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Jorn Uhl  by Gustav Frenssen and Wilhelm Meister's Apprenticeship  (Goethe's second novel) are both books that parents should read. To mention a modern book in the same sentence as a world's classic might seem bold or even foolhardy, but reading both of them presents both extremes. Wilhelm Meister becomes who he is passively. Circumstances play upon him, and he yields himself to their influence and allows them to create his character. Jorn Uhl is also influenced by circumstances, but only as far as they give impulses to his personality. Meister is very emotional, and his excessive sentiment chokes out his personality. But the peasant boy, Jorn Uhl, is raised in a rougher school and becomes a person. Actually, he doesn't become a person, he was a person from the start. In these two examples of childhood influences, we get a hint about the line that divides the world into two kinds of people: those who are at the mercy of circumstances for one reason or another, and those who are able to take hold of their lives in spite of circumstances.
Jorn Uhl was the son of Klaus Uhl, a peasant-proprietor whose farm in Schleswig-Holstein, Germany had been in his family for 300 years. Klaus Uhl is worthy of calling a father. He's known for his hearty, friendly laugh, memorable story-telling skill, ability to discuss
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politics, he drinks, and plays cards. He's popular among the social types around the rural countryside, especially because he's kind of a leader among them and always has a joke ready to make them laugh.
His wife, his complete opposite, dies giving birth to their fifth child, a daughter named Elsbe, mostly because her husband couldn't be persuaded to send for the doctor. So she dies and he has to weep over her--but he cries, 'Mother, Mother!' because he's ceased to think of her as a wife. She had been from a family of peasants named Thiessens who lived on the heath, and the qualities she brought from her own people influenced her husband's family. The three oldest sons were like their father, but Jorn and baby Elsbe were more like their mother's side of the family. Jorn was four years old when his mother died. The mother had been blessed with the loyal friendship of one faithful friend named Wieten--a servant woman to whom she entrusted with taking care of her children.
That's where the story begins. The scenes and circumstances of peasant life are chiseled into the story as if they'd been written with an engraver's tool. Without blatantly saying it, the reader senses that blond, handsome little Jorn has been placed in very harsh circumstances. This is what his life is like. What will be the result?
That's why I think this book is a suitable comparison to Wilhelm Meister. In both books, there's a boy who has to face the problem of life. Will he stand up and challenge his circumstances, or will he allow them to defeat him? That's the worrisome question that every mother faces when she kisses her children goodnight,
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and every father wonders when his children gather around him, curious to see what he has. Children look a lot more distinct and varied than adults, who tend to be a dull blend of conformity.
Little Jorn's first impressions of life are fun to read, Everything seems so big to him--the house, the barn, his father's fields seem to go on forever. The great big people outside working so seriously are a puzzle to him. There's no one like Jorn at all except his brother Spitz. They play and try some experiments together. One time they run into a ditch while chasing a rat. They're brought home, bathed, spanked, and sent to bed. They cry together and comfort each other. Another time they try to make friends with another youngster--a nearly newborn foal. They recognize that full grown horses belong to the world of grown-ups, but a tiny foal is something else entirely, so they approach it to get acquainted. Spitz, naturally, makes the opening introductions, but the little mare kicks at them, and they run away. Another time they peek down into a dark cellar that seems bottomless, and beets and turnips come flying at them. They fall and tumble right on a worker's head! All this time, Jorn has been like Robinson Crusoe and the world has been like his island. There was no one who could explain things to him. Wieten, the family friend who took care of the children, was too busy, and no one else cared.
Jorn, poor lonely soul, had to build his own home, make his own tools, and find his own nourishment. 'All for the best,' says the author, and maybe he's right. Little children need to ponder. We adults keep distracting them and bothering them
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with our annoying explanations and continual disruptions to make them listen to us when their minds are busy working. We don't seem to understand that even young children need to have a life of their own. It's one thing to give a young child two or three lessons in attention to encourage him to spend a little more time looking at something that he's already been interested in. But it's another thing to make him remember the name of a statue of Achilles, or pictures of all the kings of England. Children are capable of doing these things, of course. They're not idiots, they're just busy, and the things they find to think about and do are good for their development. Constantly forcing their attention to attend in all different directions might make a child incapable of responding to the valid demands that are placed on him later in his life.
