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A Coming of Age Classic Worth Revisting: A Review of Hermann Hesse's Beneath the Wheel

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Hermann Hesse (1981). Beneath the Wheel (Unterm Rad). New York: Bantam Books. [All references are to this edition.]

Back in the 1980s there was much ado over which books ought--and ought not--be read by young Americans. That cultural debate produced such conservative classics as: Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind (1987), and William J. Bennett's The Book of Virtues: A Treasury of Great Moral Stories (1993). The liberal side produced The Dictionary of Cultural Literacy (1987) by E.D. Hirsch, Joseph F. Kett, and James Trefil among others.

Of course, there has always been discussions of which books are classics to be read by American secondary students, and those lists are as varied as are the persons who compile them.

Certain books are more or less classic by virtue of the fact that they are ostensibly read in American high schools. For example, William Golding's The Lord of the Flies, John Knowles' A Separate Peace, and J.D. Salinger's A Catcher in the Rye. There are yet other books which are equally classic but remain unread: one such classic is John Reid's The Best Little Boy in the World.

This review proposes that American high schools revisit their reading lists---lists that today have too often, and perhaps to the detriment of students, strayed from the classics---and reconsider worthy novels.

One such novel is Hermann Hesse's Beneath the Wheel. It is perhaps fitting that now, just over a century after its publication in 1906, and as a unified Germany now takes her turn holding the presidency of the European Union (EU), American students should read this classic short novel.

The wheel of knowledge keeps spinning, crushing students under its archaic depersonalized weight.

Facts, declares old Gradgrind in Dickens' Hard Times, teach these children facts.

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So it is that in a new age of information, knowledge and technology, a bold global world, we are re-confronted with what assemblage of books, if any at all, are required reading to "compete" in the new "world economy." In Dickens' England, the industrial revolution posed similar problems. Basic numeracy and literacy demanded public schooling in order for national economies to compete.

So it was with Hans Giebenrath, a bright young seedling, sent to Maulbronn after coming in second in the national exams. Giebenrath was one of only a select few pupils from across Germany who earned the honor of acceptance into the Protestant Theological Seminary at Maulbronn paid for by the German government.

"Year after year three to four dozen boys took the first steps on this safe and tranquil path---thin, overworked, recently confirmed boys who followed the course of studies in the humanities at the expense of the state, eight to nine years later embarking on the second and longer period of their life when they were supposed to repay the state for its munificence." (Hesse, 4)

Germany had only nationalized in 1871, under Bismarck, so by 1906, in many ways, the Germans were still playing imperial catch-up with the rest of her European counterparts. Nationalismus was all very new when young Giebenrath was sent off to the academy to either become a German pastor or a German academician.

"Thus his future was mapped out....After passing the state examination, he could enter the theological academy at Maulbronn, then the seminary at Tübingen, and then go on to either the minister's pulpit or the scholar's lectern." (ibid.)

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Beneath the Wheel is the story of how this young soul became crushed by the high, perhaps foolhardy,  expectations of a father, a town, an academic system, and a nation. It is also the story of youthful ambition untempered by foresight and wisdom. It is the story of Moderns and memorization. Pietists and faith.

The wheel of knowledge exacted a steep price, a cost that could not possibly be calculated by the adolescent mind, let alone comprehended by the spirit of youthful adolescence.

"The principal had taken genuine satisfaction in guiding and observing the growth of this ambition which he himself had kindled. It was wrong to say that school masters lack heart and are died-up, soulless pedants! No, by no means. When a child's talent which he has sought to kindle suddenly bursts forth, when the boy puts aside his wooden sword, sling shot, bow-and-arrow and other childish games, when he begins to forge ahead, when the seriousness of the work begins to transform the rough-neck into a delicate, serious and an almost ascetic creature, when his face takes on an intelligent, deeper and more powerful expression---then a teacher's  heart laughs with happiness and pride. It is his duty and responsibility to control the raw energies and desires of his charges and replace them with calmer, more moderate ideals. What would many happy citizens and trustworthy officials have become but unruly, stormy innovators and dreamers of useless dreams, if not for the effort of their schools? In young beings there is something wild, ungovernable, uncultured which first has to be tamed. It is like a dangerous flame that has to be controlled or it will destroy. Natural man is unpredictable, opaque, dangerous, like a torrent cascading out of uncharted mountains. At the start, his soul is a jungle without paths or order. And, like a jungle, it must first be cleared and its growth thwarted. Thus it is the school's task to subdue and control man with force and make him a useful member of society, to kindle those qualities in him whose development will bring him to triumphant completion." (op. cit., 53-54)

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Hi- I read everything by Hesse I could get my hand... by Laudyms on Friday, Jun 29, 2007 at 3:57:24 PM
I have also read Rosshalde which I highly recommen... by Constance Lavender on Friday, Jun 29, 2007 at 5:47:51 PM