Thoughts of a Teacher of German
FIVE years ago I was a man of acknowledged prestige in our small college campus. I am the same man, with the same principles, the same ideals, but my position is not the same, my attitude toward my work is not the same: the life of it has fallen away.
I am not a German by birth, not even by close descent. My father was a Methodist minister and had practically none of the German tongue at his command. It was not until my undergraduate years in a little Methodist college in the Middle West, that I became interested in languages. Later, I studied in France and Germany. The interest became a passion. It was the culmination of a long cherished ambition when I at last went through the sacred ceremony of receiving my doctor’s degree in Munich, the rites representing years of toil and moil and persistent sacrifice.
Upon my return to my Alma Mater, however, it was Latin and not German that I began teaching. I liked Latin, but I loved German, the language and literature. So, when a position opened in the department of German, I went into that department, and in time became head of the work. It was a comparatively small department, where the professor did practically all of the instructional duties except with the beginning classes.
About this time I married a young woman of German parentage, who matched and mated my eagerness in my study; and, together, we wove a wonderful woof of romance and poetry and philosophy with which to hang about the sanctum of our work. Our student boys and girls, year after year, were to become imbued with what we believed to be German Idealismus, industry, simplicity, inspiration, lofty idealism. Our home would be the centre of their social activities; we should have current periodicals, old books, songs, music of the old composers, tales to be told, all these in the language whose Klang we so much reveled in; everywhere the German atmosphere, and now and then our German Kaffee and Kuchen. The more we planned and studied, the more we loved our work, the more we felt it a mission.
And this indeed became our work — a mission. We built up our department; it became popular. Our departmental library received an endowment which made it the best in the state. We opened our home informally to the German Club, formed of all students working in German. We patiently studied each individual, and once or twice, through each of the four years, we tried to get into confidential contact with each student in all of our courses, not in a slushy, sentimental sort of way, but by a personal interest in each, by some means entirely out of the pale of campus curricula. We often spent hours in devising some tactful and unobvious way. We did it purely out of love for our work.
Years passed. It took no great amount of bias or personal vanity to realize that the German Department had become the strongest in the school. It was openly acknowledged to be so. Our students studied with devotion and enthusiasm. Der Deutsche Bund was one of the leading social-educational clubs of the institution, and our Christmas and Easter Feste were sparkling affairs, genuine and ardent. A spirit of comradeship and sympathy became traditional. And, considering that not more than three out of every hundred students coming to our campus were of German families, or had previously understood or spoken German, this influx of interest and cooperation spelled something significant of success for our years of aim and effort.
Then came the war. September, 1914, saw little change in enrollment. Classes were about the same in size as those of the semester preceding. Work opened propitiously. This year was to see the campaign for our long-dreamed German House, a consummation most devoutly to be wished for the complete atmosphere, the unified background of our ultra-Deutsch experience — a bit of romantic Germany, of Germany at her highest and best, set down in a German garden at the marge of the little old campus.
In 1912 I had spent my sabbatical leave of absence in Germany. To be quite frank, I had then been a little worried — a trouble subtle and intangible, an impalpable premonition of things not quite right in the country of the Rhine. As it had not done before, the Erhebung of everything German, the constant reiteration of German virtues, Deutschtum, rasped upon one’s sense of what was right and proper. It was, as I had never felt before, an everlasting refrain of Deutschland iiber Alles.
