Claremont, Calif. — My most unusual experience in nearly 40 years of teaching English and American literature in colleges and universities was at the University of Freiburg, Germany, soon after Hitler came into power, in 1933-34. I learned a good deal about the Nazis, but I learned even more about how to teach and how not to teach.
What caused me to be in Germany, which I had previously visited five times during summers as a tour guide, was the Great Depression. I don't know how great it was, but I can testify to its being depressing.
I was teaching at a college in Arkansas, where, if I had returned the next year, I would have taken a 60 percent reduction in pay, and small pay it already was for a professor of English and head of the division of modern languages. In fact for several months the pay was not paid, except in scrip that it was hoped would eventually be redeemed. Fortunately some local shopkeepers had enough faith to let us open charge accounts.
My wife and I, recently married, decided we might as well spend a year in Germany, where prices were even lower than in the United States, and work on the language. We chose the beautiful cathedral city of Freiburg, in the southwest corner of Germany, between the Black Forest and the Rhine. After two months in a pension, we rented the lower floor of a house owned by a baroness.
The social classes had been shifted about by Hitler, with the working class (which had the most votes) moving to the top, and the aristocracy dropping to the bottom. Our landlady, who lived on the floor above us, was related to the Hohenzollerns and in pre-Hitler days had owned a castle.
I could tell other things about life in Germany under Der Fuhrer, and explain (a long story) how I became a member of the faculty of the University of Freiburg. But I shall limit myself to a few comments about teaching in a German university in those days.
My first point. Professors, who had not been moved either up or down in the social scale by Hitler, were still, as in pre-Hitler days, regarded by students with admiration and awe, especially awe.No student was to enter a classroom after a professor. To make sure of this, there was the "academic quarter hour."
For 15 minutes after the class was to begin, the professors gathered in social rooms, talked to their colleagues, and now and then glanced at the clock. Only when it was approaching 15 minutes after the class was scheduled to start did the professors saunter toward their classrooms.
This was ego-lifting for professors, but how about students? For them, valuable time was lost -- assuming, of course, the teaching was valuable. I visited some of the classes and found the professors invariably giving a prepared lecture and then walking out of the classroom -- without stopping to speak to any students.
Professors were never to be questioned, never to be doubted. There was no discussion. The views of students were of no consequence. The professor had not only the last word but the first word and all the words in between.
These professors were of course distinguished scholars, some of them with worldwide reputations. But they did not teach, they professed. Their reasoning and their conclusions were the "truth."
My second point. Professors in a German university, overseen by Hitler's Ministry of Culture, were neither conservatives nor liberals. They were of one political party and held one political belief. Students gave professors the Nazi salute and "Heil Hitler!" when they entered the classroom (15 minutes late) , and professors returned the salute and the "Heil Hitler!" Though a foreigner, I was a member of the faculty, and I had to do the same.
My third point.Books in the university were carefully screened to make sure nothing remained that was anti-Nazi, anti-German, or in any way derogatory to the great history of the Fatherland. Book burning was an exciting outdoor sport.
But things have changed in higher education since the end of Hitler's Thousand-Year Reich, which fell some years short of that goal. I have been in Germany five times since Hitler's regime, lecturing and talking with students at universities for our State Department. Higher education seems more like that in the United States and England than it was in Hilter's time or before.
There is still respect for professors, but they are no longer idolized, no longer thought to be the sole purveyors of truth. Now students ask questions, even differ with their professors, and instead of there being only lectures, there are now seminars, with give- and-take, open discussion.
Professors are of many political persuasions. They may or may not support the present government. The are free to speak out, even with a minority view, as much as professor in our colleges and universities.
Moreover, university libraries are able to order whatever books they wish, including ones from abroad.
My German experience had made me more than ever open to student ideas. I like to be challenged and made to defend or to clarify my opinion. When I returned to the United States in 1934, I used the seminar method in most of my classes, even large ones. I prompted and provoked discussion. I still talked too much (that is one of my fallings), but I listened more.
I have a great affection for Germany, calling it "meine zweite Heimat,"m my second homeland. And I believe the Germans have learned, as I have, some important lessons about teaching and learning.
Sometimes you have to experience what is wrong to appreciate what is r ight.
An open mind is not necessarily an empty mind.