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.