The first volume of Reiner Stach’s biography of Kafka, entitled The Early Years, is mesmorizing. It is not easy to make a biography about the formative years of any human being—birth, family life, education—interesting, but Stach most definitely achieves this through a variety of techniques. He incorporates the complex history of the city of Prague, including its Czech, German and Jewish aspects, into this story of what is arguably its most famous inhabitant. Since it covers Kafka’s childhood there is, naturally, a discussion of his education at German language elementary, middle and high schools, a topic about which I feel compelled to comment.
What struck me about Stach’s discussion of education in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century in Prague is that the issues and struggles that students, teachers and families were facing are still being confronted today. Kafka was an anxious, shy student who was constantly terrified of the litany of tests and exams that were always required of him. Stach, however, is very careful in not making grand, sweeping generalizations about the educational system in the Austro-Hungarian Empire or even about the city of Prague itself. Like any reasonable education, Stach argues, a plethora of factors will affect a student’s success including a pupil’s attitude, the teachers’ attitudes, the learning environment and the support from home. Stach writes:
But how did the humanistic high schools in “old” Austria actually work? Was such a destructive, or at least demotivating pressure to preform engendered here systematically; did the fault lie with the educational system itself or with the inability or ill will of individual teachers who appointed themselves judges? That is a matter of debate even among those who attended these schools. Experiences at school leave a deep emotional mark on children, especially in the sensitive years of puberty, and even in retrospect they seem strongly tinged by a student’s individual circumstances. It would be difficult for a former star pupil to empathize with the situation of other pupils whose lesser achievements could not shield them from pedagogical harassment. The same was true of pupils whose educational experiences enjoyed encouragement from their own families and who could not begin to picture a father like Hermann Kafka, for whom only report cards counted. And many of the pupils later looked to their school days with rose-colored glasses: Cheery anecdotes remain in their memories and are happily recounted; humiliations, fears of failure, and the torments of pointless cramming for tests, on the other hand, are often suppressed or go unmentioned for the sake of self-respect.
Stach’s observations about education are issues that I think about and that consume me on a daily basis. Our current educational system is filled with high stakes, standardized tests that inflict a great amount of anxiety on students. Every time a new test is implemented, or a standard test is altered, this anxiety escalates even more. But how else, the powers-that-be argue, will we know if a school/student/teacher is successful? Or what other way is there to judge whether or not a student should be admitted to a certain college or university?
The details in Stach’s biography are stunning, but they are presented in such a way that we are not overwhelmed or bored with them. Facts and statistics about Kafka’s life—he had 8 hours of instruction in Latin and classics per week—are altered with personal anecdotes from Kafka’s own letters and diaries or those of his friends and contemporaries; Stach quotes Kafka’s latter to Felice in which he includes a story about his Latin teacher, Emil Gschwind, who was “the most influential authority during Kafka’s high school years..”:
Children should not be pushed into things that are utterly incomprehensible to them. Although we should bear in mind that even this can bring out very good results in some instances, such results are completely unpredictable. I am reminded of a teacher who often used to say, as we read the Iliad, ‘Too bad that one is obliged to read this with the likes of you. After all, you couldn’t possibly understand it, even if you think you do, you don’t understand a word of it. A person has to have experienced a great deal before being able to understand even a bit of this.’ At the time, these remarks (delivered in the tone of voice he always used, of course) made a far greater impression on the insensitive youth that I was than the Iliad and Odyssey combined. This impression may have been far too humiliating, but it was a crucial one all the same.
Like Kafka’s teachers, I must give assessments and follow a curriculum—but I’ve learned along the way that I can control the experience that students have in my classroom. When I first started teaching my laser focus was to pound declensions and verb tenses and Latin grammar into my students’ heads. (It’s really embarrassing to think of my first few years of teaching.) But as I had more interaction with students and developed in my career it suddenly dawned on me that in a year or two or ten the students are not going to remember first declension or the subjunctive! This thought forced me to reevaluate what my purpose is in teaching what people call a “dead language.”
My philosophy of teaching shifted greatly when I started thinking about students in a broader context. Yes, my pupils still have to learn verb conjugations and vocabulary, they still have to translate Catullus and Ovid and Vergil, but it is worth the time if we have had a good discussion about Homer or the Roman Empire or Epicurean philosophy. Or, better yet, they like it when I talk about music, football, or the myriad of issues important to a teenagers at any given time. They like it when I greet them with a smile, ask how things are going with them, and reward them with stickers on their stellar papers. And I do understand that many of my colleagues disagree with this approach and view education more narrowly. But, as Lucretius points out, it is easier to swallow bitter medicine if one rubs a little honey on the edge of the cup.
It has been a good yet difficult experience for me to constantly be asking what kind of a long-term impact I have on my students. My influence over them as an educator in the formative years of their lives is a great responsibility; my hope is that even years from now they will have an appreciation for classics and an ancient language and that they will remember a positive feeling they had when stepped into my classroom. But this is a tall and overwhelming goal to achieve when so many other factors come into play, as Stach perceptively notes in his descriptions of Kafka’s education. How can I reach that child, like Kafka, who is anxious, shy, nervous? Today, in particular, was a tough day. But I will go back tomorrow and try again. I would certainly be horrified to find myself the subject of a such a dreadful story as that which Kafka relates about his Latin teacher!
Reading Kafka, even a biography of Kafka, ought to come with a stern warning about the self-reflection that will be a result.