A GENIUS AT ‘SCHOOL’
As my point is to indicate how the education of the boy told in the life of the man, it is not necessary to follow further these most instructive records Aus Meinem Leben. Nowhere else, so far as I know, have we a minute, almost impersonal consideration of all the influences that went to the making of a man. That this was a man of genius, a great poet, is not important to us from the educational standpoint; the noticeable fact is that no single fragment of his education, hardly a book that he read or hobby that he pursued, above all, hardly a single subject in all his numerous studies, but bore directly and obviously on the man that he became. But there is another side to the question: with all his intellect, his mighty genius, he possessed nothing as a man the seed of which had not been sown in the course of his education.
The examples of both parents, the unresting efforts of his father, were all in the direction of culture; and he died with the exclamation, “More light!” The very subjects of his study as a boy, and no other subjects, fired and stimulated him to the end. His English put him in sympathy with Shakespeare, who became a passion and a power in his life. His scientific interests remained with him to the end. He is allowed to have been in some respects a precursor of Darwin: he it was who discovered that all plant forms are modifications of the leaf, and arrived at the certainty that there must have been an original plant from which all plants were developed. The cathedral of Strasburg led him in his student days to the study of Gothic architecture, and in late life to the study of architecture in Italy. We hear of him saying, towards the end, that there were other contemporary poets, that there had been greater poets than he, but that no other person had promulgated his theory of colour. He spent his time in Rome in drawing, learning perspective, instructing himself in architecture, practising composition in landscape, and modeling the human form, limb by limb. His drawing never came to more than a taste for the art, but he himself perceived that the value of his study lay in teaching him to appreciate the work of others. His study of music was a parallel case of painstaking endeavour. In his eightieth year we find him taking daily music lessons from Felix Mendelssohn, and the lessons were of a kind we should do well to imitate: he would retire into a dark corner and listen for an hour to the playing of Mendelssohn. He rather shrank from Beethoven, but his master insisted in introducing him to the great composer, without any very marked result. But
in his notes on these two subjects of study, as throughout the autobiography, we find repeated what we might well take as a canon of education in these subjects; that is, that a power of appreciation in both arts is of more value to many, perhaps to most of us, than the power of production, and should be as deliberately and as regularly cultivated.
The puppet-show of his childhood developed, as we know, a ruling penchant, if not passion, of his life; and the direction of the theatre at Weimar in middle life and old age was removed in degree but not in kind from the management of the puppet-plays of his early boyhood.
The enormous industry, or rather the multifarious occupations of his boyhood were continued until the closing years of his life; and even then he rejoiced that he had learned to play cards at Frankfort, because “a day is infinitely long, and you can get so much into it.” Card games he regarded as a means of making himself pleasant in society; as did the late Professor Jewett, whose parting counsel to a child of his acquaintance was, “Be a good girl, my dear, read the Waverly novels and learn to play whist”; but it is a question whether the risk of developing the gambling instinct, common to us all, is not to be set against the social equipment which a knowledge of card games affords.
Again, as a child he was brought up upon the classics. The first Book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses appears to have been the first book he appropriated in an intellectual sense; and through he is strongly attracted by the romanticism of the period, again and again he reverts to his old faith. We find him, while at the University of Leipsic, exchanging all his collection
of modern authors with a fellow-student for a few volumes of the classics, in which for a period he lived entirely. Later, he is brought under the dominion of Shakespeare, whom he hails as his father and invokes as his inspiration; and his greatest work, no doubt, belongs to the period when he discarded the trammels of the ‘Unities,’ and surrendered himself to the guidance of Nature. But the old predisposition returned upon him after his two years’ sojourn in Italy, and astonished Germany was required to assist at a complete overthrow of former theories.
We have just seen, too, how his Bible studies remained with him as a green background for all his thoughts. In a word, no single branch or department of his early education but bore fruit in kind all through his life and to extreme old age.
If we look, on the other hand, at the records of most English men of renown, we find their school studies have passed into oblivion, as matters that had no serious effect upon their after career. The random reading that they do for themselves becomes a power in their lives, but their set studies simply do not count. This is a point that invites reflection. Goethe’s education was, as we know, casual and very faulty. We have heard him lament that he was thoroughly grounded in nothing, and yet this defective education enriched him with seed thoughts which produced his after development in every kind. Was it that he came to each study, even on account of the very imperfection and inadequacy of the teaching equipment, as if it were a fresh field in which his own intellect had ample play? If so, it behoves us perhaps to add this freshness of outlook, this scope for
the individual, to the disciplinary value of our ordered school studies.
