I just returned from my long study tour in Prague, Cesky Krumlov, and the Austro-Czech border area with my European Humanities course, which was a wonderful experience, both intellectually and generally.
In the three days we spent in Prague we attended a soccer game, saw a castle, visited Radio Praha (the Czech version of NPR) and met a controversial Czech Artist. The best part is that it was all academically relevant to what we’ve spent the last two months studying.
Our core course has been focused on how a people form their identity and what factors have a potential to complicate ones concept of self and belonging. We’ve focused primarily on metanarrative of WWII, first studying the concept of a Danish/German Identity as found in the borderlands, and then Czecho-German identity.
The Czech Republic is just twenty two years old. It was part of the German ruled Austro-Hungarian Empire for hundreds of years, became one half of Czechoslovakia after the first world war, was annexed by Germany during the second world war, liberated by Russia (not the United States) in May of 1945, and a part of the Communist USSR/Eastern Europe throughout the cold war, until finally becoming the Czech Republic in the early 90s.
As an American, the class has been particularly interesting because I’ve learned a lot about first about WWII, and then the Cold war that was never included in courses taught in the United States, but also has drawn attention to how different an Americans concept of identity is than someone from Western Europe.
The United States as a concept is a nation formed by the mixing and melding of various identities. Many people identify as Irish-American, Italian-American, Jewish-American, Chicano, or the like. The concept of a hyphenated identity is not nearly as prevalent within many places in Europe. Anecdotally, Denmark is a place where someone with a Swedish mother, and Danish father will consistently be called Swedish by other Danes.
While I know seeing a soccer game doesn’t seem relevant, I promise it is! In fact sports teams in general can be a huge contributing factor to identity; I had never thought about it before, but the same applies in the United States. Southerners are notorious for identifying with an SEC school’s football team, New Yorkers divided between Yankees & Mets fans.
We also met David Cerny, a Czech artist responsible for some seriously controversial works, as well as absurd ones like the one above outside the Kafka museum.
Lastly, I felt extremely lucky to be in this course because it it actually the last time it will run in its current version. Unfortunately, this fantastic course has suffered from under enrollment, presumedly because of its interdisciplinary approach, so beginning next semester, the European Humanities department at DIS will be focusing on a more discipline specific approach, offering Literature in St. Petersburg, Art & Cinema in Prague, Philosophy in Athens, and Comparative History (which looks most similar to the current Memory & Identity) in Berlin and Warsaw. As much as I loved my course, I find myself being a little bit jealous of the future Humanities students at DIS for the options they’ll be offered.