Goethe's book "The Sorrows of Young Werther" is a great read for solitary types who like to ascend rocky peaks and look down through the wind-swept cloud at the grey urban sprawl and its ant-like inhabitants, but does it have anything particular to say to the teacher of English as a foreign language? We think it does.
At one point in the story Werther meets a man - a prince in fact, but his royalty is irrelevant here - who represents a type of person that he finds particularly objectionable. Here is a little quote:
"I am sorry to hear the prince often speaking of things he has merely heard tell of, or read about; when he does so, he adopts the point of view of the one who presented the matter to him.
"I am also disturbed to find he values my mind and abilities more highly than my heart, which is my only source of pride, and indeed of everything, all my strength and happiness and misery. The things I know, anyone can know - but my heart is mine and mine alone."
In the face of a stultifying impersonal Reason Werther is a great spokesperson for the individuality that comes with a profound emotional engagement with the world. Knowledge is a thing of great value, but what a devastating observation he makes: "The things I know, anyone can know."
Goethe wrote that in 1774. Perhaps the world has moved on in such a way that Werther's critique has lost its relevance? I think not. Although all the details have changed, the phenomenon that caused Werther to despair remains.
What often disturbs me when talking to teenagers is the way they seem to have become sucked into a culture that is cut off from what, for the Werthers of this world, has real value. There is a tremendous indifference - a tremendous inclination to just shrug the shoulders when asked about things that should be occasions for a passionate response.
What irritated Werther were those who mouthed conventional ideas and those with an excessive reliance on book learning. The litmus test for Werther (and the other Romantics) was the response to nature (or Nature). Those fettered either by convention or Reason had no real feeling for the beauty of nature - as illustrated by the vicar's wife ("a fool who affects to be learned") who orders two magnificent walnut trees to be felled because they blocked the light by which she read.
Our televisual culture is very different from that of the vicar's wife and that of the eighteenth century aristocrats who imposed such a strict geometry on their gardens, but it fetters no less. The virtual and the manufactured come to replace the real. The boys spend hours and hours and hours shooting numberless pixelated enemies and end up utterly numb and deadened when the issue of war is raised. Others are so transfixed by iconic values that the entire non-iconic world - including the brute reality of our mortality - just disappears from view. Sometimes I despair that these people are lost to a much greater extent than the vicar's wife was.
Elsewhere Werther says that both adults and children "wander about this earth in a daze and...do not know where they come from or where they are going, act as rarely as they do according to genuine motives..." Has that daze not become even more pronounced? And do we not have a perfect correlate for the "glittering misery" of the eighteenth century aristocracy with its "greed for rank" and "awful people cooped up together" with "the most wretched and abominable passions, quite nakedly displayed"?
One indication, perhaps of the distance between then and now: At one point Werther meets a young mother and afterwards writes in a letter to his friend, "whenever my mind is tottering all the tumult is soothed to quiet by the sight of a creature like this, living in the small daily round of her existence in a state of happy tranquility, getting by from one day to the next, seeing the leaves fall and thinking nothing but that winter is coming." It is not difficult to imagine such a person in the eighteenth century. It is impossible to imagine her living now.
The numbness is probably worse now, or if not worse, no better. However, the great thing about the English classroom is that it presents wonderful opportunities for reviving what remains of genuine feeling and the vestiges of individuality.
An awareness of how terribly fettered people are by convention (especially the convention of our vacuum-packed pop culture) should prompt us to avoid what Wether would call a dreadfully scholarly approach. Even in the midst of the most mundane exercise in English grammar we need to find opportunities for students to express themselves, and when they just parrot the inanities of others they can be prompted to think again.
It would be nice to do this on a towering hillside at the head of a magnificent valley, but, in any case, the attempt to present the values that have been lost has to go hand in hand with an opening up of the iron bars of convention. It is that labour of the negative that the English teacher is ideally situated to undertake since the English classroom is a lovely place for some serious talking - but a kind of talking that challenges and that might just make it possible to open up, if only ever so sightly, the vacuum packaging on the nihilistic culture of pop.
At the same time there is that need implied in the first quote from Werther to avoid creating the impression that the mind should be the only source of pride. Students must know that their emotive engagement with the world matters. This can be made clear not only in class discussions but also in written exercises, with marks given for personal expression and exploration, rather than just for vocabulary, grammar and a robotic use of topic sentences.