BMCR 2020.06.14

Altsprachliche Erwachsenendidaktik in Deutschland: von den Anfängen bis zum Jahr 1945

, Altsprachliche Erwachsenendidaktik in Deutschland: von den Anfängen bis zum Jahr 1945. . Heidelberg: Propylaeum Fachinformationsdienst Altertumswissenschaften, 2018. 399 p.. ISBN9783947450046

Open Access

Within the field of Classics, language teaching holds an interesting role: it is what makes possible almost everything that we do (unless we are content reading our sources in translation) and thus is fundamental to our field; and yet it often is seen as a “lesser” form of instruction, something “everyone” can do, and something often entrusted, for lower pay and no permanent contract, to those gaining their first teaching experiences.

The book under review here, whose title translates as “The didactics of adult ancient-language instruction in Germany: From the beginnings to 1945,” may at first sight seem slightly niche. Yet much of what Marc Brüssel discusses lies at the heart of Classics, especially since “traditional” language teaching is becoming increasingly rare: instruction in the classical languages in secondary schools, starting from a fairly young age, has given way to the “nontraditional” teaching of (young) adults in institutions of higher education. Because of contract staff turnover and a lack of institutional memory in this respect, teaching often is “innovated” in ways that are not actually new; and any department that offers beginners’ courses in Latin or Greek will profit from reading this account of the thoughts that went into setting up adult ancient-language instruction at German universities over the decades.

The book consists of eight chapters. The first offers an annotated overview of the theoretical approaches to adult (language) teaching. Three questions are at stake here. One, how to differentiate adult learners from other types of students: in brief, both the different nature and interests of the students and the fact that they are not in full-time education play crucial roles. Next, which goals such instruction should pursue, ranging from offering beginners a general taste as part of a better general education all the way to language teaching as training for specific professions. And finally, the issues involved in having adult education as an afterthought to, and thus a mere variation on, more traditional school teaching.

The second chapter briefly covers medieval and Renaissance adult language education. This specialized focus was rarer than education in general in those times and available almost exclusively to wealthy young men, and people in monasteries and convents. Where it occurred, it differed only minimally from education for children and youths. Yet Brüssel also sheds light on exceptions to the norm: Erasmus’ Colloquia familiaria, for example, includes among its characters an adult woman who has already learned a modern foreign language and is now learning Latin.

After these two comparatively brief sections, chapter 3 then focuses on the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a period in which adult language education expanded greatly. By this time, education had become a recognized means of social mobility. Furthermore, postsecondary education in Germany was opening up to graduates of schools not traditionally leading on to universities; but for them, university admission required passing a supplementary exam (Ergänzungsprüfung) that demanded a certain level of Latin knowledge. Brüssel introduces us to a range of teaching materials from general textbooks for Latin or Greek to materials for specialist purposes (such as instruction for lawyers, medical or church professionals, printers, or librarians without prior knowledge of either language) and to books approaching language teaching mainly through vocabulary (etymology, cognates, loan words, well-known sayings). A close look is afforded to the various series of Unterrichtsbriefe (teaching letters)—weekly mailings to which individuals could subscribe. Making use of the protreptic qualities of letters recognised long ago by writers of literary epistles such as Seneca, and featuring the possibility of written contact with a teacher (or at least someone to mark the written assignments), these courses soon became popular. Whenever problems appeared, these usually stemmed from a lack of adaptation of the employed methods to the specific material: the first Unterrichtsbriefe had been developed by Toussaint-Langenscheidt for spoken languages, and their methods were not ideally suited for teaching the languages of highly literary texts; other Briefe suffered from unrealistic expectations, e.g., of how much detail a student was to have retained before moving on to the next chapter. Attempts to recreate a school classroom situation for the Briefe user worked for some, but not for others.

Chapter 4 concentrates on adult language-education specifically through the introduction of adult ancient-language courses to German universities, which we find from the late nineteenth century on. In the nineteenth century, universities across the German states could choose independently whom to admit (including students who had not finished secondary education); reform movements aimed for state laws regulating both who was allowed to, and who had a right to, enter university. Lively debate ensued; some felt that only graduates of a humanistisches Gymnasium (which featured obligatory Latin and Greek instruction) should be allowed to attend university; others wanted to abolish this institution with its “irrelevant” emphasis on antiquity altogether. Little by little, access widened, as is evident for specific subjects, or to specialist technical colleges; and in 1900, Emperor Wilhelm II, on board the Wilhelm II, the flagship of the German fleet, decided by “allerhöchstem Erlass” (supreme decree) to admit students from non-humanist schools to university, as long as they took the Ergänzungszprüfung in Latin and, at least for some subjects, Greek. This had two effects: one, more types of secondary school introduced Latin, and, two, universities introduced preparatory courses for this Ergänzungsprüfung. The latter meant that curricula needed to be established, books chosen or written, and teachers hired. Students from realist (rather than humanist) schools were now allowed to study law (except in Bavaria). Sons of stationmasters became great scholars who dined with the Chancellor and were welcome at the imperial court (so in the case of Hermann Diels). Conservative professors felt that the Pöbel (ὄχλος) should not be encouraged, while social democrat journals applauded the “ebenso kühnen wie menschenfreundlichen Entschluß” (decision as daring as it is philanthropic) for universities to freely offer Latin instruction even beyond the confines of undergraduate university studies. This process, from the early status quo to the practicalities of arranging evening Latin classes, is described by Brüssel in meticulous detail that makes for hugely informative, animated and often page-turning reading.

