BMCR 2015.11.19

Classical Humanism and the Challenge of Modernity: Debates on Classical Education in 19th-century Germany. Philologus. Supplemente/Supplementary volumes, 1

, Classical Humanism and the Challenge of Modernity: Debates on Classical Education in 19th-century Germany. Philologus. Supplemente/Supplementary volumes, 1. Berlin; München; Boston: De Gruyter, 2015. xii, 234. ISBN 9783110365436. €99.95.


Classical education, we feel, is under attack. There are financial cuts to anything that does not produce measurable and immediate ‘results’ in the form of graduates’ ability to find a job and make money; there is a move from general education towards specific training, and heavy involvement of administrators and politicians. We react by showing how what we teach is relevant and helpful, also to students’ job chances; we do this on new media, on our blogs, our Twitter feeds and our departments’ Facebook pages. We create new and hopefully more ‘modern’ and accessible teaching materials. And all the while, we try to make sure that the substance of what we do and teach doesn’t suffer, because we believe in this substance. The book under review, which looks at part of the history of how our subject became our subject, is not only extremely readable; it also provides valuable information on the day-to-day realities of the classical education from which our current approach to both secondary and post-secondary teaching arose.

In his monograph Classical Humanism and the Challenge of Modernity, Bas van Bommel examines the traditional narrative that classical/Renaissance humanism was in the 18 th and 19 th centuries replaced by neo-humanism (‘Neuhumanismus’) and that this effected fundamental changes to classical education, which nevertheless became anachronistic and came under sharp attack from a variety of camps: from academics/neo-humanists, reformers wanting more modern languages and/or more real or material subjects, and from Christians. He challenges this standard view in a variety of ways. Drawing on an enormous number and variety of sources, van Bommel demonstrates how actual teaching practice in secondary schools remained mostly unchanged throughout the development to neo-humanism and the various attacks on classical education; and yet did not become marginalized, but on the contrary increasingly popular. This, he convincingly argues, is due a) to the fact that these ‘attackers’ shared the goal of Humanität (see below) crucial to classical education, and b) to the impressive adaptability of ‘classical’ humanism, whose practitioners — praktische Schulmänner (‘practical school teachers’) — were able to remain within their tradition in practice because, on a theoretical level, they were able to counter the variety of accusations levelled against their work. After a general introduction, van Bommel presents as a case study the work of Karl Gottfried Siebelis, teacher of Latin, Greek and theology at (and director of) the Gymnasium in Bautzen from 1804-1841 (Part I). He then offers analyses of the various attacks or ‘challenges’ and shows how classical humanism reacted to them (Part II).

Under Karl Gotfried Siebelis (1769-1843), the Bautzen Gymnasium, whose rector he was from the age of 34 to just before his death around 30 years later, developed into a highly respected institution. In the Gymnasium’s Schulprogramme, Siebelis outlines his educational views; van Bommel summarizes his views regarding constitutive aspects of humanism in nine points: 1) ‘refining human nature’: to wit, ‘to eductate pupils to Humanität ’; 2) ‘exemplary subject matter’: ‘cultivating one’s human qualities was only possible by a continuous engagement with an ideal, exemplary subject matter,’ namely, ‘“the true, the beautiful and the good”’; 3) that the ‘“the true, the beautiful and the good”’ was nowhere more perfectly found than in classical Latin and Greek writings; the study of these texts offered 4) intellectual, 5) aesthetic and 6) moral education; 7) ‘aoart from its intellectual, aesthetic and moral benefits, there was one overaching aspect of classical education’ that Siebelis repeatedly undercored, ‘that by its high degree od difficulty, it contributed to the virtue of thoroughness ’ (‘(…) the fact that understanding [classical texts] requires some effort, that is chiefly what is so good about [them] ’ (italics original), p. 32); classical education is 8) anti-utilitarian, but a classically trained mind will also understand other disciplines; 9) enthusiasm: not just academic appreciation, but a ‘heartfelt love’ for the ancient texts are required for Humanität.

The aim of all his teaching was to enable students to understand classical texts on the grammatical, historical and ‘spiritual’ levels; while the spiritual level, the understanding of the spirit or essence of a text, was the ultimate goal, Siebelis often showed himself content even when pupils had reached just the first two levels. Considerable amounts of reading the classics at home was required of all pupils (Siebelis offered help whenever asked). Reading classical texts was complemented by large amounts of Latin composition and declamation. These skills were seen as a good in their own right, but were at that time also still required for any academic career.

As van Bommel argues (57 and passim), Siebelis’ views and practices were shared, with only moderate variation, by the majority of the ‘practical school teachers’ of his time. The nine ‘constitutive’ points of his views on education would have been agreed to by any Renaissance humanist, and indeed, Siebelis ‘did not presume to say anything new (…), but only intended to encourage the execution of and compliance with long-established and well-known ideas’ (53). How far the neo-humanist and new ‘scientific’ pedagogical developments were from his school practices is even clearer when van Bommel says that Siebelis ‘never subscribed to the philosophically and anthropologically tinged ideal of cultivating individuality and equality that captivated the minds of utopian pedagogues such as Wilhelm von Humboldt and Johann Gottlieb Fichte’ (57).