But Jorn had no risk of anything like this. He and Spitz were left to themselves, although they ran inside many times a day to see that other soft young thing--Elsbe, the baby. And then one day, they were surprised to see the baby standing at the door! That seemed odd, but they welcomed her into their confidence and made their research projects a threesome. After a while, Spitz was no longer the leader, but he became more of a playmate, and all three were on equal footing, learning from each other. Little sisters can teach boys about kindness and bravery, and sisters can learn about confidence, love and pride in their brother that makes him a hero.
One evening, the children are sitting around Wieten's work-table with their friend Fiete Krey. His parents work around the place. He has a lot to say. The Kreys are almost a clan in the
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village. They're clever traders of petty items, but they have a reputation for being dishonest. Fiete has inherited his family's traits. He talks about hidden pots of gold, and strange underground creatures who guard the treasures. Then Wieten brings up a rich merchant who threw all his money into a well where a little gray man in a three-cornered hat sat guarding it. She also tells them about a student named Theodor Storm, who wanted to compile the folk tales into a book.
All of these things go into Jorn's education.
This is an issue that makes parents uneasy: They're distressed when they consider all the casual events and people their children meet by chance that might have a lasting impact on their children's characters. But the best attitude is probably a reasonable amount of ordinary prudence, but not over-sheltering. There's no way to know what will affect a child or how he'll respond. Sometimes evil that comes his way can incline him to good, and sometimes insisting too much on his being good can predispose him to evil. Perhaps events as they happen and people in life as they come should just be allowed to have their influence on a child. After all, a child is not a product and creation of our educational plan--he's a person whose spiritual growth happens in the same way that the wind blows where it will.
Meanwhile, Jorn's father noticed that Jorn was becoming a promising boy, but the only thing he did about it was to brag at the tavern. He wanted Jorn to be a distinguished scholar--Klaus himself remembered snatches of Latin he had learned in school--or maybe a land agent. He should become something that would make his father proud.
One day Jorn went to school--a pleasant
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schoolhouse under the linden trees, where bees could buzz in through the open windows. The teacher, old Lehrer Peters, was a kind man. When he considered the red-headed Kreys and the blond Uhls, he felt that they already had within them everything to develop into the adults they would become before they ever came to his school. One day the students were making up sentences. 'We've heard about King David in the Bible,' said Mr. Peters, 'Who is our king?' And a small child answered, 'Our king's name is Klaus Uhl.' And then a surprising thing happened. Jorn, the new little boy, stood up, angry and flushed with wrath. 'My father is no king.' Little Elsbe cried and said, 'Yes, my father is too a king!' When all the other children had left, Mr. Peters asked Jorn, 'Why did you say that your father is no king?' 'Because sometimes he can't stand up.' 'What? He can't stand up!' 'No, because he's often too drunk.'
The child had figured that out on his own--that a king should at least be able to control his own life, because self-rule is a sort of kingship. Already, evil had passed through the processing part of this child's mind and brought about some knowledge of good. But at what price? We like to say that experience is the best teacher. We also say that experience makes fools wise, but that's not true. Fools are people who don't learn anything from experience; experience just makes them more confirmed in their habits. When they make a mistake and suffer for it, they keep on making the same mistake and suffering for it. When they see someone else doing something wrong, they copy it, ignoring all warnings about penalties. Jorn's older brothers were fools of this sort. They didn't learn from experience.
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Jorn was bright enough to be able to draw that sad conclusion from his own experiences in life--that his father was no king. Experience really does teach people who have wise hearts, whether they're children or adults, but the price for such knowledge is so high that it can leave the pupil bankrupt for the rest of his life. Paternal reverence and dependence on his father disappeared for Jorn. The love of his mother and everything that can be learned from that was also missing from his life. Jorn, like a little Robinson Crusoe, was isolated from everything naturally good that a warm relationship with a father includes. Children can realize all too soon that their father is no king, and that their mother is no queen! We adults can't be off our guard. Children are always watching, seeing everything all the time. But it takes a small crisis in the child's life for that knowledge to take shape and become defined even in his thoughts. Poor little Jorn had probably seen his father drunk a thousand times without consciously forming his own thoughts about it, but when he considered kings, his vague ideas were clarified into clear knowledge, and that knowledge was overwhelming and shameful.
It was because they knew that children might form judgments that parents of earlier generations remained aloof and unapproachable. But that didn't prevent children from seeing through appearances and arriving at their own simple conclusions of worthy or unworthy. For better or worse, children know what their parents are, although it may be years before this knowledge really dawns on them.
