WALTER KAUFMANN is a conservative thinker, a traditional philosopher who wants to save the learning and wisdom of the past by teaching students how to read, and by teaching their teachers how to teach them. To "modern" thinkers he will appear old-fashioned to the point of stultification. To those unhappy few who are dismayed by the shallow, pragmatic educations now offered by universities and colleges by the absence of any knowledge of Latin and Greek or modern languages on the part of students, by their total ignorance of history and the roots of comtemporary literature, his small book will seem a confirmation of all such beliefs.
Kaufman's scorn of careless and pretentious reading and criticism takes the form of angry diatribes against what he calls "the scholastics" in the academy, technicians who "travel in schools," are hostile to visionary thinkers, and arrive at their valueless views by "consensus." He rails against "microscopists," who are specialists in some small area of the humanities, so bogged down in arcane detail that the full significance of a work is lost upon them. He despises "the journalistic teacher" who claims to know what he doesn't really know, whose "predilection . . . for what is 'news' "and his concern withfads endangers the conservation of the greatest works of the human mind.
But Kaufmann's finest fury is reserved for editors and reviewers who are, to him, unethical, ignorant, and dishonest. Their sins are most glaring because they are in positions of power. THey influence the reader who is otherwise ignorant of the book and never discovers that the reviews "are full of misrepresentations and outright errors." Kaufmann provides a caustic outline of the base intentions of most reviewers: to vent their resentment for not being successful themselves by getting back at those who are; to avoid unpleasant criticism of friends and colleagues by writing an essay rather than a barsh review; to parade their own cleverness in print; to return favors, to settle old scores, to be politic. Here, of course, Kaufmann is repeating Nietzsche's scorn against "the journalist, the servant of the moment."
Translators too are harshly dealt with, for their ignorance and presumption: often they mistranslate key works in philosophical works. Himself a notable translator of Nietzsche and Geoethe, Kaufmann is indignant about what he terms gross errors in other translator's work. He has nothing kind to say about editors who authorize "critical editions" or support selections made improperly from whole letters. Such publication is a heavily subsidized industry, he says. Works of visionaries (Kaufmann's term for the ideal teacher, the original thinker, the seminal, creative mind) are reduced by hacks and scholastic microscoptist to imcomplete, false version, overloaded (in the case of the Modern Language Association's critical editions of American authors) with unnecessary and volumines notes and citations from an author's better-discarded "garbage." THe visioneries he cites are men like Freud, Nietzsche, Goethe, Kierkegaard, Hegel, Yeats, but in a crucial chapter he asserts that vision can be taught. Students must be taught to "look for alternatives and objections" to every view.
Most regrettable, he feels, is the disappearance of the teaching of religion, the crucial subject in a true humanities curriculum. Students' ignorance of Latin and Greek, of the Bible, of the simplest facts of other religions, or even their own appalls him. So he carefully outlines a course in comparative religion, week by week; he suggests an elective to follow it which would study in depth the Book of Genesis. As we follow Kaufmann's outline of such a course we see his views on the art of reading and teaching applied to the course outline of one subject.
I have explorered only a few of Walter Kaufmann's many suggestions and detailed instructions for saving the humanities from incompetent teachers, self-seeking critics, imcompetent editors and ignorant translators. And lest you think his concern is only for saving the past, notice his suggestion in his final chapter that a true education might well end with a semester of study on bioethics and the problems of dying and aging - with appropriate readings from the German poets (he has himself published, conveniently, just such an anthology of 25 German poets) the examination of the great art of Kathe Kollwitz, etc. If all nhis reading suggestions throughout the book seem to be heavily Germanis - well, Kaufmann's native tongue is German, his scholarship is German, and he has a distinctly Germanic approach to his subject - dogmatic, fond of labeling and listing and categorization. But somehow, despite it all, it is full of intriguing and nourishing ideas.