High school

In the years 1893-1901 Franz Kafka attended the Old Town State General High School where the official language was German. The school was located in the rear wing of the Goltz-Kinsky Palace on the Old Town Square. Twenty years later (1912-1918) his father’s shop – by then a department store – was located in the front building of the palace. Instruction at the high school during the days of the monarchy was conducted in a strictly humanistic spirit.
Rather than equipping students for practical life, it prepared them for university study, particularly in the arts. Latin was taught from the first (prima) to the eighth (octava) grades (initially eight hours a week) and Greek from the third grade (tercia) onwards. The high school did not teach modern languages. The instruction of French, English, Spanish and Italian was the business of the nearby German Commercial Academy. In the lower grades only four hours a week were devoted to instruction in the German language, and this was reduced to three in the higher grades. In the philological subjects much use was made of rote learning. Czech was taught in the lower school and was ‘relatively optional’: it was only compulsory for those students who had not acquired an adequate grasp of it at home. The Old Town High School was regarded as one of the strictest schools of its type in Prague.
Franz Kafka completed his first three years at high school with distinction. His subsequent results were not so good, though, he became indifferent to study; his interests and his inner world began to clash with the content and spirit of the classes. It was mathematics that caused him the greatest difficulties. His best results were in geography and he had no problems with languages. Without much interest, he attended classes in religion (as a rule 3/4 of the students were Jewish, 1/4 Catholic), which consisted of Bible history, the history of the Jewish nation and readings from the Old Testament and the Talmud. For a time, under the influence of Dr. Adolf Gottwald, a persuasive teacher with positivist and atheistic opinions (in Austria, teachers in secondary schools were called ‘Professor’, and this custom has been preserved in the Czech Lands through the present day), Kafka became interested in the natural sciences, particularly Darwin’s Theory of Evolution. He also quite liked his class teacher Emil Gschwind, a priest of the Piarist Order who taught him Latin, Greek and ‘philosophical propaedeutics’, in which Kafka also developed an interest. At that time he would debate the deistic evidence of God’s existence with his fellow-pupil Hugo Bergmann, who was the best student in the class and helped Kafka cope with mathematics.
Kafka’s German results at the high school provide no clues that he would become a famous writer. In his reports from first to eight years his grades vary between 2 and 3 (‘credit’ and ‘satisfactory’) and he also got a grade three in his matriculation certificate. From the prescribed topics for his oral examination in seventh grade he chose ‘Heliand and The Messiah’, a comparison of the old-Saxon epic with the poem of Friedrich Gottlieb Klopstock, whom ‘everyone praised […] but no one read’. One can hardly infer from Kafka’s choice a personal interest in the subject. There was no doubt a more personal motivation for the topic: ‘How are we to interpret the dénouement of Goethe’s Tasso’ which he chose in his final year.
Kafka’s lack of self-confidence and groundless fear of school combined with alienation from study intensified at the high school. He did not expect school to assist him at all in his life. In his Letter to His Father, Kafka ascribes, albeit with exaggeration, the reasons for his condition to his father’s domineering and oppressive authority.