It's enlightening to compare Jorn Uhl's beginnings with those of another peasant boy from a lower social class. What were Diogenes Teufelsdrockh's beginnings
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in the village of Entepfuhl? Or, what did the world look like through the eyes of Thomas Carlyle [who wrote his autobiographical Sartor Resartus, about fictional philosopher Diogenes Teufelsdrockh] in the Scottish village of Ecclefechan? First of all, his father, Andreas Futteral, was 'a man of order, courage, and sincerity in everything he did. He understood Busching's Geography, had been a soldier at the victory of Rossbach, and was left for dead in the Camisarde of Hochkirch.' You see, Andreas had been a grenadier sergeant and even a teacher in his regiment, serving under Frederick the Great. He was a diligent man, and maintained a little orchard, living on its fruit 'with some dignity.' In the evenings, he smoked and read (remember, he had been a teacher), and talked to the neighbors about the wars and related how Frederick had once told him, 'Peace, dog!' like a king should.
For starters, Diogenes, or Gneschen, as he was called, had a better chance of learning reverence from living with an upright father, and learning obedience from a former soldier than Jorn had living with his good-natured but weak-willed father. Plus, Diogenes/Gneschen had a mother. She was a good housekeeper, and a kind and loving mother. She provided 'a soft covering of love and vague hope where Gneschen lived and slept, surrounded by sweet dancing dreams.' To this man and woman living in their bright, roomy cottage surrounded with fruit trees and flowers peeking at the windows, a dignified Stranger came one serene, golden evening. He greeted the couple solemnly and placed in front of them 'what looked like a basket lined with green silk [containing a baby]. All he said was, 'Good Christian people, here is a precious loan. Guard it carefully, use it
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wisely. One day, it will be required back with either high return or great penalty.''
This gives us a good idea of what parenthood is. It's like a loan, a trust. It has great possibilities, and involves great responsibilities. The mysterious Stranger might be the imposing Angel of Life. The printed instructions for the care of the child he left behind might refer to the love, integrity, dignity or simplicity of the couple who would raise him, because these kinds of possessions are well spent on the raising and nurturing of a child. At any rate, these weren't casual parents like Jorn's father.
'Meanwhile, the developing infant Diogenes/Gneschen, totally ignorant of why or how or where he was, opened his eyes to a kind light, sprawled his baby fingers and toes, listened, tasted, felt--in other words, with all five of his senses and by his sixth sense of hunger and a myriad of internal spiritual half-awakened senses, made an effort every day to gain some knowledge of this strange world he found himself in, whatever it took. His progress was tremendous. In merely fifteen months, he could perform the miracle of--Speech!
'I've heard it remarked that he was a still baby and kept his thoughts mostly to himself. He rarely cried. Already he seemed to sense that time was precious, and he had more important things to do than crying or whining.' And so young Diogenes/Gneschen grew in his family's cottage with a father who provided for him 'a prophet, a priest, a king, and an obedience that set him free.'
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As far as his education, he listened to the old men talking under the shade of the linden tree in the middle of the village. He played, and those games served as lessons for him. The author says, 'in all the games children play, even in their reckless breaking or ruining things, you can see a creative instinct. The little human senses that he's been born a human, and that he was made to work. The best present you can give him is a real Tool, whether it's a knife or a BB gun, for construction or destruction. Either way, it's work, it creates change. In friendly games of skill or strength, the Boy learns to cooperate for either war or peace, as one leading, or one being led. Meanwhile, the girl, also aware of her calling, prefers dolls.'
Here's something to think about, a word to the wise that should motivate us to get rid of mechanical toys from our children's rooms, and all toys that are only for looking at. In this regard, Jorn and Gneschen were similar. They both grew up in open spaces where they could spend a lot of time outside among heaven and earth. We read about how little Gneschen took his bowl of bread and milk and ate it sitting on the top of the wall where he could see the sun setting behind the western mountains. He made friends with the cows and chickens and other animals. While his outdoor activity was making him agile and sharpening his wits, 'his imagination was stirred up and he developed a sense of appreciating history' because his father Andreas told him about the battles he had been in and adventures he had had. Gneschen was fascinated by these tales; he thought they were wonderful. 'I hung on his tales eagerly while neighbors listened around the fire. From the stories of dangers and travels almost as far and wide as Hades itself, a vague world of adventure expanded
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within my mind. I can't begin to estimate how much knowledge I acquired from those old men under the linden tree as I stood listening to them. The immensity of the world was a new concept for me, and these talkative, dignified seniors had been involved in that immense world for almost eighty years. I was amazed to realize that Entepfuhl was surrounded by an entire country, which was in the middle of a wide world, and that there existed such things as history and biographies--and one day, I myself might be contributing my own deeds or tales.'
