A problem I often run into when reading literary fiction in my free time is that after finishing a book I often go, “I wish I had been taught this in class.” Contrary to what you might be thinking, this is not a masochistic impulse.
I don’t know if my wish betrays a mistrust in my abilities as a critical reader, but I sure hope I’m not the only one who feels this way. One book that stood out in this respect (or three, depending on how you count) is Paul Auster’s New York Trilogy. Prior to reading it, I had scanned dozens of raving reviews that set a pretty high bar for my reading. Those expectations were far from disappointed; but I can’t say they were fulfilled either. Instead, they didn’t get a chance to really come into play because I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was missing something. The postmodern mixture of philosophical themes and suspenseful plot had gripped me, but after a while I was convinced that the ideas Auster was engaging with demanded some theoretical introduction to be fully appreciated. Bottom line, I felt sorry not to have approached the book more academically.
About a year into my studies at Heidelberg University, I had to reconcile myself to the fact that my English degree doesn’t do a particularly stellar job at compiling reading lists with books that will stay with me for a long time. When it comes to choosing those, I’m left to my own devices. But that’s not to say I consider Heidelberg’s English programme worthless; its job isn’t to cater to my pre-existing taste but to provide me with academic backup: to fine-tune my senses to what makes a story worth telling. If I may echo what might be the greatest cliché of the humanities: studying the liberal arts isn’t about learning what to think, but how to do it better.
All of this brings me to my mother. You see, my mum has a somewhat cynical view of the contemporary curriculum (emphasis on “contemporary”). She’s made a habit of criticizing the German education system (which is less unified than that phrase might suggest) since I was in middle school. But she probably reached the pinnacle of discontent during my final years of high school, when it became clear that over the course of eight years of secondary education, I hadn’t had to read Goethe’s Faust even once! Outrageous, right?
I, for my part, also lament never having read it. It’s an important text all right. But there’s a fundamental difference between missing out on some insightful literature lessons and deeming your personal canon superior to the one in place. If you put it that way, what my mother does may sound like an overblown gesture, but if you think about it, the act of criticizing a canon in and of itself is a worthwhile endeavour. The reason I dismiss my mother’s take on our literature curriculum is the underlying belief that it was devised for political purposes. She believes that omission to be strategic, the mark of a silent deterioration of German society.
Never mind the fact that the authors we were assigned — Kleist, Kafka, Dürrenmatt — are deeply entrenched in the literary canon and have been hailed as crucial voices in an ongoing humanist tradition long before you could find them in any classroom. Never mind the fact that their social commentary is applicable beyond left-wing politics. There’s no “agenda” here other than to raise the students’ awareness of the socio-political context they were born into: the systems they have to accept (or try to resist) as German citizens and members of any other community. As far as I’m concerned, that canon is about as conservative as it gets. That’s why I look back on my secondary education not with a pedantic eye for Faust comparisons but with a deep regret over trudging through those precious years with such an apathy toward literature.
Why this obsession with a supposed gap in the curriculum? Why has my mother never called into question whether I had learned how to approach a literary text — any literary text? Those skills are the only gateway a student needs to read broadly and diversely, and I could definitely still use some remedial lessons. Luckily, as of now I still enjoy the privilege of engaging in those academic conversations. I want to treasure them while they last. And you never know, I might even be inspired to give Faust a shot.