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A Literary Canon
There’s no getting around Kafka

Književni kanon
Književni kanon | Foto: © artisteer/iStock

Controversial articles in the arts sections, pragmatic approach in the schools: obligatory reading and the question of its justification.

By Matthias Bischoff

The book is not obligatory reading – but Wolfgang Herrndorf’s popular youth novel Tschick is also read in many German school classes, along with the books on the curriculum. Perhaps that already partly answers the question of whether a literary canon is really in keeping with the times.
What is a canon anyway? The term is from the Greek and means a rule, standard or guideline. But who sets the standard? Today there is at least agreement that to establish a canon you need a certain group who come to an understanding on this. So the canon is not definitive. This fundamental openness has elicited rejection of a canon in many people, especially as there is always the suspicion that a particular group is consolidating its cultural dominance by positing a canon.

Reflecting a multifaceted society

Germany has always seen itself as a cultural nation in which language and literature function as a unifying bond. Perhaps that is the reason why so many people demand that school leavers here have a comprehensive knowledge of literature. However, there is the question of which works should be part of such an obligatory reading list in an increasingly diverse society. Books from Turkish or Arab literature, for example, are not among those that school pupils in Hamburg, Munich or Cologne have to know about, according to the syllabus, yet many of the pupils have their roots in those cultural circles.
The objections to a canon, however, come from another direction, often being aired by people who place a value on the practical applicability of education. They thus question a concept of education that in turn has its roots in the early 19th century and for which Weimar Classicism or Wilhelm von Humboldt’s ideal of a university stand. In 2015, the lament of a school leaving certificate pupil in Cologne drew a lot of attention. She wrote on Twitter: “I’m almost 18 years old and have no ideas about taxes, rents or insurances. But I can write an analysis of a poem. In four languages.”

Canvassing for the “usefulness of the unuseful”

The response to her tweet was considerable. In the weekly newspaper Die Zeit Ulrich Greiner argued in favour of the “usefulness of the unuseful”, that is to say, concerning oneself with “Greek and Latin, music and art”, which are not intended to be applicable in everyday practice. He criticised Germany’s cultural policy, which he regards as sacrificing a comprehensive reading of canonical texts in favour of practical “competences”. Josef Kraus, President of the German Teachers’ Association, is also one of those who argue vehemently for a binding canon. “Man, as a cultural being, needs orientation and knowledge of his origins,” according to Kraus. This involves “a cosmos of values that has emerged over the 2000 years of European history”.

But a focus on older works is also controversial. In the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung Sandra Kegel deplored the almost total absence of contemporary literature from current school curricula. And the fact is that these mainly include established works. All the same, Agnes by Peter Stamm does turn up in Baden-Württemberg, and works by Uwe Timm are also to be found. In their everyday practice, teachers deal with the topic pragmatically and individually. One promotes a critical handling of the media using the satire Er ist wieder da (He is back) by Timur Vermes, the other, by contrast, categorically rejects any focus on contemporary best-sellers.

Centralised School Leaving Examination

Most teachers have less problems with Georg Büchner, whose story Lenz and drama fragment Woyzeck are not only on the curriculums, but also popular in class. In addition to stories by Heinrich von Kleist – obligatory reading in almost all federal states – and E.T. A Hoffmann’s The Sandman, there is one undisputed favourite both on the curricula and among German teachers: Franz Kafka. Almost every single German school pupil will be confronted with his story Metamorphosis. His novel The Trial is also read, as are his many parables, fragmentary texts and letters. It is an open secret that in addition to a genuine enthusiasm for Kafka, his supreme craftsmanship, especially in his short texts, also plays a role in class.
Through the introduction of the central school leaving examination, the federal states have ensured that the same books are read in the senior classes throughout the whole country, yet without detailed stipulations being made to schools. Free scope for teachers is restricted however, in view of the very precise stipulations regarding which books and ranges of topics will actually be examined. Schiller’s plays are on the reading lists everywhere, and Goethe’s Faust is obligatory reading nation-wide, despite the fact that many teachers say, on the quiet, that the work is too complicated for school pupils today. One teacher even writes, anonymously, in the Net: “What’s so special about Faust???” A teacher who asks this question is unlikely to awaken enthusiasm for Goethe among pupils – and without that, even the best canon is useless.