were basically European in their cultural and intellectual attitudes (especially the Israelis, many of whom were born in Europe but found refuge in Israel because of the horrors of Nazism). Today, the dominance of the Euro-North-American cultural sphere is still evident, but is being modified by including Fellows from countries such as India, China, South Africa, Senegal, Iran, Zimbabwe, the Ukraine, Israel and Russia. 

Finally the demographic shift in gender representation from my Wissenschaftskolleg to Wiko is most apparent and, in my opinion, crucial. There are sixteen female Fellows this year, less of course then one would hope, but they play a major role in shaping the dynamic of the discussions in seminars and in normal discourse at lunch and in social events. Their strong presence—asking hard questions and presenting fascinating papers—besides enriching the Fellow’s experience also function as a vehicle to break down the stereotypic gender characterizations based on essentialist definitions of femininity that are still to be found, even in the academic world. It is interesting to see that in this year’s cohort, both of the Fellows’ representatives (also a new innovation since my days as a Fellow, signaling a desire to democratize the Fellows’ experiences) are women, one from the humanities, one from the natural sciences. 

On another note, having frequently talked with this year’s Fellows about what I thought was the difference between then and now, I have often been asked, is this group younger? I didn’t have an answer, so in writing this I decided to see if I could find one. Perhaps I have been inspired by this year’s focus group on quantification, though my quantitative skills are minimal and my trust in numbers skeptical. I have been able to come up with rough answers because most of the ages of the Fellows, past and present, are listed in the Jahrbücher (though not all ages were given for both years), a policy that for an American academic I find surprising. [As a quick aside: in the United States it is now against the law to require a candidate for a position to provide information about age, gender, marital status or race and is illegal for an institution to publish such data. These laws are meant to serve as barriers against discrimination and sometimes work, partly because there is no mandatory retirement requirement in America. A person who has entered a second career and thus is “older” than many of her or his cohorts, is more likely to be judged by achievement at the stage where one stands than on one’s physical age.] So, given material I would have had great difficulty finding in the States, I went ahead and did my demographic “analysis.”  At first, the comparison did not seem very significant. The average age of my Kolleg cohort was 53, that of this year’s Wiko 49 ½. But the picture changes when one looks at the comparative median ages. For my year it was 55, for this year it is 46. Even more striking was the way the ages were distributed. For my Kolleg year there was one large group containing more than half of the Fellows that ranged from ages 62 to 51. For this year’s Wiko Fellows there are (in my very subjective analysis) three large clusters: one large cluster of 18 from ages 61 to 56, an equally large cluster comprising the ages from 47 to 38 and a smaller cluster of 9 for the ages 34 to 30. In short, not only is this group “younger,” but, highly important for me, much more diverse, comprising significant groups who have had different life experiences. Still, there is in my view a danger to equate youth with innovation and openness; there are older people who are “young,” at least in heart and behavior and younger people who are “old.” Looking at Wiko from the outside in has convinced me that the really important factor that makes this place so special is its diversity in every aspect that one can raise: gender, nationality, age, academic and artistic specialization, and life experience. 

So then, if my characterization of Wiko’s situation is correct, are there any inherent difficulties it faces? Certainly for this year’s Fellows their Wiko experience is unique, something, I believe, they will treasure for the rest of their lives. They make that clear every day, praising the new stimuli they have received through inter-disciplinary exchange and the chance to expand their own vision or to pursue their own “secret projects” that often lie outside of the formally stated goals they described when they arrived. Of course, as the year draws to a close, many also face problems—they haven’t done as much research or writing as they wished, there are many formal obligations such as meals, seminars, conferences and the like that take away from their productivity (a complaint that increases as the dreaded time for their departure comes ever closer). But, in my experience, these types of complaints, which I also made and still do, are endemic to the nature of academic and cultural production. Usually our hopes far exceed our abilities to achieve them in the time frame we initially envisioned. 

There is another complaint that one often hears that is not based upon the feeling that one could have accomplished more: It is that Wiko is too far away from the action that is Berlin. Grunewald is not Berlin! This last observation has nothing to do with Wiko but mirrors the immense changes Berlin has undergone since the Wende and the move of the nation’s capital to Berlin. When I was a Fellow at the Wissenschaftskolleg, Grunewald was close to the academic centers of West Berlin. It was halfway between Dahlem, where the Free University (FU) was located, and Ernst Reuter Platz where the Technical University (TU) was thriving. The Ku’damm, the life line of West Berlin, was just a quick walk or bus-ride away. Schöneberg, where the city government was centered was also close. When an open event took place at the Kolleg, the attendance by leading academics and figures from the West Berlin cultural scene was impressive. I certainly was amazed when John Hope Mason and I organized a two day seminar on “The Enlightenment: Nature, History and Genius” at the number of people who turned out. The large conference room was filled, leading scholars from the area as well as a host of doctoral students were in attendance, and the question and answer period was intense. In many ways, the Kolleg then functioned as a salon for Berlin, where the city’s academic elite could meet in neutral territory. Though supposedly modeled on the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, my Kolleg of 1986/87 had been designed to bring together interested and educated people residing in a still embattled city. Today such a scene would be an exception rather than a rule. But the same can be said about any other academic institution in Berlin.    

The city has such rich intellectual and cultural offerings, spread across a large geographical terrain, that the experience we had at the Wissenschaftskolleg in 1986/87 is virtually unthinkable at Wiko today. But I then was living in what was a provincial city, artificially supported by funds designed to demonstrate the West’s superiority over the East.  The music was great, the museums of the West fine, the two West universities good, the cosmopolitan openness limited to a few areas such as Kreuzberg, and the food in Berlin terrible: in my skewed view, a significant mark of a great metropolis is its ability to attract fine chefs and to offer a broad range of international cuisines and local ones that, challenged by other competing cuisines, design innovative menus. In my days, the normal Berlin cuisine beyond the walls of the Wissenschaftskolleg, where the food was excellent, was symbolically characterized by Buletten, Eisbein and Currywurst. These three are still with us, but the restaurant scene is now as diverse as in most great cities. Berlin may not be able to compete in this respect with the likes of Paris, Rome, New York, London, Los Angeles or Toronto, but it is well on its way. In another sense, however, there are very few academic institutions in such large metropolitan and cosmopolitan cities that can compete with Wiko. It has become a true Center for Advanced Studies—a site for serious and exciting interdisciplinary exchange between a diverse and extremely talented group of Fellows, whose research is publicized not only in Berlin, but in Germany and abroad. And Wiko is located in Berlin. From this vantage point, one could say that Princeton is not Berlin! And much of the credit for this development goes to recent administrations: from Rector, Secretary, Academic Coordinator, and Permanent Fellows to all of the dedicated staff members who have introduced and sustained a breath of fresh air, a new “Berliner Luft.”