It seems that nature, one way or another, opens up for children a sense of past time (history) and remote places (geography), and makes one suspect that these concepts are necessary mind food for the child's development. With that fact in mind, what good is a school education that either eliminates this mind food altogether, or else serves it in dry, boring tidbits that the imagination can't work on?
Jorn got some history and geography, too--but through other means. On the front of his house, there were inscriptions telling of all the previous Uhls for the past three hundred years. There was also an old oak chest, and Jorn gradually became aware of its significance. His sense of geography was associated with the wide heath where his uncle Thiess Thiessen lived. He was an odd hermit who often slept among his piles of turf, and he also had an intellectual outlet. His most cherished possession was an old atlas, and his whitewashed walls were covered with his rough scrawled writings about journeys he took from China to Peru, or Hamburg, or the outlet of Schleswig-Holstein--all kinds of places around the world. This was how a child should discover geography! Of all the mistakes we make, the worst one
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might be the way we cheat children out of the living ideas that they have a right to. Here's a wonderful description of how a basic geographical concept was understood by Diogenes/Gneschen and how slowly it dawned on him. (Normally, it would be enough to give the chapter and verse for people to know which section I'm talking about, but Sartor Resartus is an older book, and people seem to only read new books anymore. So I'll include the quote.) 'The mail wagon worked in a similar way, slowly rolling along under its burden of passengers and luggage, winding through our little village. It went towards the north in the dead of night, yet I could see it go towards the south in the evenings. It wasn't until I was eight years old that it dawned on me that the mail wagon must be like the moon--rising and setting by some Law of Nature just like the real moon. It must have come from highways made by men, from cities far away, and towards other cities far away, making them seem closer and closer in the same way that a weaver uses his shuttle to bring threads closer together. It was then that I consciously thought of this significant concept: any road, even this simple Entepfuhl road, will lead you to the end of the world!' That's just what an Irish peasant said the other day when someone asked him where a particular road led to.
He also saw the swallows that showed up every year all the way from Africa and made their nests in the 'cottage lobby.' From them, he learned how birds behave. 'Surrounded by the mystery of existence in this way, under the heavenly sky, enjoying the bounties of the four seasons with their various gifts (even grim winter had skating contests, shooting contests, snows and Christmas carols) Gneschen absorbed and learned. These things were like his ABC's, and they helped him later to
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decode and partly read the great book we know as the world. What difference does it make whether the alphabet you learn from is in big, fancy colored letters, or small plain ones, as long as you have eyes to see it? For Gneschen, who was eager to learn, the mere experience of looking at the letters was all the color he needed. His existence was a bright, soft element of joy, and out of that existence, wonder after wonder stepped out to teach him with its fascination, just like Prospero's Island [Prospero is from The Tempest].'
Jorn also grew up in a world that had wide spaces and he also experienced the four seasons. But neither Gneschen nor Jorn had a totally happy childhood. To be honest, childhood only seems completely happy to adults. Childhood's pains are felt just as keenly as its joys, and, even more, they're remembered forever. Experience hasn't yet shown them that hope wins out, so every grief and disappointment feels final. Around all children, just like around Gneschen, grows a 'dark ring of burden, still as thin as a fine thread, and usually overshadowed by childish fun,' but always reappearing, and always growing thicker. 'It was a Ring of Necessity that we all are born with. But how happy a person is when the Ring of Necessity is brightened by being transformed into a Ring of Duty [that he can choose to do].'
In this respect, Diogenes/Gneschen had an advantage over Jorn. Affectionate care and wise teaching helped the needs/must obligations of his life merge into the 'I can, I ought, I will' of Duty. It isn't that Jorn never learned about duty. He did learn, in the same harsh school where he learned about kingship, but duty for him remained a necessary obligation with no sense of the joy of choosing it of his own free will.
Then one day, Wieten [the family friend who was mothering the children] packed a picnic lunch for the children in a wagon so they could go over the heath
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and visit their uncle, Thiess Thiessen. On the way back home, they talk. Uncle Thiess says, 'The best thing in the world is to live on the heath and eat black bread and pork sausage,' and little Elsbe says, 'No, the best thing in the world is love.' 'No,' says Jorn, 'the best thing is work.' How did he learn that? He learned it little by little, day by day, as his little eyes watched the results of idleness and neglect around the farm. His father's neglected cattle, neglected crops, and neglected barns taught this wise child a lesson, and this is the principle he learned from it--that work is the best thing in the world. He never forgot it. He hardly relaxed, even for a day, from the persistent, patient labor that he had learned from the laziness of others.
