Schiller Shunned

A chapter that did not make it into my book. (The book was cut by a fifth)

We are living in the land of Goethe and Schiller and more recently Heinrich Böll and Günter Grass – both worthy Nobel Laureates in Literature. But there is no official body saying that a child should have been introduced to certain authors by a certain stage.

 In the eighth class my daughter read her first book of German literature, a very moving story about a boy who survives a concentration camp. She came to me to ask how she should describe the use of language in the book. As I neither knew the author nor the title, I leafed through the book to discover that it was a translation from English. “Well, you can’t describe the use of language in this case,” I said snottily. The teacher could have asked the class to read something by Erich Maria Remarque or Siegfried Lenz, who both deal with the war from personal experience.

After ten years at school, my daughter has read one poem by Goethe and one play by Schiller. Pandering to the needs of the youth, some teachers try to read modern German texts that in many cases disappear again after a few years. A nation of ignoramuses is waiting to be let loose on the world.

We were passing through Weimar when my older daughter was about ten. With her South African grandfather and MM, they visited Goethe’s house, while my mother and I opted to visit Liszt’s house. Weimar is the centre of German culture, where Schiller and Goethe lived and wrote, and where Liszt composed. I think Louise is the only one in her class who has done been there.

Since it illustrates the best and worst in German history, I suggested a trip to Weimar as the class trip at the end of the tenth grade. The German teacher ignored the suggestion and took the class fifty kilometres away for three days of sailing on a lake, which entailed some boozing and sailing but nothing of real educational value.

When I was getting worked up about the ignorance about Goethe – my daughter was in the tenth grade and sixty percent of young people never get beyond that grade, MM admitted that he had never read Goethe in school even though he had been to one of the top grammar schools in Bavaria. He only started to read Goethe because he was interested in literature.

I was slowly staring to feel like a freak. After all, I have read Goethe’s Faust One and Two. Or rather, Prof. Karl Tober, later Vice-Chancellor of Wits and a native Austrian, took us through Faust with great enthusiasm. I cannot exactly say that I read it with great relish, but he was enthusiastic enough for it to become contagious, and twenty-five years later I am thankful to him for making us read it.

A Russian friend of mine told me that in Russia they had two subjects – Russian Grammar and Literature, which was mostly Russian literature, but also involved reading literature from other countries. Like me, she was shocked that the German schools seem to neglect their literary traditions. She had also read Faust and Shakespeare and that in Russia.

So off I went to my German managers where I taught Business English at a German multi-national company and asked them who had read Goethe or Schiller at school. Not a single one of them had read any Goethe. Some, but not all, had read Schiller, whom I personally also prefer. I was in a state of shock. I cannot think of anyone in an English-speaking country, as widely apart as South Africa or the UK or Ireland or Australia of my generation, who would have gotten a matric or A-levels or a school-leaving certificate who would confess to not having read a single line of Shakespeare.

To add to my state of shock, a German mother, who was hosting a French exchange student, complained that the pupil was only interested in reading when he got home and was reading heavy literature, like Balzac, unlike her daughter, who was only into parties.

When our French exchange student, Collette, 16, came to stay for three weeks, she lay on her bed for hours reading Baudelaire. She thought I was pulling her leg when I suggested that she should ask the German pupils in my daughter’s class how many of them had already read Goethe. “Oh, they may not know who he is,” I added, tongue in cheek. She looked at me in disbelief.

In this country, with one of the richest literary traditions in the world, it seems to be the prerogative of a very small elite to read the great works of literature.

The first taste for literature many pupils will develop in their lives will be in school.  Children from working class families are again disadvantaged compared to those whose parents belong to the intelligentsia and where Schiller or Goethe and Böll may be on the bookshelf and where the parents encourage them to read.