This text was taken from the 1st edition of Memoirs of a Revolutionist, Houghton Mifflin Company, Boston and New York, 1899.
ALL over Russia people were talking of education. As soon as peace had been concluded at Paris, and the severity of censorship had been slightly relaxed, educational matters began to be eagerly discussed. The ignorance of the masses of the people, the obstacles that had hitherto been put in the way of those who wanted to learn, the absence of schools in the country, the obsolete methods of teaching, and the remedies for these evils became favorite themes of discussion in educated circles, in the press, and even in the drawing-rooms of the aristocracy. The first high schools for girls had been opened in 1857, on an excellent plan and with a splendid teaching staff. As by magic a number of men and women came to the front, who have not only devoted their lives to education, but have proved to be remarkable practical pedagogists: their writings would occupy a place of honor in every civilized literature, if they were known abroad.
The corps of pages also felt the effect of that revival. Apart from a few exceptions, the general tendency of the three younger forms was to study. The head of the educational department, the inspector, Winkler, who was a well educated colonel of artillery, a good mathematician, and a man of progressive opinions, hit upon an excellent plan for stimulating that spirit. Instead of the indifferent teachers who formerly used to teach in the lower forms, he endeavored to secure the best ones. In his opinion, no professor was too good to teach the very beginnings of a subject to the youngest boys. Thus, to teach the elements of algebra in the fourth form he invited a first-rate mathematician and a born teacher, Captain Sukhónin, and the form took at once to mathematics. By the way, it so happened that this captain was a tutor of the heir of the throne (Nikolái Alexándrovich, who died at the age of twenty-two), and the heir apparent was brought once a week to the corps of pages to be present at the algebra lessons of Captain Sukhónin. Empress Marie Alexándrovna, who was an educated woman, thought that perhaps the contact with studious boys would stimulate her son to learning. He sat amongst us, and had to answer questions like all the others. But he managed mostly, while the teacher spoke, to make drawings very nicely, or to whisper all sorts of droll things to his neighbors. He was good-natured and very gentle in his behavior, but superficial in learning, and still more so in his affections.
For the fifth form the inspector secured two remarkable men. He entered our class-room one day, quite radiant, and told us that we should have a rare chance. Professor Klasóvsky, a great classical scholar and expert in Russian literature, had consented to teach us Russian grammar, and would take us through all the five forms in succession, shifting with us every year to the next form. Another university professor, Herr Becker, librarian of the imperial (national) library, would do the same in German. Professor Klasóvsky, he added, was in weak health that winter, but the inspector was sure that we would be very quiet in his class. The chance of having such a teacher was too good to be lost.
He had thought aright. We became very proud of having university professors for teachers, and although there came voices from the Kamchátka (in Russia, the back benches of each class bear the name of that remote and uncivilized peninsula) to the effect that "the sausage-maker" --- that is, the German --- must be kept by all means in obedience, public opinion in our form was decidedly in favor of the professors.
"The sausage-maker" won our respect at once. A tall man, with an immense forehead and very kind, intelligent eyes, not devoid of a touch of humor, came into our class, and told us in quite good Russian that he intended to divide our form into three sections. The first section would be composed of Germans, who already knew the language, and from whom he would require more serious work; to the second section he would teach grammar, and later on German literature, in accordance with the established programmes; and the third section, he concluded with a charming smile, would be the Kamchátka. "From you," he said, "I shall only require that at each lesson you copy four lines which I will choose for you from a book. The four lines copied, you can do what you like; only do not hinder the rest. And I promise you that in five years you will learn something of German and German literature. Now, who joins the Germans? You, Stackelberg? You, Lamsdorf? Perhaps some one of the Russians? And who joins the Kamchátka?" Five or six boys, who knew not a word of German, took residence in the peninsula. They most conscientiously copied their four lines, --- a dozen or a score of lines in the higher forms, --- and Becker chose the lines so well, and bestowed so much attention upon the boys, that by the end of the five years they really knew something of the language and its literature.
