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


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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Comments (11)
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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!

  • Ryan says:

    I havent read all of Niet­zsche but talk­ing about find­ing your “true self” seems to be very con­tra­dic­to­ry to his fre­quent attacks on our notions of truth. I doubt he believed in a true self as that would imply an essence.

  • Kenneth Onwusaka says:

    I am study­ing Niet­zsche as a Grad­u­ate Stu­dent. In as much as Niet­zsche’s ideas sound very ambiva­lent, they stand the test of time. In my obser­va­tion, edu­ca­tion seems to derail from its pur­pose. Just as Niet­zsche was dis­ap­point­ed with Wag­n­er’s the­ater meant to address the ills of the soci­ety, instead he sang the praise of the bour­geois. Edu­ca­tion today has become a mon­ey machine. Niet­zsche helps us return to the ide­al of edu­ca­tion as Bil­dung, for­ma­tion lead­ing to the image of God.

  • Kenneth Onwusaka says:

    I am study­ing Niet­zsche as a Grad­u­ate Stu­dent. In as much as Niet­zsche’s ideas sound very ambiva­lent, they stand the test of time. In my obser­va­tion, edu­ca­tion seems to derail from its pur­pose. Just as Niet­zsche was dis­ap­point­ed with Wag­n­er’s the­ater meant to address the ills of the soci­ety, instead he sang the praise of the bour­geois. Edu­ca­tion today has become a mon­ey machine. Niet­zsche helps us return to the ide­al of edu­ca­tion.

  • uttam says:

    Reli­gion and Mon­ey and Edu­ca­tion are the man­i­fes­ta­tion of human mind over the cen­turies. We can not stop these whether we like or dis­like . Unfor­tu­nate­ly, all three are full of dichotomies .The prob­lem with edu­ca­tion is ever seri­ous because every one seeks solu­tion of unan­swered mys­ter­ies of Reli­gion and Mon­ey through Edu­ca­tion. only a few per­sons admit this.

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