Chapter 5 focuses on Rudolf Helm, who at Diels’ behest had written a Latin textbook specifically for introductory classes for adults, then taught the newly established Greek classes at the Humboldt University in Berlin, and, within a year, also wrote a hugely successful Greek textbook (seven editions were issued between 1903 and 1946) to be used in those. The preface of its second edition neatly summarises the main difficulties facing these university courses: the amount of material to be covered in a very short time; the problems involved with boring instructors; and those caused by politicians meddling in education. How timeless! Section 5.2 offers a synopsis of the varying curricula and aims meant to be achieved by them (which authors are students to be able to read? which texts?); many of the ideas and decisions made in those early university days still affect German daily school life today.

Chapter 6 gives an overview of the teaching materials used after the introduction of the Ergänzungsprüfung. The first striking element to note is the lack of clear progress: many books used were simply those written for secondary schools, and while some new books showed pedagogical promise, were are riddled with avoidable problems, such as long lists of monotonous sentences that formed the only exercises. The second element is the nontraditional materials discussed, particularly those written to allow students-turned- soldiers to nevertheless finish their school education: the Latin materials were written with great didactic variety, employing clear explanations, containing full tables, images, and visually marked up readings (from Caesar’s De bello Gallico and Tacitus’ Germania), complemented by explanations of the matters and things mentioned therein. It seems noteworthy that one of the two authors of the book teaching Latin to German soldiers was a Jew, Gerhard Salomon, writing in the (relative) safety of the assumed name Gerhard Röttger.

Chapter 7, then, gives biographies of all those teaching Latin and Greek at Humboldt University in Berlin from the inception of those courses to 1945. Dedicating a quarter of the book to this may at first seem excessive, but Brüssel is right in so doing: in spite of all attempts at offering, improving, and streamlining teacher training, the personality and the persona of the individual teacher has an enormous influence on the quality of a course, and is not something that can be acquired in a specialist course. We encounter men such as Rudolf Helm, whose career as supremely skilled pedagogue spanned seven decades and who in spite of all his successes suffered from the fact that, in academia, pedagogy is a clear second to theoretical research; or such as Felix Hartmann, in the creation of whose post the departments of English and Law were involved, who taught Introductory Latin and Greek as well as a large variety of courses to further language pedagogy, who realised how helpful a measure of historical linguistics was for students of classical languages—an insight now often forgotten or ignored—and who worked hard to minimise the amount of rote memorisation demanded of his students. In total, the careers of around 30 men (and they were, of course, all men) are outlined. Thanks to Brüssel’s careful research, the chapter brims with real-life detail: insider information on how posts were assigned; how the ministry refused to endow the post of the language instructor as a professorship; how a Habilitation dissertation was finished during a brief leave from the front. The chapter also traces the influence of rising national socialism on the department, its students and its teachers. The sentence “Wer letztlich wann und aus welchen Gründen die Konsequenzen zu spüren bekam, gehört zu den uneinheitlichen Wirkmechanismen von Ehrgeiz und Denunziation in einer Diktatur” (who ultimately suffered the consequences [of how Nazi decrees were enforced in the department], when, and for what reason, is part of the uneven mechanisms of ambition and denunciation in a dictatorship), nestled in a footnote on. p. 235, is just one example of Brüssel’s pithy writing style.

Chapter 8 offers a brief summary of the book’s main points, a critical look at Latin and Greek language instruction at German universities today (whose goals and methods, in a nutshell, have hardly changed since the early days), and a vision for the future: why especially Latin classes remain relevant, which subjects suffer from not having a Latin requirement, and how classes and curricula should change to adapt to the specific needs of the students asked to learn Latin and/or Greek.

This is followed by a detailed bibliography and a comprehensive list of all German-language Latin and Greek textbooks from the period covered and well beyond. Both, but especially the latter, are a phenomenally useful resource for anyone engaged in tertiary level language teaching.

Brüssel’s monograph is a fascinating and in-depth study of both the ephemeral and the timeless aspects of a topic central to Classics. For anyone involved in distance education these days, the almost complete parallels between the approaches to Unterrichtsbriefe correspondence courses of the nineteenth century and their MOOC cousins today is striking.

It is difficult to find anything to criticise about this book. Brüssel sometimes goes into more detail than is necessary for the overarching theme, but when he does, he writes in such an engaging manner that one can tell why he dwelt on that subject, and is glad that he did. There are few typos.

Brüssel draws on a broad range of sources, such as imperial decrees, private letters, administrative documents as well as scholarly literature. His personal engagement with the material and his wry sense of humour can be felt throughout the book. This, combined with his careful discussion of all matters at hand, makes for reading that is not just instructive, but also quite simply enjoyable. I recommend this book to anyone interested in Classics pedagogy.