Professor Theodore Ziolkowski on Education in Goethe’s “Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship”

Theodore Ziolkowski
Picture: Irina Stelea

On November 16th, the 4th year BA/Project Year Core class was fortunate to host a guest lecture by Professor Theodore Ziolkowski.

Professor Ziolkowski, Professor Emeritus and former Dean of the Yale Graduate School, is a distinguished scholar in the fields of Comparative Literature and German Studies, as well as a prolific author who has published over twenty books on both Ancient and modern literary works.

He is also a former recipient of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s prestigious Forschungspreis for his work on German Literature (making him a particularly fitting guest for the core class, which read Alexander’s brother Wilhelm von Humboldt’s On the Limits of State Action earlier in the term). The primary focus of his lecture was Goethe’s archetypical BildungsromanWilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, which is one of the key texts for the Bildung-themed core course.

Professor Ziolkowski gave a clear and incisive description of the contemporary historical and social themes at work in Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship.   Contextualizing the work against the political backdrop of the French Revolution, he described the new understanding of individuality that was emerging in the 1790s when the book was written and the new theory of Bildung (‘education’ or ‘cultivation’ in English) that was being developed for the purposes of educating this new individual.

As the breakdown of feudal class structures began to emancipate people from preordained social roles, the idea familiar to us today of the individual as a complex aggregate of talents and traits, came to the fore.

In Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship, Goethe illustrates the journey of one such individual, making an argument for a type of Bildung that—quite controversially—culminates in the social integration of the individual.

The educational ideal underlying Goethe’s work is thus a sort of “Romantic Socialism” in which the education of the individual towards internal harmony aims at the ultimate external harmony, that of society as a whole. Ziolkowski illuminatingly drew attention to the way in which Goethe’s work catalogues different types of ‘madness’ and ‘imbalance’ in the text’s supporting characters in order to demonstrate various modes of failure to attain this ideal.

Intriguingly, one of the social-leveling mechanisms that existed at the turn of eighteenth-century German society that is illustrated prominently in Wilhelm Meister is the secret society. Although it is easy to dismiss the secret society as a mere literary device, Professor Ziolkowski reminded the class of the many secret societies that are integral to famous works of literature, from the cult of Dionysus in Euripides’s The Bacchae to the Illuminati in Dan Brown’s infamous Da Vinci Code.

Such societies, Ziolkowski argued, serve the very real purpose of facilitating the transitions between sets of social protocols by uniting their membership through privileged knowledge that transcends accepted class distinctions. This was an apt topic for the self-reflective educational project of the core course, which seeks to gain perspective not only on the nature of education in general but also on the nature of the particular project that we undertake here at ECLA.

by Eliza Little (PY’12, USA)

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