The Model Pupil (Der Primus)


Recently, in a public meeting in Paris, which was incidentally very German-friendly, one of the speakers said something really charming, of which I made a note. He spoke about what Germans are like, analyzed them not without skill, and then said, just incidentally, “Germans are like the model pupil.” If the Leipziger Neuesten Nachrichten hadn’t forbidden it, I would have cheered.

Can you remember the model pupil? Not stupid, certainly not. Hard-working, accurate, clean, knew everything, could do everything, and, for the maintenance of discipline, the teacher never asked him a question if it was somehow apparent that he didn’t know the answer this time. The model pupil could do as well as the rest of us did when we had the book open under the desk and read the answers from it. He usually wasn’t even such a disgusting prig (those were the swots in the front row who wanted to be model pupils). He was generally quite a nice person, even if he did gently exude a certain dignity which made it impossible to ever feel real friendship for him. The model pupil really did do all the work set, he worked with conviction and a sense of duty. He did the work for its own sake, and he did it in exemplary fashion.

Be that as it may.

There were other boys in the class who never became the model pupil. They were the boys with imagination (model pupils don’t have imagination), boys who grasped things almost intuitively, but without the necessary application, boys who were not always diligent, often erratic, always a bit suspect. They knew their poets, or their physics or English, much better than the others, better than the always equally diligent model pupil, and sometimes better than the teacher, but they got nowhere. They had to count themselves lucky just to be allowed to go on to the next class.

Someone should find out what becomes of model pupils later in life. It is not necessarily the case that only the boy at the bottom of the class will become the next Newton, or that doing badly at school is proof of talent, or even genius, but I don’t believe that there will be many model pupils who achieve more in life than mediocrity.

Germans, as seen by Latin people, are too exemplary. Duty, obedience, work, we have so many of this kind of words, behind which vanity, brutality and arrogance are hidden. The country wants to bring up all its children to be model pupils, whereas France wants them to become human beings, and England, men. The virtue of the German model pupil is a vice, his diligence an unpleasant habit, his obedience a lack of imagination. In the classroom, and in front of the headmaster, he is a big guy, but that is all not so important outside. Oh, Germany, Germany, one can forgive you almost anything else, but being the model pupil of the world, that is unforgivable.

Author: Kurt Tucholsky

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