But that's not the only thing he learned. 'Elsbe and I will never taste alcohol.' 'Not even when there's a party?' asked Elsbe. 'No, not me--I never will in my whole life,' he said. Little Jorn was left to grow up without much guidance or hindrance, but Diogenes/Gneschen says, 'I was forbidden from a lot of things. I had to renounce any bold desires. Everywhere I turned, a rigid, inflexible bond of Obedience held me back. Being used to Obedience as I was, it was much safer to be overzealous in obeying than to risk disobeying by not doing enough. Obedience is our universal duty and destiny, and those who refuse to bend and yield to it will be broken. It's impossible to train a child too early or too thoroughly to understand that, in this world, I want is nothing compared to I should, and not much compared to I will. In this way, the foundation of secular Discretion was laid down for me--not only Discretion, but of Morality itself. I hope I may never criticize my upbringing!'
His protest is justified. Being passive and compliant isn't the only thing we need to develop in children. It's their own
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choice of what to do that develops them, and they need more experiences than a strictly-kept house can provide. An attic, or a garden or yard or field where they can do what they want is necessary for children to grow and develop freely. We need to get rid of our notion that children can't think, can't understand principles, can't manage themselves with wisdom. Then children in families would grow up with no more sense of force or interference than we feel regarding our government's laws. As law-abiding citizens, we obey naturally without even being conscious of it most of the time, but when our obedience is required on a more conscious level, we're quite willing to comply.
There's something else that Diogenes/Gneschen is grateful for; he blesses his parents for it with such touching words that I'd like to quote them here:
'My kind mother did a completely valuable service to me when she taught me her own simple version of the Christian faith, not so much by word as by daily reverent attitudes and actions. Andreas went to church, too, but for him it was more for outward show and reward in the afterlife, and I'm sure he received that reward. But my mother had a truly soft heart, and a sensitive yet cultivated spirit. Her religion was a vital part of who she was. Good grew within her until it was indestructible and multiplied, even among the entangling evil around her. She was the highest person I ever knew, yet I witnessed her bowed down with unspeakable awe before Someone even higher in Heaven. These kinds of impressions, especially at a very young age, reach into the deepest core of a person's being so that the Holy of Holies mysteriously builds itself in the hidden chambers of the heart until it becomes visible, and the most divine Reverence that man can know springs forth from the heart's crude wrapping of fear. Which is better to be--a peasant's son who knows, even in the roughest way, that there's a
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God in heaven and in man, or a duke's son who only knows how many rooms there are in his family's mansion?'
But this intimate sense of God's presence wasn't to be for little Jorn.
'Jorn shall continue his education,' said his father. 'There's no doubt about that. He'll learn to be an estate manager. Let's drink to Jorn Uhl, the estate manager!' And they drank. And thus the village got the idea that Jorn was destined for great things. He went to school to be prepared for a classical academic high school by Lehrer Peters. It must have been good to see him sitting on the sofa with the old professor--the little boy with his blond hair standing on end, and his deep-set eyes eagerly devouring the book in his hand. It was an English book, because Lehrer Peters was a man with his own ideas. He knew a little English himself, and felt that English was the key to all wisdom, and to the meaning of the whole world. A little Latin was squeezed in, too, but just here and there.
Here's a typical episode from Jorn's school days. Charming Lisbeth Junker, the principal's niece, encouraged Jorn to go out fishing with her because her father was away [and couldn't take her]. While they were dangling their fishing lines, Jorn overheard her uncle, the principal, talking with the local judge and gathered from their conversation that his own father was in some trouble. Jorn learned another life lesson from this, about eavesdropping, and the principal lectured him very admirably. Jorn was upfront and openly admitted that he had overheard their conversation. The principal told Jorn
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a story about the successful career of one of Jorn's ancestors, concluding with a quote from 'the great thinker, Goethe,' that even though you may inherit gifts and talents from your ancestors, you have to work in order to develop and realize those gifts and talents. This concept made a deep impression. From that point on, the boy felt that if there was no one else who would be responsible at home, then it was up to him to take on the responsibility. He kept a close watch on the field hands, and two horse dealers who came to do business with his brothers were uncomfortable under his gaze.
But how can a person prepare for a demanding high school education with so many responsibilities to take care of?
