The Prodigy by Hermann Hesse

This short pre-amble is really just to contextualise some quotes from The Prodigy by Hermann Hesse, a writer whose poetry is more than able to convey what he wished to say. This book was also released under the name “Beneath the Wheel” which gives a more immediate clue as to his opinion of the schooling process.

The back cover of this edition reads:

This novel is Hermann Hesse’s indictment of conventional education. It is the story of a brilliant young boy whose spirit is systematically broken by his parents and teachers; over-anxious about his success, they forget to consider his health and happiness. Out of his attitude to such treatment, Hesse developed his views on the value of Eastern education in developing the self.

This incredible writer has kept me spellbound for hours on end and I’ve re-read his classics many times, including this smaller work where he attacks education for its sins against youth and our inner intelligence.

His writing, even after translation from German to English (which must have been a feat of devotion), is so densely poetical it is delicious to read and utterly mesmerising. The first of his works to catch my attention was Siddhartha, given to me before embarking on my first experience of travelling. This led to Narcissus and Goldmund, another lifelong account of two young friends which went on to become my favourite book of all time. The Glass Bead Game won the Nobel Prize for Literature and won my heart too, although many years later.

At times, the phrases he uses clearly evoke a completely different form of education to the one which most contemporary students will be familiar with, emanating from an archaic form of single sex boarding school, and yet the nub of the story remains true to this day. This tale cut so close to my personal experience of secondary education in the nineties, it shows little has changed in the 100 years since its first publication.

Certain words have been replaced (in brackets) for context.

“There is in fact nothing that horrifies the schoolmaster so much as those strange creatures, precocious boys in the already dangerous period of adolescence. Further, a certain element of genius had already seemed unwholesome to them in (this boy), for there exists a traditional hiatus between genius and the teaching profession and any hint of that element in school-boys is regarded by them with horror from the very first. As far as they are concerned, geniuses are those misguided pupils who never show them proper respect, begin to smoke at the age of fourteen, fall in love at fifteen, go to pubs at sixteen, read forbidden books, write scandalous essays, stare at their teacher with withering scorn and are noted down in the school day-book as trouble-makers and candidates for detention. A (traditional) schoolmaster would rather have a whole class of duffers than one genius, and strictly speaking he is right, for his task is not to educate unusual boys but to produce good Latinists, mathematicians and good honest fools. Which of the two suffers most, the master at the hands of the boy or conversely, which is the greatest tyrant or tormentor and which of the two it is who destroys and profanes, partially at any rate, the life and spirit of the other, it is impossible to judge without thinking back to one’s own youth with anger and shame. But that is not our present concern, and we have the comfort of knowing that in true geniuses the wounds almost always heal, and they become people who create their masterpieces in spite of school and who later, when they are dead and the pleasant aura of remoteness hangs over them, are held up by schoolmasters to succeeding generations as exemplary and noble beings. And so the spectacle of the perpetual battle between regulation and spirit is repeated in each school in turn, and we continue to watch the State and school eagerly occupied in nipping in the bud the handful of profounder and nobler spirits who grow up year by year. And it is still especially the boys who are always in trouble, the ones who run away or are expelled who seem destined to enrich the life of their country when they are older. Nevertheless many – and who can tell their number – waste away in mute rebellion and go under.”

It’s clear that the fate of this central character looked exceedingly grim at this point in the story and his next remark constitutes a shocking indictment on the fictional school where the action takes place. As the boy slipped into a deep depression, he was allowed to go under with very little intervention.

“Only the principal, who was proud of him as a hard-working pupil, made a clumsy effort at rescuing him.”

The final quote I’ll include is a damning attack on the system of teachers which preserves the status quo at the expense of the individuals who fail to conform to their demands.

“All these devoted leaders of youth, from the Principal down to the parents, including senior and junior assistant masters saw in (the rebel) an obstacle to their wishes, something resistant and lazy that must be somehow forced back into the fold. Not one – with the possible exception of the sympathetic (assistant) – could penetrate the desperate smile on the boy’s small face to the foundering spirit within, suffering and looking about him in terror and despair as he sank. Nor did it occur to any of them that the school and the ruthless ambitions of a father and some of the teachers had reduced this fragile creature to such a state. Why had he had to work late into the night during the most sensitive and critical years of his boyhood? Why had they taken his rabbits away from him, intentionally estranged him from his friends at the grammar school, forbidden him to go fishing and wander around, preferring to instil into him the empty and commonplace ideal of a wretched and gnawing ambition? Why, even after the examination had they not allowed him to enjoy the well-deserved holidays? Now the overworked little steed lay by the roadside and was of no more use to anyone.”

The Prodigy by Hermann Hesse

The Prodigy by Hermann Hesse is a delightful short book from my favourite author and yet not the first I would recommend if you wish to explore his work. The quotes included above condense his opinions on education pretty succinctly and they leap out from the story as cogent nuggets where the author’s personal opinions are being relayed.

To find extra inspiration about what is really possible outside of conventional education, please check out our inspiration page and the playlist of videos we have there.