In my 8th grade I’m doing something I normally don’t do: I do what everyone does. Which, in this case, means reading Wilhelm Tell by Schiller, the standard drama 8th graders have to get through. I’m not a fan of Schiller (or Goethe) and had in fact never read the play at all, so in a way it was an experiment for me and I never shy away from an experiment. Also I thought, this being basically a play about a rebel fighting an oppressive government, there must be something in it for me and therefore also for the students. Up to now I would say it sort of works. The language is tough for everyone (including me), but there are interesting aspects to discuss, from resistance to superheroes.
Another aspect is opportunism. One of the characters, Rudenz, expresses his desire to gain more power and honor by defecting to the Austrian emperor, the oppressor in the play. Besides becoming more powerful, another argument he uses is that Switzerland has no chance against Austria anyway, so why shouldn’t he use the opportunity for himself if there is nothing to win by resisting? I tried to explain to the class what an opportunist is and then asked them if they can understand his attitude. In fact, before I could ask this question, one student spoke up already, saying that she doesn’t see a problem in any of this. If he wants to get the best out of this situation for himself, why not? Most students agreed with her.
Suddenly I remembered that at the beginning of the school year, we had read a short story about a school boy who did not help his best friend when a teacher unjustly punishes him for something he didn’t do. Back then, most students claimed that they would have reacted the same way since they wouldn’t want to risk a bad relationship with a teacher. Yes, most of them agreed, that they rather abandon a friend than risking their “career.” And here, with Tell, it is the same. Betraying your people and strengthen oppression is not as problematic as becoming successful is appealing. Those are the same students who think a man cannot be nice to a child without being a pedophile.
Again, I’m not blaming them. But I’m again impressed by what they have been shaped into by our culture. They’re not hopeless either, but it would be easy to convince them of being selfish, greedy and power-hungry. Or “ambitious” as we call it euphemistically. It’s like rooting for Luke Skywalker to join the Dark Force. Or Katniss working for the Capitol. Or me giving homework. It’s as if social Darwinism is still an ideal to be taught. What a crazy culture we’re keeping alive that celebrates stories like The Hunger Games, Lord of the Rings or Wilhelm Tell, about the underdogs fighting evil empires, while at the same time instilling ideologies in our children that tell them to sit still, pay attention, follow orders and think of themselves first.
But it also shows that there are many things we can do every day, just by talking to others, young, middle-aged or old, defying normative memes that no one seems to question. It is easy to at least make people stop in their tracks for a second if you don’t immediately agree with some commonplace platitude. Opportunity knocks but once, you know?