Later, some very inconspicuous reports in the Berliner Technische Welt had surprised me — descriptions of some technical developments. It recalled the sharp contrast to our little Middle Western town, which I always felt at the sight of the ubiquitous soldier in Berlin. And yet, German student though I felt myself to be, I had no idea of war, absolutely none. Bernhardi was no secret. But many of us felt that Bernhardi was merely one of those Prussians who out-Prussianed Prussianism. Rohrbach and Von Bülow were not far removed. Otfried Nippold’s collected evidences of ‘irrefutable proof’ of war-agitations were merely sporadic utterances characteristic of some visionary writers of the time. There have been in all countries alarmists. There were, to be sure, the dangerous philosophies of Nietzsche and Treitschke. But the age was seething with a variety of extreme — some even rabid — theories. Some readjustments were inevitable — economic, educational, social, religious. But any real menace to world-peace was unthinkable. So I calmed any subconscious perturbation. Nevertheless I was uneasy, subtly and intangibly uneasy,
I entered into the work that September of 1914 with less of spontaneity and elasticity. August for me had been a month of trial. Austria’s declaration after the Sarajevo affair, and all the lightning-like sequence of portentous events that followed, left me stunned. Not that I then saw the full sweep of the menace; but just from the connotation of it all, my teaching found me stiff and unresponsive. In the following June, the spring of 1915, twenty-three of my seniors left school, with splendid training for teaching high-school German. At least four were full of vision, a-thrill with the joy of work to be done. They had been so deeply immersed in the Idealen of the masters of German literature; so engrossed with the history of the development of liberty and the progress of the earlier German states; so overwhelmed with the range and beauty of the writings of Schiller and Lessing and Goethe, that the Hapsburgs and Hohenzollerns somehow seemed remote. Occasionally we took up newspaper reports for discussion in the classroom, but much of the opinion was then either neutral or very slightly biased.
By the next September there was a slight fall in the enrollment of the freshmen sections, though the upper classmen continued their work in about the same proportion as in preceding years. A few, however, shifted from a major to a minor in German, and wisely did their thesis work in a subject other than the Teutonic language and literature.
I say wisely, for the developments of those months just passed and of the two years just to follow became an unfaltering finger, pointing the way toward an increasing loss in the popularity of German in the American schools. German lost then that which generations cannot replace. Consciously or unconsciously, the student for years and years, of years upon years, will remember the Germany of the second decade of the twentieth century, and turn to a language other than that of the Kaiser and the Crown Prince. Indeed, it may take centuries to remove the stigma, to take away the stench of blood from the language of the Boche.
Except himself, no one can conceive of the poignancy of the feeling that the teacher of German now experiences. I have seen the ambitions, the hopes, the day-long, night-long efforts of twenty years sapped of life and vitality through the world-lust of the Prussian. I have known the bitterness of seeing so much of the beautiful in thought and expression spurted over with the life-blood of Democracy. And I am sick.
Imagine the futility of teaching German idealism, Goethe’s Mehr Licht, or Imagine trying to impress upon a class the idyllic beauty of Hermann und Dorothea, the lyric and spiritual qualities of the second part of Faust, the universal brotherhood of Lessing’s Nathan der Weise; imagine these with the letters of FRIGHTFULNESS now worldwritten by the hand of the Hun! I am not choleric. I believe I can see sanely. But the exclamatory is all that expresses this irreparable injury.
Muss auf das beste Werkzeug halten.
I began bravely this difficult work of teaching German since 1914, by the hypothesis that the best in Teutonic literature is a revolt against this very militarism we are now fighting, and for a time I deluded myself with the great good that could be accomplished by emphasizing this in such men as Schiller, Lessing, and Goethe, as well as in some of the things from such moderns as Wildenbruch and Theodor Sturm. But the newspapers made current events too vital for one to spend his hours shoring up the tottering structure of German popularity. Eighteenth-century nobility was overcast by twentieth-century inhumanity.
The heart of me passed out of my work. It became a lifeless routine. Something of bitterness burned within me. I felt as if the Germans had cheated me, robbed me of something good and beautiful. At moments I was full of dumb incredulity. I recalled the kind and heartfelt cordiality of those people of my student days. And yet I knew only too well the ingrained system of the Gymnasium and the Cadet-Schulen, the implacable military training. That it is, through which Kultur and Schrechlichkeit have blotted out the Sprache of Wilhelm Tell, of those little prose-poems like Immensee and Hoher als die Kirche, which students everywhere have read and loved. When Dr. Dwight Hillis tells us of the ‘Zwei’ scrawled drunkenly above two little crucified Belgian babies, — a laconic and sardonic Zwei, — we begin to comprehend what Welt-lust is doing to the language of Luther and Leibnitz, of Heine and Herder, of Grillparzer and Grimm.