I joined the Germans. My brother Alexander insisted so much in his letters upon my acquiring German, which possesses so rich a literature and into which every book of value is translated, that I set myself assiduously to learn it. I translated and studied most thoroughly one page of a rather difficult poetical description of a thunderstorm; I learned by heart, as the professor had advised me, the conjugations, the adverbs, and the prepositions, and began to read. A splendid method it is for learning languages. Becker advised me, moreover, to subscribe to a cheap illustrated weekly, and its illustrations and short stories were a continual inducement to read a few lines or a column. I soon mastered the language.
Toward the end of the winter I asked Herr Becker to lend me a copy of Goethe's "Faust." I had read it in a Russian translation; I had also read Turguéneff's beautiful novel, "Faust;" and I now longed to read the great work in the original. "You will understand nothing in it; it is too philosophical," Becker said, with his gentle smile; but he brought me, nevertheless, a little square book, with the pages yellowed by age, containing the immortal drama. He little knew the unfathomable joy that that small square book gave me. I drank in the sense and the music of every line of it, beginning with the very first verses of the ideally beautiful dedication, and soon knew full pages by heart. Faust's monologue in the forest, and especially the lines in which he speaks of his understanding of nature, ---
Not only cold, amazed acquaintance yield'st,
But grantest that in her profoundest breast
I gaze, as in the bosom of a friend," ---
simply put me in ecstasy, and till now it has retained its power over me. Every verse gradually became a dear friend. And then, is there a higher æsthetic delight than to read poetry in a language which one does not yet quite thoroughly understand? The whole is veiled with a sort of slight haze, which admirably suits poetry. Words, the trivial meanings of which, when one knows the language colloquially, sometimes interfere with the poetical image they are intended to convey, retain but their subtle, elevated sense; while the music of the poetry is only the more strongly impressed upon the ear.
Professor Klasóvsky's first lesson was a revelation to us. He was a small man, about fifty years of age, very rapid in his movements, with bright, intelligent eyes and a slightly sarcastic expression, and the high forehead of a poet. When he came in for his first lesson, he said in a low voice that, suffering from a protracted illness, he could not speak loud enough, and asked us, therefore, to sit closer to him. He placed his chair near the first row of tables, and we clustered round him like a swarm of bees.
He was to teach us Russian grammar; but, instead of the dull grammar lesson, we heard something quite different from what we expected. It was grammar; but here came in a comparison of an old Russian folk-lore expression with a line from Homer or from the Sanskrit Mahabharata, the beauty of which was rendered in Russian words, there, a verse from Schiller was introduced, and was followed by a sarcastic remark about some modern society prejudice; then solid grammar again, and then some wide poetical or philosophical generalization.
Of course, there was much in it that we did not understand, or of which we missed the deeper sense. But do not the bewitching powers of all studies lie in that they continually open up to us new, unsuspected horizons, not yet understood, which entice us to proceed further and further in the penetration of what appears at first sight only in vague outline? Some with their hands placed on one another's shoulders, some leaning across the tables of the first row, others standing close behind Klasóvsky, our eyes glittering, we all hung on his lips. As toward the end of the hour, his voice fell, the more breathlessly we listened. The inspector opened the door of the class-room, to see how we behaved with our new teacher; but on seeing that motionless swarm he retired on tiptoe. Even Daúroff a restless spirit, stared at Klasóvsky as if to say, "That is the sort of man you are?" Even von Kleinau, a hopelessly obtuse Circassian with a German name, sat motionless. In most of the others something good and elevated simmered at the bottom of their hearts, as if a vision of an unsuspected world was opening before them. Upon me Klasóvsky had an immense influence, which only grew with years. Winkler's prophecy, that, after all, I might like the school, was fulfilled.
