Nietzsche Lays Out His Philosophy of Education and a Still-Timely Critique of the Modern University (1872)

Nietzsche

In a recent entry in the New York Times‘ philosophy blog “The Stone,” Robert Frodeman and Adam Briggle locate a “momentous turning point” in the history of philosophy: its institutionalization in the research university in the late 19th century. This, they argue, is when philosophy lost its way—when it became subject to the dictates of the academy, placed in competition with the hard sciences, and forced to prove its worth as an instrument of profit and progress. Well over a hundred years after this development, we debate a wider crisis in higher education, as universities (writes Mimi Howard in the Los Angeles Review of Books) “increasingly resemble global corporations with their international campuses and multibillion dollar endowments. Tuition has skyrocketed. Debt is astronomical. The classrooms themselves are more often run on the backs of precarious adjuncts and graduate students than by real professors.”

It’s a cutthroat system I endured for many years as both an adjunct and graduate student, but even before that, in my early undergraduate days, I remember well watching public, then private, colleges succumb to demand for leaner operating budgets, more encroachment by corporate donors and trustees, and less autonomy for educators. Universities have become, in a word, high-priced, high-powered vocational schools where every discipline must prove its value on the open market or risk massive cuts, and where students are treated, and often demand to be treated, like consumers. Expensive private entities like for-profit colleges and corporate educational companies thrive in this environment, often promising much but offering little, and in this environment, philosophy and the liberal arts bear a crushing burden to demonstrate their relevance and profitability.

Howard writes about this situation in the context of her review of Friedrich Nietzsche‘s little-known, 1872 series of lectures, On the Future of Our Educational Institutions, published in a new translation by Damion Searls with the pithy title Anti-Education. Nietzsche, an academic prodigy, had become a professor of classical philology at the University of Basel at only 24 years of age. By 27, when he wrote his lectures, he was already disillusioned with teaching and the strictures of professional academia, though he stayed in his appointment until illness forced him to retire in 1878. In the lectures, Nietzsche excoriates a bourgeois higher education system in terms that could come right out of a critical article on the higher ed of our day. In a Paris Review essay, his translator Searls quotes the surly philosopher on what “the state and the masses were apparently clamoring for”:

as much knowledge and education as possible—leading to the greatest possible production and demand—leading to the greatest happiness: that’s the formula. Here we have Utility as the goal and purpose of education, or more precisely Gain: the highest possible income … Culture is tolerated only insofar as it serves the cause of earning money. 

Perhaps little has changed but the scale and the appearance of the university. However, Nietzsche did admire the fact that the school system “as we know it today… takes the Greek and Latin languages seriously for years on end.” Students still received a classical education, which Nietzsche approvingly credited with at least teaching them proper discipline. And yet, as the cliché has it, a little knowledge is a dangerous thing; or rather, a little knowledge does not an education make. Though many pursue an education, few people actually achieve it, he believed. “No one would strive for education,” wrote Nietzsche, “if they knew how unbelievably small the number of truly educated people actually was, or ever could be.” For Nietzsche, the university was a scam, tricking “a great mass of people… into going against their nature and pursuing an education” they could never truly achieve or appreciate.

While it’s true that Nietzsche’s critiques are driven in part by his own cultural elitism, it’s also true that he seeks in his lectures to define education in entirely different terms than the utilitarian “state and masses”—terms more in line with classical ideals as well as with the German concept of Bildung, the term for education that also means, writes Searls, “the process of forming the most desirable self, as well as the end point of the process.” It’s a resonance that the English word has lost, though its Latin roots—e ducere, “to lead out of” or away from the common and conventional—still retain some of this sense. Bildung, Searls goes on, “means entering the realm of the fully formed: true culture is the culmination of an education, and true education transmits and creates culture.”