Shall German continue in the grade schools and in the high schools? Shall the German staff be maintained in colleges where there are not enough students to keep them employed? These are the questions that the foremost educators, the press, the people of the time persist in bringing forward. It is doubtless a problem that will be with us for a generation. After a generation the thing will largely solve itself. The most radical declare for a complete boycott. Others are represented by Theodore Roosevelt, who, declaring that ‘America is a nation and not a polyglot boarding-house,’ reiterates the prudence of eliminating German from all elementary schools, and reserving it solely for a purely utilitarian language in secondary institutions.
‘We cannot trust Germany enough to neglect her language,’ declared one of my colleagues recently. ‘There must be many of us who keep close enough in touch with her tongue, to keep apace with her hands so efficient in diabolical designing.’
German as a language has not passed, is not passing. But German as a favorite study, as a foster-tongue which we affectionately cultivate, is no more. The Hun has seen to that. It takes but a composite study of the departments of German in the colleges and universities of this year to comprehend the astounding falling-off of students. We need merely to contrast the growth of courses in French language and literature, in history and drama and science, to realize that the ‘language of the courts ’ has become the elected language of the time. In the state university of one of our commonwealths, known the country over as a state spotted with ’little Germanies,’ the classes in German have dropped to a mere handful of lukewarm students, while the French classes have grown seventy-five per cent. And there is a rumor, not yet officially verified, that all of the instructional staff in German have been granted leave of absence for the year 1918-1919.
Be that as it may, we do not need to turn to campus gossip for substantiating the prevalent distaste for Deutschtum. I, this year, have seen pathos and tragedy in the careers of many of my fellow teachers in other schools. Young women are devoting day and night to replacing their German by a heroic turn to French. Three men who had gained renown and honor some time ago in research on German subjects, are now floundering in a series of economic lectures of which they but recently learned. One professor I know has been sacrificing for eight years, burning more than midnight oil and energy, preparing for the publishers a book, big in both content and extent: a study of the environmental and hereditary influences that shaped the peculiar characteristics of Uhland. He has given the work up. And he is like a man lost.
Another young associate professor and his wife, as much devoted to his work as he, came to our campus three years ago brimful of enthusiasm. They were as much rapt in the contemplation of the new long-dreamed-of home that they would soon build, as we had been in materializing our Deutsches Haus for the campus home of our boys and girls. They treasured everything that would help to realize their hopes more quickly. They were too happy to realize just how they were yielding up in every form to make possible the home they longed for. Now, while they are at last in position to have their own hearth, to revel in the joy of their own inglenook, they will not build. He has given up his German teaching and will leave for work with the Red Triangle.
I am still teaching German. I have seen my department fall from the most popular to one regarded with uncertainty and even with distrust. There is no longer the zest in the Lieder or times of Conversatione at the meetings of Der Deutsche Bund. In reality the German Club no longer exists. We have held meetings to interpret Pangermanism, the doctrines of Hurrah and Hallelujah, the explanations of Von Jagow, Dernhurg and BethmannHollweg. That has been largely the gist of our work this year, — disclosures, divulgences, a campaign of antiautocracy that verges now and then into a Hasz-programme, — not an ideal course for college students.
Theoretically, I ceased teaching German in 1915. What I am doing now is nondescript. I should leave the whole work, I am convinced; but it is not easy for a college professor who has spent the prime as well as the strength of his maturity in a subject, to enter into a new field of work. At times I feel that I would stake everything that has heretofore been my pleasure and my happiness to be able to go now into technical or scientific work. It may be that I shall soon find it impossible longer to remain in the chair of German. I have a small farm. I am learning, in an elderly, hazy sort of way, all I can get in scientific agriculture, and to this I may turn.
But the soul of me cries out against that system that has robbed me and thousands of others in my position of the joy and inspiration and the sense of a mission in teaching to aspiring college students the idealism of Licht, Liebe, Leben.