The Doric Column

February 22, 1999

Fairy Tales Can Come True
"Into the Woods"
Enterprise and Myth
Once Upon a Time

Fairy Tales Can Come True

Because of his tiny stature they called him Tom Thumb. They let him want for nothing, yet still the child grew no bigger, but remained the same size as when he was born. Still, he looked out on the world with intelligent eyes, and soon showed himself to be a clever and agile creature, who was lucky in all that he attempted.

    --The Adventures of Tom Thumb

In early October 1982, walking along the grand Berlin boulevard Unter den Linden, I noticed a little book on display in the window of a small bookstore. The title was Brief über Toleranz.

John Locke's A Letter Concerning Toleration  was written the year after the "Glorious Revolution of 1688" in England. It is considered one of the sacred texts of religious freedom.

In it, Locke refers to the historical experience of, among other, Jews and Turks in Christian-dominated Western Europe. It is uncanny to consider that today, more than five decades after the Holocaust and one decade after the Wall, the Jewish community in Berlin is being repopulated and revitalized, with encouragement from federal and local officials, and that the growing Turkish community is now the focus of popular resentment, with the state apparently not able to do much about it. The Turks were stopped at Vienna in 1663, but in the view of many Germans, they are back on the march.

It was gray and drizzling that day, a perfect backdrop for the bankrupt grandiosity of East Berlin under its party boss Eric Honnecker. I suppose the weather was the same on the other side, before I crossed over to the east through Checkpoint Charlie, but I don't remember.

The people I encountered, they were the same as on the other side. A military officer went out of his way to guide me to the Bertold Brecht Haus. A fellow on the street pointed out the synagogue that was practically destroyed on "Kristallnacht" when Nazi hoodlums went on a rampage a November night in 1938. The staff at the Pergamon Museum answered all my questions about the Altar of Zeus, which now the Turkish government claims was stolen by archeologist Heinrich Schliemann, and Turkey wants it back.

Yet I couldn't help but register the irony of Locke's book on display along the Main Street of a police state. I had learned about Locke as an undergraduate student under the influence of the legendary University professor of political philosophy and pacifist Mulford Q. Sibley. Sibley himself was skeptical about many things, but mostly about state power. So Locke was required reading.

I meandered along the boulevard toward the Brandenburg Gate, where President Kennedy gave his famous "Ich bin ein Berliner" speech. Shortly, I came to my final stop, "Humboldt Free University" I believe it was then called.

Humboldt Universität, founded in 1810, is, as the web publicity declares, the "Mother of all modern universities." It is the realized dream of the academic and statesman Wilhelm von Humboldt, like Locke someone wary of the state who conceived the university as an autonomous enclave. Humboldt envisioned a "Universitas litterarum" that would join teaching and research in providing students with a humanist education.

More's the pity they wouldn't let me in. Fresh from my encounter with John Locke, with "Toleranz" turning in my mind along an avenue that had featured fascism and communism in rapid succession, I was stopped at the door and refused entry by a young woman sitting at the receptionist desk.

I gathered from my modest facility with German and hers with English that day-trippers from the west were not among those eligible to roam freely at the free university.

It seemed other worldly, but I was in fact in another world. That world that saw no contradiction whatsoever between advertising "toleration" and refusing a visitor entry to a "free university."

But Germany has a long history of contradiction and paradox --as well as genius and invention. East Berlin captured it.

Representing the latter was a statue of Alexander von Humboldt, Wilhelm's younger brother. Alexander took to the sciences while Wilhelm was building a new academic-political structure. He was a scientist without peer, except perhaps when he visited President Jefferson in Washington, D.C. in 1804. He was determined that Berlin University, the institution his brother built, "should have the first observatory, the first chemistry institute, the first botanical garden, the first school of transcendental Mathematics."

If the statue of Alexander von Humboldt in the University's courtyard embodies the emerging spirit of science and technology, a wellspring of the nonquantifiable can be found nearby--in a special collection of the Bibliothek, the Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm library.

There the famed collectors of German folk and fairy tales are enshrined, the stories in their collections serving as monumental bookends to life through succeeding generations. Even in an age of high science, perhaps especially now, the invitation to enter the woods is irresistible.

"Into the Woods"

The philologist-founder of the modern university and his younger brother, a giant of 19th century natural science and "one of the first ecologists," in the words of Scientific American  "CONNECTIONS" columnist James Burke, grew up in a fantasy land.

That's an exaggeration, of course, just as the castle depicted in Walt Disney's "Fantasyland" is an exaggeration of "Schloss Neuschwanstein," the Bavarian dream castle of His Majesty Ludwig II.

"Schloss Tegel" is no Neuschwanstein as castles go, but the lifetime home of the Brothers von Humboldt, and their final resting place, was then situated in a near idyllic setting just outside of Berlin. It was once a hunting seat first of the Frederick William, the Elector of Brandenberg, and then Frederick the Great. The boys made good use of the grounds, the forest, the dark pine groves, the lake, the creek, the sand dunes.

