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.
Recently an Irish mother told me how her daughter's German class full of 17-year olds, was asked who Goethe was and 75% of them have never heard of him. I am not even shocked anymore by the ignorance of pupils who selected German as their main subject.
After ten years at school, my daughter had 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.
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, my husband 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 University in Johannesburg 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.
When I asked my German managers where I taught Business English at a German multi-national company 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.
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 - and then only on their own initiative.
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