The time came when Jorn had to go to the neighboring town and take his chances. Thiess Thiessen drove him and his books there in his wagon. Young Jorn entered in at the great gates, while Thiess said hello to an old cobbler who told him that, for every five students who entered, only one came out successful. But Thiess wasn't discouraged. 'Jorn is unusually clever. He spends all day with his book, oblivious to anything else. He has to succeed!' But, unfortunately, Lehrer Peter's love for English didn't prepare Jorn to meet the Latin requirement, and Jorn and Thiess returned home, utterly disappointed. And that was the end of Jorn's formal education.
His religious education was just as unsuccessful. Preparing for his Confirmation should been an enjoyable experience for him, but Jorn was only taught justification by faith and the do's and don'ts, such as thou shalt not murder. His confirmation classes were taught by a kind, diligent man, but they were a source of frustration to Jorn because he couldn't understand the material. For the record, a child's confirmation is an important event in the life of a German child. As soon as he turns fourteen, he leaves school (if he's a lower class child), and, before he starts any job, he studies with
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his pastor for six weeks, works for three hours a day in the church, and does some writing and learning at home besides. Before a child is confirmed, he can't even run an errand for a neighbor for loose change. Practical and resourceful Jorn knew all about the concerns of his family and the village, but he knew nothing about the sin and mercy that his pastor was trying to teach him at his confirmation classes. In his mind, the list of sins began too far down, with theft and murder, and God's mercy came too soon and easy to satisfy his young sense of justice. A person could get off scot free as soon as he confessed his sins to God. God seemed to Jorn like an impractical judge who kept his records meticulously inside his office, but allowed himself to be deceived by the people outside of his office.
Jorn decided on his own to take up his place as a farm laborer. He'd do what he could to put the neglected farm in order. His gait became heavy as a result of following the plow in the heavy furrows. He didn't have much to say because he spent more time with cattle than with people. It seemed like the intellectual light in his mind had gone out, and he was well on his way to becoming just like the other farm hands. That's all education did for Jorn Uhl.
Young Teufelsdrockh went to school, too, and learned to handle the earliest 'tools of his trade'--his school books. He can't even remember a time before he knew how to read. That's the case for many young scholars. He speaks of the education he received in school as 'insignificant.' He learned what everyone else learned, but didn't see any value in it. His teacher didn't do much for him and even realized it, but he figured that Teufelsdrockh was a genius who needed to go to the classical academic high school, and then to a university. Meanwhile, Teufelsdrockh, like Cervantes, eagerly read any scrap
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of page or printed text he came across, even pre-bound budget literature that he paid for with his own pocket money and sewed together himself.
This random reading did him some good. He came across bits of real history and bits of worthy fables, which he read, and his mind got the food it needed from them. This is a point to consider. We rarely hear about a famous man who got the mental sustenance that enabled him to develop from his school studies! More often, we hear about people whose paths in life were determined by the random reading they did outside of school. And yet, we continue to go on blindly and doggedly with our precious school curriculum as if this fact was insignificant. We say that students will have plenty of opportunity to get the mental diet they need after their school career is over. But life is too short to waste the freshest and most intelligent twelve years of a person's life. And, besides that, a child who hasn't developed the habit of getting mental nourishment from his books during his school education will never see the value in reading good books after he graduates. School hasn't taught him the intellectual art of reading, so he doesn't even realize that he's lost it. And the result is that he goes on in life as an imperfect, incomplete person with his best and most enjoyable abilities either asleep forever, or permanently damaged. What reason is there on earth not to give children the kinds of books they can live and thrive on, books that are alive with thought and feeling and delight in knowledge, during their school years, instead of giving them miserable textbooks that starve their minds??
Diogenes/Gneschen developed some ability to think in spite of his school education. When he was thirteen, 'I was sitting by the Kuhbach river one quiet day at noon, watching it flowing and gurgling, and it struck me that this same little stream had flowed and gurgled
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through all sorts of weather and changing fortunes from before the earliest dates of recorded history.' This sort of thought occurs to all children of average intelligence, although every child thinks that he's the first one to have ever thought of it.
Things didn't go much better for Diogenes/Gneschen at the classical academic high school. He was homesick, the other boys were rough and rude, he disliked fighting and hated to be beaten up but thought it was disgraceful to fight back, so he cried a lot, and that didn't help his schoolmates to like him any better. As far as his classes, he says that Greek and Latin were taught mechanically, and 'what they called history, cosmography, philosophy and so forth, were taught worse than if they hadn't been taught at all.' Still, he learned something by watching the craftsmen who he came across and from some bits and pieces of reading that he found at his dorm.