In Part II of the book, entitled The adaptability of Classical Humanism, van Bommel then shows how this continuation of an old state of affairs fits in with the societal developments of the time. Classical school education had two main goals: first and foremost was Humanität. When Latin education could no longer be defended solely on the grounds of usefulness, the concept of formale Bildung (‘formal education’) was increasingly focussed on; this basically meant training of the mind and especially of one’s faculties of analysing and understanding ideas and being able to express them clearly and elegantly oneself. This dual aim was best reached through the study of the canon of ancient texts. Its desirable nature was shared, as van Bommel demonstrates, by virtually all the ‘opponents’ of classical education.

Advocates of the Realgymnasium and of the Bürgerschule tried to demonstrate that these dual goals could be reached also by systematic study of other fields, such as mathematics or even more ‘materialist’ subjects such as geology, if the ultimate focus of the education was on abstraction and induction from the basis of specific observations (→ formal education), and on transcending the material and recognising the creator of (all) things through proper understanding of those things (→ moral/value education). Yet the question was raised to what extent this was actually practicable in class; and classical humanists had an almost easy task in pointing out that studying things in a humanist way was not comparable to studying matters that basically embodied humanism.

Both those whose theories underlay the Prussian educational reforms (Fichte and Jachmann, 95-9) and those entrusted with putting these reforms into practice (von Humboldt and Süvern, 99-109) had as their goal ideal, ‘rational’ notions of man that were very similar to those of the classical humanists. Yet their educational ideas were partly downright totalitarian (one type of education for all; individual strengths to be ignored so that weaknesses could be worked on; parents who did not want to send their children to these schools to be punished in a draconian fashion) and partly plain impractical. Their concept of an Einheitsschule (‘unitary school’) thus realized no existence beyond the draft stage; and the specific suggestions they made concerning the classical part of the school curriculum were close to the curricular reality of the day. As van Bommel shows, school pedagogues of the day hardly took note of these mostly academic reforms; and the Mythos Humboldt only arose much later.

Social reformers such as Resewitz (126ff.) argued that the newly increased interactions between citizens that had created a strong public sphere (‘Öffentlichkeit’) needed to be supported through education. In reaction, classical pedagogues argued that the public sphere had been very strong indeed in the cultures of Greece and Rome, and that knowledge of the texts created in these atmospheres, in which the common good was of central focus, were exactly what was needed to enhance the Öffentlichkeit of the present.

The fear that classical, i.e. pagan, education would detract from Christian values was responded to with various arguments, whether specific and text-based (Antigone, for example, clearly held divine law in higher esteem than the law of the land) or more general (reading a text did not mean advocating all aspects of its practise; so reading pagan texts did not just create pagans). Suggestions to read no classical Latin, but exclusively patristic texts were countered on stylistic grounds as well as on the basis that the Church fathers themselves expressed their indebtedness to the classical authors, and one could thus, on purely Christian motivations, not cogently argue against the study on the latter. While some reformers were indeed professed non-Christians, most schoolteachers (including e.g. Karl Siebelis) had a strong Christian faith and saw absolutely no conflict between classical and Christian education.

Yet classical humanists did not just demonstrate the already existing strengths of their field in theoretical arguments; they did also attempt practical improvement where that was indeed necessary. Classical education started early; yet its aim, to reach Humanität through the study of exemplary ancient texts, only truly materialised in the last years of school. The majority of students left school before then (at age 14) and thus partook in an education whose rewards they would never reap. Schools were reluctant to do away with classical education at the lower levels, as the prestige of a school often was created solely by its classical offerings and many parents saw knowledge of the classical languages as a way of achieving social mobility for their offspring (118ff. and passim). Classical pedagogues actively suggested or attempted a variety of measures: learning Latin via speaking it rather than via rote memorisation of grammar; merging Latin with other subjects by expressing in Latin the various facts to be learned in those other subjects; or writing new textbooks. In the end, most of these efforts failed as the goals of classical education — Humanität on the one hand and ‘formal’ education on the other — could still not be reached through them by the point at which most pupils left education. Yet through all this, the perceived value of these goals did not wane, and classical education, mostly without immediate practical but with increasing idealist motivation, only gained in popularity.

Bas van Bommel’s argumentation offers so many relevant and fascinating details that it is difficult to satisfactorily summarise them all. His book is a treasure trove of footnotes and references in which little can be criticised (providing more of the quotes he translates in the original would be desirable, but admittedly impractical; a small handful of typos in German titles can be noted, as well as some very few inaccuracies in the author’s practically native command of English (e.g. ‘only in Prima ‘ on p. 90 should be ‘in Prima alone ‘); the misleading use of the adjective ‘orthodox’ to describe conservative Christians).

This study obviously is interesting for those with a theoretical interest in the history of education: it adds a valuable facet to the prior corpus of scholarly work, which had mostly focused on academia and neglected the situation in schools. Yet it also gives Classics teachers fascinating insights into where what they are doing is coming from, why it is the way it is, and in what ways they might adapt their pedagogical approaches if they want to. I would even recommend the book to politicians and administrators meddling… no: involved in education: they might see which of their ‘new’ ideas have been tried and have failed. Classicists, finally, can see from this book that we have long been attacked, but that so far at least, the quality of what we try to pass on has always won the day.