In Western Europe, and probably in America, this type of teacher seems not to be generally known, but in Russia there is not a man or woman of mark, in literature or in political life, who does not owe the first impulse toward a higher development to his or her teacher of literature. Every school in the world ought to have such a teacher. Each teacher in a school has his own subject, and there is no link between the different subjects. Only the teacher of literature, guided by the general outlines of the programme, but left free to treat it as he likes, can bind together the separate historical and humanitarian sciences, unify them by a broad philosophical and humane conception, and awaken higher ideas and inspirations in the brains and hearts of the young people. In Russia, that necessary task falls quite naturally upon the teacher of Russian literature. As he speaks of the development of the language, of the contents of the early epic poetry, of popular songs and music, and, later on, of modern fiction, of the scientific, political, and philosophical literature of his own country, and the divers aesthetical, political, and philosophical currents it has reflected, he is bound to introduce that generalized conception of the development of human mind which lies beyond the scope of each of the subjects that are taught separately.
The same thing ought to be done for the natural sciences
as well. It is not enough to teach physics and chemistry, astronomy and
meteorology, zoölogy and botany. The philosophy of all the natural
sciences --- a general view of nature as a whole, something on the lines
of the first volume of Humboldt's "Cosmos" --- must be conveyed
to the pupils and the students, whatsoever may be the extension given to
the study of the natural sciences in the school. The philosophy and the
poetry of nature, the methods of all the exact sciences, and an inspired
conception of the life of nature must make part of education. Perhaps the
teacher of geography might provisionally assume this function; but then
we should require quite a different set of teachers of this subject, and
a different set of professors of geography in the universities would be
needed. What is now taught under this name is anything you like, but it
is not geography.
Another teacher conquered our, rather uproarious form in a quite different manner. It was the teacher of writing, the last one of the teaching staff. If the "heathen" --- that is, the German and the French teachers --- were regarded with little respect, the teacher of writing, Ebert, who was a German Jew, was a real martyr. To be insolent with him was a sort of chic amongst the pages. His poverty alone must have been the reason why he kept to his lesson in our corps. The old hands, who had stayed for two or three years in the fifth form without moving higher up, treated him very badly; but by some means or other he had made an agreement with them: "One frolic during each lesson, but no more," --- an agreement which, I am afraid, was not always honestly kept on our side.
One day, one of the residents of the remote peninsula soaked the blackboard sponge with ink and chalk and flung it at the caligraphy martyr. "Get it, Ebert!" he shouted, with a stupid smile. The sponge touched Ebert's shoulder, the grimy ink spirted into his face and down on to his white shirt.
We were sure that this time Ebert would leave the room and report the fact to the inspector. But he only exclaimed, as he took out his cotton handkerchief and wiped his face, "Gentlemen, one frolic, --- no more today!" "The shirt is spoiled," he added, in a subdued voice, and continued to correct some one's book.
We looked stupefied and ashamed. Why, instead of reporting, he had thought at once of the agreement! The feeling of the class turned in his favor. "What you have done is stupid," we reproached our comrade. "He is a poor man, and you have spoiled his shirt! Shame!" somebody cried.
The culprit went at once to make excuses. "One must learn, learn, sir," was all that Ebert said in reply, with sadness in his voice.
All became silent after that, and at the next lesson, as if we had settled it beforehand, most of us wrote in our best possible handwriting, and took our books to Ebert, asking him to correct them. He was radiant; he felt happy that day.
This fact deeply impressed me, and was never wiped out from my memory. To this day I feel grateful to that remarkable man for his lesson.
With our teacher of drawing, who was named Ganz, we never arrived at living on good terms. He continually reported those who played in his class. This, in our opinion, he had no right to do, because he was only a teacher of drawing, but especially because he was not an honest man. In the class he paid little attention to most of us, and spent his time in improving the drawings of those who took private lessons from him, or paid him in order to show at the examinations a good drawing and to get a good mark for it. Against those comrades who did so we had no grudge. On the contrary, we thought it quite right that those who had no capacity for mathematics or no memory for geography, and had but poor marks in these subjects, should improve their total of marks by ordering from a draughtsman a drawing or a topographical map for which they would get "a full twelve." Only for the first two pupils of the form it would not have been fair to resort to such means, while the remainder could do it with untroubled consciences. But the teacher had no business to make drawings to order; and if he chose to act in this way, he ought to bear with resignation the noise and the tricks of his pupils. Instead of this, no lesson passed without his lodging complaints, and each time he grew more arrogant.
