The Didactic: Learning at Goethe’s Knee

  • Lytle Shaw


In one still influential model of progressive educational theory, pedagogy would be a self-reflexive discourse about the methods and aims of teaching, while didacticism—with its traditional links to rote repetition of precepts—would be a phase in educational history that we are now, thankfully, beyond: the phase of teachers. For it was teachers who devised precepts about writing, and who set students to work memorizing them. And there was more to dislike about teachers, of course. Teachers also enforced “standard English” as an abstract authoritarian value, independent of context.


Fairy Tale Literary Knowledge Narrativized Quest Small Workshop Group Didactic Project 
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  1. 5.
    Andrea A. Lunsford, “Cognitive Development and the Basic Writer,” in The Writing Teacher’s Sourcebook, ed. Gary Tate, Edward P.J. Corbett (New York: Oxford, 1981), 261.Google Scholar
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    Teaching Prose, ed. Fredric V. Bogel and Katherine K. Gottschalk (New York: Norton, 1988), 16; hereafter cited parenthetically as TP. Google Scholar
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    A notable exception is Jed Rasula’s The American Poetry Wax Museum: Reality Effects, 1940–1990 (Urbana: National Council of Teachers of English, 1996).Google Scholar
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    Wilhelm Dilthey, Selected Works, vol. 5, ed. Roduolf A Makkreel and Frithjof Rodi (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1985), 335. Todd Kontje summarizes the objections to Dilthey’s view in the introduction to his Private Lives in the Public Sphere: The German Bildungsroman as Metafiction (University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State University Press), 1992. Reviewing what he calls, more specifically, the “universally inattentive” readings of Wilhelm Meister that understand the novel as a matter of “Wilhelm being introduced to life,” Nicholas Boyle then argues that “no view of Goethe’s work will do it justice which assumes, as do most of the novelists who allude to it, in homage or in parody . . . that Wilhelm progresses, directly or by detours, to some kind of perfect fulfillment, whether aesthetic, or social, or amorous” (Goethe: The Poet and the Age: Volume 11, Revolution and Renunciation [1790—1803] [Oxford: Clarendon, 2000]), 411.Google Scholar
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    Michael Minden, The German Bildungsroman: Incest and Inheritance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 21. Minden expands on this problem of the generic status of the novel for Goethe: “The novel could not be ignored in debates about literary matters, but it was far too vulgar for unqualified approval. It had to be assimilated into the established system of genres, but at the same time it posed a threat to the clarity and authority of that system, being itself heterogeneous in origin and content, and not easily sanctioned by reference to antiquity” (20).Google Scholar
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    These questions point us toward the problem of positioning Goethe’s model of interdisciplinarity within our current interdisciplinary climate. Though the enormous list of fields to which Goethe makes contributions suggests a fragmentation of knowledge (as well as a limit condition of Enlightenment ambitions), this very interdisciplinarity also comes to be identified, through Jena Romanticism, with a new sense of “the literary.” In The literary Absolute, for instance, a seminal study of Jena Romanticism, Philippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean-Luc Nancy suggest that despite Goethe’s occasional attempts to distance himself from philosophy, he does become that movement’s paradigmatic example of having “done with [the] partition and division” constitutive of older disciplines in order to produce the new genre of “literature” (Phillippe Lacoue-Labarthe and Jean Luc Nancy, The literary Absolute: The Theory of literature in German Romanticism, trans. Philip Barnard and Cheryl Lester [Albany: State University of New York Press, 1988], 11).Google Scholar

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© Joan Retallack and Juliana Spahr 2006

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  • Lytle Shaw

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