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Secondary Schooling for Boys: Memories of a High School Student in the Upper Silesian Town of Gleiwitz on the Eve of the First World War (Retrospective Account)

Gottfried Berman Fischer critically recounts his experiences at a small-town Gymnasium, a type of secondary school that self-consciously emphasized the academic disciplines of antiquity. This humanist education stressed ancient Greek and Latin, rather than living languages such as French or English. Upon successfully completing the Gymnasium, students were awarded the Abitur [a diploma], which was a prerequisite for study at a university.

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To call the town’s high school “humanistic” must have been a misunderstanding, if one understood this to mean instruction with the goal of free and independent thinking and the attainment of a basic education. The “humanistic” element of this school consisted more or less in the instruction of Latin and Greek grammar. We hadn’t the slightest clue of the vitality of these languages, of language as an expression of an intellectual attitude, its logic, its poetic power, and beauty. And so Ovid, Virgil, Cicero, and Homer were nothing more than bothersome schoolwork, sentence constructions that we had to prepare laboriously with a dictionary for the next day, and which passed over us without a trace. With modern languages the situation was quite pathetic. The teachers assigned to instruct them were incapable of speaking them themselves. Hardly any of these stiff, old gentlemen had ever seen France or England, not to mention having any knowledge of French or English literature, or being able to convey to us an image of our neighboring countries. Obviously, for this remote province of Upper Silesia, these teacher-caricatures, who contented themselves each day by covering the prescribed dosage of instruction and then rushing off to their patriotic discussions in the local pub, were just good enough. If we, a small group, moved by our natural, youthful urge towards knowledge, had not taken it upon ourselves to expand our own horizons, we would have grown up like barbarians. Certainly there were better schools elsewhere in Germany. What we heard about the French high school in Berlin, about high schools in Frankfurt, Breslau, and a few other cities, aroused our envy and admiration. But I am afraid that the majority of the schools in small towns, particularly those in the eastern provinces, were more or less like ours.

Nationalism was flourishing here. The house of the Hohenzollerns, Kaiser Wilhelm, the Prussian princes and generals were the admired, idealized figures. Their lack of intellectual education, their disdain for cultural values was almost an official program. [ . . . ]

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