As soon as we were moved to the fourth form, and felt ourselves naturalized citizens of the corps, we decided to tighten the bridle upon him. "It is your own fault," our elder comrades told us, "that he takes such airs with you; we used to keep him in obedience." So we decided to bring him into subjection.
One day, two excellent comrades of our form approached Ganz with cigarettes in their mouths, and asked him to oblige them with a light. Of course, that was only meant for a joke, --- no one ever thought of smoking in the class-rooms, --- and, according to our rules of propriety, Ganz had merely to send the two boys away; but he inscribed them in the journal, and they were severely punished. That was the last drop. We decided to give him a "benefit night." That meant that one day all the form, provided with rulers borrowed from the upper forms, would start an outrageous noise by striking the rulers against the tables, and send the teacher out of the class. However, the plot offered many difficulties. We had in our form a lot of "goody" boys who would promise to join in the demonstration, but at the last moment would grow nervous and draw back, and then the teacher would name the others. In such enterprises unanimity is the first requisite, because the punishment, whatsoever it may be, is always lighter when it falls on the whole class instead of on a few.
The difficulties were overcome with a truly Machiavellian craft. At a given signal all were to turn their backs to Ganz, and then, with the rulers laid in readiness on the desks of the next row, they would produce the required noise. In this way the goody boys would not feel terrified at Ganz's staring at them. But the signal? Whistling, as in robbers' tales, shouting, or even sneezing would not do: Ganz would be capable of naming any one of us as having whistled or sneezed. The signal must be a silent one. One of us, who drew nicely, would take his drawing to show it to Ganz, and the moment he returned and took his seat, --- that was to be the time!
All went on admirably. Nesádoff took up his drawing, and Ganz corrected it in a few minutes, which seemed to us an eternity. He returned at last to his seat; he stopped for a moment, looking at us; he sat down.... All the form turned suddenly on their seats, and the rulers rattled merrily within the desks, while some of us shouted amidst the noise, "Ganz out! Down with him !" The noise was deafening; all the forms knew that Ganz had got his benefit night. He stood there, murmuring something, and finally went out. An officer ran in, --- the noise continued; then the sub-inspector dashed in, and after him the inspector. The noise stopped at once. Scolding began.
"The elder under arrest at once!" the inspector commanded; and I, who was the first in the form, and consequently the elder, was marched to the black cell. That spared me seeing what followed. The director came; Ganz was asked to name the ringleaders, but he could name nobody. "They all turned their backs to me, and began the noise," was his reply. Thereupon the form was taken downstairs, and although flogging had been completely abandoned in our school, this time the two who had been reported because they asked for a light were flogged with the birch rod, under the pretext that the benefit night was a revenge for their punishment.
I learned this ten days later, when I was allowed to return to the class. My name, which had been inscribed on the red board in the class, was wiped off. To this I was indifferent; but I must confess that the ten days in the cell, without books, seemed to me rather long, so that I composed (in horrible verses) a poem, in which the deeds of the fourth form were duly glorified.
Of course, our form became now the heroes of the school. For a month or so we had to tell and retell all about the affair to the other forms, and received congratulations for having managed it with such unanimity that nobody was caught separately. And then came the Sundays --- all the Sundays down to Christmas --- that the form had to remain at the school, not being allowed to go home. Being all kept together, we managed to make those Sundays very gay. The mammas of the goody boys brought them heaps of sweets; those who had some money spent it in buying mountains of pastry, --- substantial before dinner, and sweet after it; while in the evenings the friends from the other forms smuggled in quantities of fruit for the brave fourth form.
Ganz gave up inscribing any one; but drawing was totally
lost for us. No one wanted to learn drawing from that mercenary man.
To Part II, Chapter 3.
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