young benjamin


Benjamin was not just young when he wrote the pieces in this book; as an activist in the German Youth Movement, he was, one might say, professionally young. The youth movement was a loosely organized phenomenon with many tendencies—its adherents were interested in curriculum reform, sexual liberation, and nationalist renewal, among other causes, and there is a definite flavor of the 1960s in its vague, tumultuous commitment to change. Benjamin was exposed to it starting at 13, when he began to attend the Free School Community—an experimental, progressive school founded by the prominent reformer Gustav Wyneken, who became his mentor. Until the outbreak of the First World War, Benjamin was active in youth organizations—he was president of the Berlin University chapter of the Independent Students’ Association, and several of the essays in the book first appeared in movement journals. In these pieces, we sometimes find Benjamin writing as a muckraker, holding the German education system up to ridicule for its pedantry and mindless authoritarianism. In “Teaching and Valuation,” he complains of the “pious reiteration or regurgitation of unrelated or superficially related facts” and offers a “blacklist” of teacherly philistinism: “Apropos of Horace: ‘We have to read Horace in this class. It doesn’t matter whether we like it or not; it’s on the syllabus.’ ” When Benjamin quotes a teacher at a classical Gymnasium telling a student, “Please don’t think that anyone believes this enthusiasm of yours for the ancient world,” it’s hard to avoid suspecting that he himself was the student.

more from Adam Kirsch at Tablet here.