He complained that his teachers were inflexible hairsplitters, obsessed with their rules and lexicons, but with no understanding of the nature of children. 'They crammed us full of dead terminology (I can't call it dead language because those stuffed shirts didn't know any real language!) and claimed that it was to foster the growth of our minds.' He asks how any mechanical noun/verb labor can foster the growth of the mind, since the mind doesn't grow like a plant from having 'etymological manure' thrown over it like fertilizer--the mind is a spirit that grows by contact with spirit; it's 'thought that lights itself by touching the flame from the fire of another living thought.'
His years at that school brought him one concept that was fertile for both good and evil: 'I wasn't like anyone else.' This is one of the quotes that's full of profound intellectual insight; Sartor Resartus is full of them. There comes a period in every young life when the person realizes that he's an individual. He discovers that he's not like anyone else; he must be 'special.' It's this notion working in the mind
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of a youth that makes a quarrelsome girl or headstrong boy so uncontrollable. Current formal 'education' leaves youths totally unprepared for this important time in their lives. An arrogant young man tends to assume that everything about him is individual and, therefore, he must be superior in everything. No wonder he's unmanageable and won't listen to anyone! But if he were given a basic framework of human nature and taught what he had in common with other people, then he'd be able to make use of the individuality he had for the good of others.
In due time, Teufelsdrockh went to the university. He was fairly adept at 'dead terminology,' and thus assumed that he was going to the living fountain of knowledge to gain more ideas and abilities. But, unfortunately, it was just as true for him as it was for others in the treadmill of school life: 'he was still climbing the same pear tree at age twenty that he had climbed at twelve.' Oppressive poverty was also taking its toll on him because his father had died.
He discovered that the university he was attending was the worst one for his particular needs. There wasn't much good about it, but one of its worst defects was that 'we were proud of being a Rational University, utterly hostile to Mysticism. And so our vacant young minds were filled with all kinds of talk about the Progress of the Species, dark Ages, Prejudice, and other similar things. We were all quickly led to becoming argumentative. For the better students, this resulted in useless Skepticism. The less intelligent students grew puffed up with self-conceit and became spiritually dead.'
This points out a mistake in our educational methods. From the time a child learns to diagram his first sentences until the time he's able to read Thucydides, everything
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he learns is entirely critical and analytical. Even if he reads The Tempest, he doesn't allow the entrancing play as a whole to sink into him and become a part of him because he's so obsessed with figuring out what Shakespeare meant by 'those vex'd Bermooths.' His focus is on literary criticism, which is not only useless to him, but also harmful, in a sense, because it distracts him. It's as if someone listened to Milton's Lycidas read beautifully, but kept up a stream of interruptions with questions and explanations. We forget that critical analysis and study get in the way of understanding, and should be held off until the time when the mind is so filled with ideas that it begins to compare and critique on its own. Teufelsdrockh says, 'The children hungered for their mental nourishment and asked their spiritual care-giver for food, but she only offered them the east wind to chew on--useless jargon about metaphysics, etymology, and mechanical manipulation that pretends to be science.' But that wasn't the worse thing that happened to him. In addition to his lack of money, sympathy or hope, this kind of education gave him fits of doubt. He talks about crying for light in the middle of the night, and being distressed in his mind and heart. It took him years to soothe those anxieties under 'the nightmare of Unbelief.'
This disease of Unbelief is common to those with serious minds who have been taught to examine everything critically before they truly know and understand them through the slow but sure process of assimilating ideas. We need to accept the fact that we're incapable of analyzing what we don't truly know, and that kind of knowledge only comes from a slow, involuntary process of assimilation. That process is impossible for a mind that's developed a critical attitude. We teachers need to take time and effort to lay out the proper mental feast for our students rather than trying to make them
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criticize and analyze every morsel of knowledge that comes their way. What if we treated our food that way? Who could survive if every mouthful of food had to be held up on a fork for critical analysis before eating it?
Meanwhile, Teufelsdrockh got what he needed--not from his school lessons, but from the chaos of the University's library. 'It was here that the foundation of my literary life was laid. I learned all on my own how to read fluently in almost all of the cultivated languages, about almost all subjects and most fields of science. And, since it's human nature to be interested in other people, it was already a favorite activity of mine to try and read between the lines and speculate about the author.'