It is perhaps a fact that each of us should, as was Goethe, be able to discern the crop yielded by every sowing of our childhood’s studies. Instead of which, we put away our school-work as if its intention had been entirely disciplinary and it would be idle to look for the maturing of any seeds of knowledge sown in the days of childhood or school-life. Surely this is a lamentable and reckless waste of intellectual gains.
Another not less vital lesson presents itself in this invaluable record. There is another side to the shield. Everything which had been initiated in Goethe’s education came to conspicuous development; but, also, nothing which had been overlooked in his education arrived to him in after life. The indiscipline of his early education remained always as a defect of character, as well as lost ground which he failed to make up in his university career. Neither at Leipsic nor at Strasburg did he distinguish himself. The provincialisms, both of manner and accent, which he owed to his upbringing in a burgher family in Frankfort, were not only a constant detriment to him, but affected, so to speak, his pose of character. He always remained impressed with the fact that only persons of noble birth enjoyed the possibility of complete culture; an idea which he did not lose, notwithstanding his intimacy with the grand-ducal family at Weimar. The circumstances of his birth were no doubt fixed, but his own outlook upon these circumstances depended upon the family point of view. Had some idea of manhood other than that of culture been always present to his thought, comparisons of this sort would not have occurred to him,
nor would he have been distressed or annoyed by a sense of inequality.
This consideration brings us to the grand omission in the education of this highly cultured boy. Of religious impressions, presented with enough freshness and power to reach him, he got, as we have seen, vivid ideas from the Mosaic books, and, so far as he tells us, nothing more; nothing, we should imagine, from the atmosphere of his home, his parents being occupied with the single ideal of culture. The enthusiastic reading of Klopstock’s Messias appears to have left none but a literary impression. His moral education, like that of most of us, seems to have been pretty much left to chance. He appears to have received no instruction and few impressions as to his relations with, and duties towards, the persons with whom he came in contact, his country or his kind. He does not appear to be aware that he has the power of regulating his emotions, or that his moral life should be under the direction of his will. Hence, Goethe as a man is disappointing. He is like a city laid out on a grand scale, but only half built according to the plan, and the rest left waste or overrun with wretched shanties. Goethe should have been a great man as well as a great poet. He had every possibility of greatness, moral as well as intellectual; and we find him running to waste in endless puerilities of the affections, transient loves, inconstant friendships, personal aims, illiberal thoughts upon public questions other than those which affected his art. A man of mighty intellect, who should have been a great example and a great teacher of his kind, is hemmed in by narrow limitations, marred by moral defects. We are inclined to say—‘But a poet is not to be
judged as other men; his emotional nature runs away with him; we cannot always look for the poet and moralist in one, so let us take what we get and be thankful.’ This manner of reasoning, and the careless living that proceeds from it, arises from the notion that morals and religion are independent of intellect, are, in fact, matters with which the mind is little concerned. When we perceive that the truly moral life depends upon the breadth of the intellectual outlook, upon strenuousness of intellectual effort, we shall understand that taking pains in these directions also is the concern of genius.
Probably there never was a great man who lent himself more to support the theory that genius itself is the faculty of taking pains; he had the most extraordinary patience and talent for detail; and, that he did not employ these gifts in building up a moral greatness equal to his greatness as a poet, seems to be solely the result of a defective education which did not present this matter of effort to him in his eager childhood and boyhood. What his early education did not initiate his mature life failed to accomplish.
In another point of view, too, this educational study should be profitable to us. However far back Goethe goes in recovering recollections, we never find him less than himself. He is always capable of an immense number of studies carried on at the same time, but never interfering with one another; of æsthetic insight, of the power of generalising, of taking delight in poetic form; in fact, all that the man became the child was, not only potentially but actively. Here is where we err in our dealings with children. We regard them as persons of immature and feeble intellect, and deliberately
deprive them of the scope and activities proper to an able and active mind. Every child has not in him the makings of a Goethe, but every child has the degree of power to deal with knowledge which will belong to himself as a man. His limitations are not those of incapacity, but of ignorance and of physical feebleness. Therefore our business is to feed him daily with the knowledge proper for him—in small portions, because he is a child, but of the finest intellectual quality, because he is a person—rather than to furnish him with the tools for dealing with knowledge, or even to make him an expert in the use of these tools: and of all the knowledge which a child should get, the knowledge of God is first in importance, and the knowledge of himself, next. It is not necessary to send forth any normal child as a moral or intellectual runagate.