Free schoolers who love Latin should read Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks

Francis Gilbert's picture
I've just finished reading Thomas Mann's great "Bildungsroman" Buddenbrooks. Having struggled with The Magic Mountain, I was surprised to find Buddenbrooks utterly gripping; it's like a very high quality soap opera which charts the ups and downs of a respectable merchant family in 19th century Germany. Set in Lubek, North Germany, the Buddenbrooks have wealthy by being wholesale grain merchants since 1768. The grandfather, Johann, sets great store in being respectable and living within the city walls; when he dies he leaves a considerable inheritance to his oldest son, Tom, who goes on to run the firm. While Thomas Buddenbrook seems outwardly successful and highly competent, he actually is a fragile and temperamental character, who marries a very high-strung wife Gerda, who gives birth to a musical and artistic boy, Hanno. Thomas is obsessed with being respectable and dressing appropriately; the high point of his life is when he becomes a senator. However, business is blighted by his own lack of acumen, a dodgy deal he's drawn into by his sister, and the more or less constant social upheaval that was occurring in Europe at the time. After he dies collapsing from a terrible toothache, the firm is liquidated and Gerda and Hanno have to dismiss the servants and live outside the city walls.

Hanno continues to attend the most respectable school in the city. For me, the last chapters of the novel are some of the most powerful. Mann brilliantly evokes the nightmare for a sensitive, artistic person attending a brutally disciplinarian school obsessed with getting its students to pass exams and learning Latin. Many parents setting up free schools should look carefully at this chapter because Mann shows how destructive an overly authoritarian and exam-obsessed approach to education can be. Let's look at this passage in particular (page 695 of the wonderful Everyman Edition of the novel). Hanno is talking to his friend Kai here; these two pupils have already been victimised because it's basically suspected that they are gay. I quote:

"I'm scared," Hanno told Kai, stopping beside one of the courtyard walls. Leaning back against it, he pulled his jacket tighter, shivered, and yawned. "It's driving me crazy, Kai, it makes my whole body hurt. And Herr Mantelsack the man to inspire fear like that? You tell me! If only this wretched Ovid class were over and done with. If only my grade was laready in his book, and I'd failed his class, and it would be all behind me. I'm not afraid of failing, I'm afraid of the whole brouhaha that goes with it."


Mann goes on to show how pointless learning Latin is in this context of fear and loathing. Learning Latin is purely about a rotten school system imposing its arbitrary authority upon its institutionally bullied students. I quote from page 704 when Hanno has translated some Latin very poorly:


"At last the professor sighed and said: "Oh Buddenbrook, si tacuisses. You will excuse my use of the classical informal pronoun. Do you know what you have done? You have dragged beauty through the dust, you have behaved like a Vandal, a barbarian  -- you, creature whom the muses have deserted, Buddenbrook, it's written on your face..."


The withering sarcasm, the notion that Latin is the most elevated of "foreign" languages, will be familiar to those who have been following this government's approach to education. Thomas Mann saw the horrors of this approach to education over a century ago.
Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


Will Green's picture
Thu, 05/05/2011 - 09:56

Whilst I'm also a fan of Thomas Mann, I'm not sure I entirely buy this argument, and it's not what I understood from Buddenbrooks. Surely the problem with Mantelsack is that he is a cruel authoritarian, not that he is a Latin teacher. In the same way, we can't dismiss all clergymen as self-righteous bullies simply because Mr. Broklehurst is cruel to Jane Eyre. I'm sure there are plenty of cruel maths teachers, science teachers, and even English teachers in the world of fiction.

Of course, Mantelsack uses his Latin knowledge to ridicule Buddenbrooks: but isn't this a comment on the abuse of power by the powerful? And isn't the pomposity of Mantelsack's tone made more vivid and ridiculous because Mann is able to parody classical poetry - "You, creature whom the muses have deserted" - presumably because he had learnt it himself?

Latin is certainly not and shouldn't be the aim of all education, but dismissing it as a subject because it can be taught badly is misguided. It may not inspire every school pupil (show me any subject that every student is good at and enjoys!) but taught well it can inspire as readily as any other.

A huge amount of our cultural fabric is based on classical culture. Whilst we can now read classical texts in translation, they will need re-translating and re-interpreting for future ages, so an enormous body of philosophical, scientific, and literary work does not lose its context. That requires people to learn Latin and Greek!

This isn't in any way a suggestion that children should be forced to learn declensions by rote for three hours every day. However, I don't see a reason why learning about classical culture as part of a wider curriculum, then giving students the choice to learn the classical languages, is in any way compatible with a modern education system.

Will Green's picture
Thu, 05/05/2011 - 10:45

That should have read 'incompatible'!

Francis Gilbert's picture
Thu, 05/05/2011 - 12:17

I felt Mann was showing how the abstract nature of Latin means authoritarians are attracted to it as a subject. I totally agree it shouldn't be dismissed as a subject -- I won the school prize for it -- but I worry that Free Schoolers are using it for political purposes to impose an overly authoritarian attitude to education.

Allan Beavis's picture
Sat, 07/05/2011 - 13:28

Latin can be a very useful, albeit dead, language to study and I’m sure learning it can enhance your understanding of Roman Antiquity or some European languages. But I think it’s inclusion in the curriculum of private schools is a statement - of exclusivity, of tradition, of a “superior” type of education which aims to set the school and it’s fee-paying pupils above the common herd. There is something of academic snobbery and elitism about it, which is a shame, as it translates later on in life as a form of entry into an exclusive club, an inner circle, where a few choice Latin phrases can easily make someone feel ill at ease or on the fringes. There is no reason why Latin should not be taught in state schools so long as it part of a wide academic, vocational and citizenship curriculum. When Latin is offered at the forefront of a narrow curriculum in a free school, there is the whiff of pretentiousness about it, of aping the manners and prejudices of an Eton. Another reason really to distrust the ideology behind some free schools

Francis Gilbert's picture
Sat, 07/05/2011 - 17:38

I agree with your points, Alan. Until the National Curriculum arrived, it was quite widely taught in state schools, integrated into a "broad and balanced" curriculum.

Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.