According to one account, the castle, remodeled in 1820 by the great architect Karl Friedrich Schinkel, is attached to a mysterious legend alluded to by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in his masterpiece Faust. One day Goethe himself encountered the boys as one of the many honored guests of Baron Major Alexander George von Humboldt. Goethe preached the essential unity of all knowledge. Together, the brothers von Humboldt embodied that unity. Emerging from the Teutonic forest and pursuing their dreams, they made their mark: in the language arts and diplomacy, in the case of Wilhelm, and in exploration and the natural sciences, in the case of Alexander.

The venture into the forest is so deeply embedded in the human psyche that battalions of scholars from dozens of fields are kept busy sorting it out. The fine and performing arts also are engaged. "Into the Woods" is the title of a Stephen Sondheim and James Lapine musical based on the Grimm Brothers fairy tales, namely the stories of Little Red Riding Hood, Cinderella, and Jack and the Beanstalk. In their "woods," a critic commented, a lyrical exploration of what Bruno Bettelheim called the "dark, hidden, near-impenetrable world of our unconscious" takes place.

It is perhaps not a coincidence that early 20th century explorations of the unconscious were undertaken in the vicinity of ancient German forests. The first psychoanalytic clinic in Berlin was established in Schloss Tegel by Ernst Simmel and was frequently visited by an admirer of Simmel's who sought relief for his cancer of the jaw, Sigmund Freud. Some years later, in the U.S., Simmel's patient was this century's fairy tale darling, Grand Rapids native Judy Garland.

Dangerous as it is, the forest is "the place where society's conventions no longer hold true. It is the source of natural right, thus the starting place where social wrongs can be righted," wrote Jack Zipes in his book The Brothers Grimm: From Enchanted Forests to the Modern World  (1988). The "old German forests" are mythical places in German cultural history where "the essential truths about German customs, laws, and culture could be found...."

Zipes is a University professor in the department of German, Scandinavian & Dutch and one of the world's leading authorities on fairy tales. In his latest book, Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales, Children, and the Culture Industry (1998), he extends a theme that runs through his thinking about fairy tales: when you manipulate them, you put at risk their original value in socializing children, adolescents and adults. Children are especially vulnerable when fairy tales, reworked in the marketplace, turn them into passive vessels of a consumer culture. "Disneyfication" is the term that's often used.

Zipes would like to see the fairy tales become once again the focus of community storytelling to engage and empower the child's imagination directly. A story like "Little Red Riding Hood," the world's most popular tale according to Zipes, "is filled with unresolved problems that still create tension in our lives today," he wrote in Creative Storytelling: Building Communities, Changing Lives (1995). Depending on the version, the story contains elements of

  • invitation
  • warning
  • gender roles
  • eroticism
  • violence
  • shock
  • salvation

When the classics are reconstituted through storytelling in schools, libraries and community centers, there is genuine opportunity for discussion, exploration, improvisation, and invention. These communal exercises, in Zipes' view, stimulate self-discovery and the deep yearning for a better world that the stories represent.

Last November, Zipes gave a talk at Humboldt University, one of the University's W.E.B. DuBois Lectures on American Studies. It was entitled "What Happened to Rotkäppchen? Vergleichende Perspectiven in Folklore und Kinderliteratur" [What Happended to Little Red Riding Hood? Comparative Perspectives in Folklore and Children's Literature].

Enterprise and Myth

The February 6th edition of the British weekly The Economist  ran a series of stories on Germany that included "Golden present, silver future?"

The article began: "If some of Germany's problems are less bad than they seem, others may be worse. Once cause for concern must be the country's education system, and its capacity to produce Germans who are both enterprising and sophisticated enough to compete in the global economy."

As in other European countries, the German university system, the legacy of Wilhelm von Humboldt, is "not suited to an era of mass education." German universities are "cautious and conservative places, producing too many timid minds." The Economist  counsels them to encourage enterprise.

Humboldt University has activities underway in line with such counsel. It is creating an Institute for Entrepreneurship. One current course, entitled "Technical Entrepreneurship," carries forward the prevailing "creative destruction" ideas of the economist Joseph Schumpeter. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology is offered as the model for what universities can do.

Miroslaw Malek of Humboldt's Institute für Informatik lays out, in business-book fashion, "The Ten Ds" for becoming an entrepreneur:

  • Dream
  • Decisiveness
  • Doers
  • Determination
  • Dedication
  • Devotion
  • Details
  • Destiny
  • D-Marks
  • Distribute

Under "Dream" Malek writes: "Entrepreneurs have a vision of what the future could be like for them and their business. And, more importantly, they have the ability to implement their dreams."

There is irony in the fact that few brotherly pairs were as enterprising as the Brothers von Humboldt and the Brothers Grimm. The mythology of German culture and country life two centuries ago nurtured them to pursue their dreams. Their enterprising passion was not for money but for discovery, synthesis, and learning.

Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm grew up in a large country home in an idyllic setting near Kassel, which now touts itself as the "New Center of Germany." They were part of what Jack Zipes calls Bildungsbürgertum , the rising class of financial and industrial entrepreneurs and educated professionals.

The worldwide allure of the Grimm's fairy tales "emanates from the compositional technique and ethics developed by the Brothers Grimm to stress fundamental bourgeois values of behavior and moral principles of Christianity that served the hegemonic aspirations of the rising middle classes in Germany and elsewhere." These values and principles were oriented toward "male hegemony and patriarchalism."

Male cunning is key--the hero's knowledge of the world around him and how to use wit and words to make his way through the unknown, through the dark forest. Tom Thumb is the model; Odysseus is the inspiration.

In exercising the what Zipes calls "entrepreneurial spirit," the Grimms stamped the fairy tale genre "with the imprint of the Protestant ethic." It was a subtle exercise in subverting the reigning feudal order, an act of "creative destruction" in the cultural sphere.

At its beginning, writes Zipes, the fairy tale conveys knowledge about the world and has a utopian vision. It becomes myth in the hands of society and its technological tools, which are used to reorder it to accomplish certain concealed ends--all the while preserving its outward appearance, neutrality, and innocence.

In the hands of today's tools for mass communication, the fairy tale has entered a new dimension. But in this hyperenvironment, the fairy tale is not being singled out. All forms of traditional expression and cultural transfer will end up in the technological chute sooner or later.

Once Upon a Time

Better-world aspirations and strategies Jack Zipes says are inherent in fairy tales are evident today in the land of Rotkäppchen. They are evident in the country's efforts to find its political way in the post-Cold War world and its economic way in a global marketplace that can be hard on cultural identity.

The Economist  notes that Helmut Kohl's government delivered a 50-point plan designed to stimulate innovation in 1996, and that other measures have been taken to support the country's research centers, liberalize financial markets, and encourage venture capital. But even Bavaria, which sees itself as the land of laptops as well as Lederhosen , "has yet to produce a Bill Gates."

That may be a bit unfair, but Germany is lagging in "the high-tech world of information and communications technology," the focus of much of today's mythmaking. Today's Tom Thumb entrepreneurs are Bill Gates in business, Oprah Winfrey in entertainment, and Jesse Ventura in politics, and all of them have made good use of communications technology.

"For a country with a long tradition in physics," observes The Economist , "Germany fares strikingly poorly in league tables of computers per thousand people (19th, in the World Economic Forum's report), computer processing power (19th), numbers of Internet hosts (17th), and ownership of cellular telephones (22nd)."

"Intrapreneurs" within large organizations can also make their mark, although German industry does not have, say, 3M's reputation for encouraging innovation inside. "You have to kiss a lot of frogs to find the prince. But remember, one prince can pay for a lot of frogs," says 3M's Art Fry, inventor of the "Post-It" note, in an "Innovation in Industry" survey (The Economist , Feb. 20, 1999).

As I was writing this column, I was contacted by a fellow whose firm in Germany, which makes audiological software, was one of the first foreign companies that asked to be listed on MBBNet some years ago. Now I learn that he has moved his business to the U.S. to rebuild it, with help from our better investment climate. "It was not possible to keep it [the German company] alive, for the impact of extremely high taxes and extremely high social expenses made further independent R&D impossible," he wrote to me.

But change is in the wind, governmentally and academically. Peter Drucker, in his book Innovation and Entrepreneurship (1985), lauds Humboldt University and its founder for envisioning the modern university as an autonomous "change agent" for society as a whole, a concept imported by American universities in the late 19th century.

In addition to offering courses in entrepreneurship and business plan competitions, Humboldt University is beginning to move on several related fronts, including technology transfer, that will tie it to the larger community in Berlin, throughout Germany, and beyond.

An introduction to the university notes that "the close links between science and business provide an ideal setting for the development of new products, new technology and intelligent services. This also applies to the development and testing of forward-looking forms of university teaching, research and further training."

New interdisciplinary research initiatives are being developed in areas of faculty strength: materials science, environmental technology, biophysics, and biotechnology.

Humboldt University is the embodiment of the classical university. What it is dealing with in the present era is what all traditional universities around the world are dealing with. It cannot afford to stand still, yet it cannot afford to abandon the principles on which Wilhelm von Humboldt founded it.

It must navigate through a narrow channel. It has for guidance the spirit of two sets of brothers who embodied the best in imagination, learning, and enterprise two centuries ago.

    --William Hoffman

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed herein are the writer's own.

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                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                        Alexander von Humboldt and Little Red Riding Hood. How much does the modern university owe to myth? [Humboldt University and The Blue Beard Picture Book London, 1875. The de Grummond Collection, University of Southern Mississippi]