Teufelsdrockh had the makings of a philosopher, but Jorn had the makings of a scientist. Unfortunately, all intellectual opportunities were closed to him, except one. The chest he had discovered was like a page of history itself, and, inside it he found an old book of Astronomy by Littrow. He had always liked solid knowledge. In his later life, he said that Wieten and Fiete Krey had read him so many romantic legends that he lost his appetite for poetry or fiction. So Littrow became his only intellectual outlet. After awhile, he was able to obtain a telescope, the one luxury of his life. He built a revolving roof on an old arbor, and made observations of the sky, which he recorded on his own charts. In the heavens, he found solace and relief from life's many anxieties and hardships. Thus, in spite of hindrances, both Jorn and Teufelsdrockh became educated. Teufelsdrockh had discovered the infinite solace of books, and Jorn had found a single intellectual pursuit that his whole mind could busy itself with. But it's a shame when education leaves a youth
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without the ability or habit of reading, and without some absorbing intellectual interest. Some people, like these two, manage to get these in spite of their schooling. But it would be so much better if we could plan the kind of education that wouldn't just qualify a person to earn a living, but would also enable them to discover, use and enjoy a full life! 'Life is more than physical food.'
Next, we read of the various ways in which Teufelsdrockh tried to find success in the world, and about how Jorn Uhl had to persist doggedly at the same point. Each of them imagined that 'I had been called to struggle, not with foolishness and sin in myself and others, but with Work,' and how foolishness and sin overcame both of them.
Jorn Uhl forgot on one single occasion about his vow to never drink alcohol. He got drunk and was ashamed, and, in his shame, he fell into an even worse temptation--the sin of lust. But the woman was older and more mature than he was. She had learned about that temptation herself, and she taught him the virtue of Purity. He learned that lesson so well that he wouldn't even touch the hand of the woman he was engaged to until the wedding was arranged.
We can't follow Teufelsdrockh's disappointments in love and romantic sorrows, but we know the gist of what happened to him. For both of these young men, life was like a bitter, hand-to-hand battle. Both of them braced themselves and fought it out, and both of them carried the lessons gained all the way to the end, whether those lessons had hardened, softened, sweetened or embittered them. Both of them mostly learned from the hard school of experience. In Jorn's case, nature herself was a hard mistress, even though he passionately
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loved her. Each of the two young men accomplished his journey with the help of things and by using the methods people use to get what they need. It's sad to notice that neither of them got much help from direct teaching [their formal school education.]
The thing we need to think about is how much direct teaching and training can influence the development of character, and studying honest records like Sartor Resartus and Jorn Uhl will probably be as helpful as anything else. It's a good exercise to consider what could have helped at different places in the stories to guide, help or inspire the two lonely, courageous young pilgrims. I classify these books as records, even though both of them are novels--facts viewed through a veil of romance--because we recognize that both are essentially true [true in essence], and useful to instruct us in righteousness.
We've heard so much about Thomas Carlyle's sufferings and bitterness, that we might forget how much we owe to this philosopher who, more than any other philosopher, has put hope and purpose into the difficult conditions of modern life. Even more relevant to our current purpose, we might learn the lesson his book Sartor Resartus taught, that the gloom and bitterness we condemn were the inevitable results of the kind of upbringing we read about in Teufelsdrockh's experiences, but the strong virtues that we admire so much also came out of the same upbringing. It's the same with Jorn Uhl. In the end, things finally went well for him, but it took all of his wise, beloved wife's skill to tide him over periods of depression that were similar to Carlyle's.
This is basically how Jorn Uhl's record ends: 'Jorn Uhl, your life hasn't been an insignificant
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one. You had a peaceful childhood and a lonely youth. You wrestled bravely and single-handedly with life's questions, and even though you could only guess at the answers to a few of those riddles, your effort was not in vain. You fought for the land that lies around this well. You've been hardened by fire and frost, and you've made progress in the study of the subject that matters most--knowing how to distinguish the true value of things. You've learned to appreciate the passionate love of a woman, and that love gave you the second best experience that life can offer. You've buried Lena Tarn, as well as your father and brothers, and, in those times of human grief, you glimpsed into the eyes of knowledge and became humble. You've fought with bad circumstances and not given up. You plodded along, even though it was a long time before help came. You labored with gritted teeth and noble courage to gain knowledge at an age when most men expect to relax and take it easy. And now, even though building and measuring and such have been your job for many years, you haven't abandoned your life to them. You've remembered the land outside the boundaries of your measuring chain, and you've even remembered the books that your friend Heim Heidreter wrote.
'What else is there for a person to write about, Jorn, if a life with so much meaning isn't worth writing about?'