Nietzsche the philologist took the rich valence of Bildung very seriously. In the years after penning his lectures on the educational system, he completed the essays that would become Untimely Meditations (including one of his most famous, “On the Use and Abuse of History for Life”). Among those essays was “Schopenhauer as Educator,” in which Nietzsche calls the gloomy philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer his “true educator.” However, writes Peter Fitzsimons, the “image” of Schopenhauer “is more a metaphor for Nietzsche’s own self-educative process.” For Nietzsche, the process of a true education consists not in rote memorization, or in attaining cultural signifiers consistent with one’s class or ambitions, or in learning a set of practical skills with which to make money. It is, Fitzsimons observes, “rather an exhortation to break free from conventionality, to be responsible for creating our own existence, and to overcome the inertia of tradition and custom”—or what Nietzsche calls the universal condition of “sloth.” In “Schopenhauer as Educator,” Nietzsche defines the role of the educator and explicates the purpose of learning in deliberately Platonic terms:

…for your true nature lies, not concealed deep within you, but immeasurably high above you, or at least above that which you usually take yourself to be. Your true educators and formative teachers reveal to you what the true basic material of your being is, something in itself ineducable and in any case difficult of access, bound and paralysed: your educators can be only your liberators.

As in Plato’s notion of innate knowledge, or anamnesis, Nietzsche believed that education consists mainly of a clearing away of “the weeds and rubbish and vermin” that attack and obscure “the real groundwork and import of thy being.” This kind of education, of course, cannot be formalized within our present institutions, cannot be marketed to a mass audience, and cannot serve the interests of the state and the market. Hence it cannot be obtained by simply progressing through a system of grades and degrees, though one can use such systems to obtain access to the liberatory materials one presumably needs to realize one’s “true nature.”

For Nietzsche, in his example of Schopenhauer, achieving a true education is an enterprise fraught with “three dangers”—those of isolation, of crippling doubt, and of the pain of confronting one’s limitations. These dangers “threaten us all,” but most people, Nietzsche thinks, lack the fortitude and vigor to truly brave and conquer them. Those who acquire Bildung, or culture, those who realize their “true selves,” he concludes “must prove by their own deed that the love of truth has itself awe and power,” though “the dignity of philosophy is trodden in the mire,” and one will likely receive little respite, recompense, or recognition for their labors.

Related Content:

The Digital Nietzsche: Download Nietzsche’s Major Works as Free eBooks

What is the Good Life? Plato, Aristotle, Nietzsche, & Kant’s Ideas in 4 Animated Videos

Download Walter Kaufmann’s Lectures on Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Sartre & Modern Thought (1960)

Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness


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  • Richard says:

    Universities today are just a place to get a degree that serves as your ticket to a middle-class existence. A university degree is your ticket to a respectable, remunerative, if unbelievably uninspiring, consumerist lifestyle. You’ll get a lot out of a university education but never the ability to think for yourself, to see the world in your own way. Education is a product.

  • David Hartney says:

    A well written article.
    You show that Nietzsche’s critiques are of just as much importance today as they were when he first wrote them. I hope that eventually most, if not all, of his ideas eventually become commonplace, and not just hidden in the subcultures of postmodern art and philosophy.
    The failure of the human project, the “Human, all too Human”, needs the ideas and critiques of Nietzsche, and his 20th century progeny, more than ever.

  • steve kerensky says:

    In the 80`s someone I know was working in a university in a large American city.
    He was told it was not acceptable to give any student a grade below “B”.

  • David_A says:

    Wow, in which magical place do you live where a degree is a ticket (as in: a sure way?) to a middle-class existence?

    Sure, education is a product, like everything nowadays. Even “thinking for yourself”.
    Everyone´s forced to live by this “unbelievably uninspiring, consumerist lifestyle”. There is absolutely no escape from the capitalist logic – even an “escape” is just a product of capitalism, a luxury if you will.

  • David_A says:

    This was meant as a reply to Richard (first comment).

  • joaquin lopez says:

    Nietzsche’s ideas are found in Octavio Paz’s “Labyrinth of Solitude” and both are my teachers.

  • Jason says:

    Thanks for the article!

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