Nietzsche and Education
Friedrich Nietzsche was born on October 15, 1844, in Röcken, Prussia. After excellent studies at Pforta College, known for its teachings inspired in the humanist tradition, Nietzsche took up theology at the University of Bonn. In 1865, he abandoned theology and took up philology at the University of Leipzig. Recommended by his professor, Ritschl, Nietzsche was nominated professor of classical philology at the University of Basel, in Switzerland, where he taught from 1869 to 1879. In 1879, he was forced to resign from his post due to a serious illness. From then on, he lived an errant and lonely life, living in small boarding houses and always searching for more favorable climates due to his delicate health. The books Thus Spoke Zarathustra (1883–1885), On the Genealogy of Morality (1887), and Ecce Homo (1888) were written at this time. In 1889, after a mental breakdown in Turin, Nietzsche ended his activities. He died on August 25, 1900, in Weimar.
Nietzsche’s lifetime concern was education and culture, but it was during his first years as a professor at elementary school, and at the University of Basel, that he began to look into the concrete problems of elementary and university schooling. He observed that the system had abandoned the humanist outlook in exchange for the scientific. Education was consequently vulgarized, its objective having become to form useful and profitable men, not harmoniously matured and developed personalities. Alert to everything regarding education, Nietzsche decided to denounce the “unnatural methods of education” and the tendencies that undermined it.
Before we approach Nietzsche’s thoughts about education, we must make a series of observations. As this is the study of a philosopher that joins thought to life, that has his own way of philosophizing, and that finds joy in search and in transitoriness and therefore does not fear to see, from different points of view, the contrasts that life offers so as not to lose the coherence of his thoughts, we will limit our analysis to the moment in which Nietzsche explains in greater detail the problems regarding education and culture. We will therefore favor his work produced between 1870 and 1874, especially his lectures The Future of our Educational Institutions (1872), Untimely Meditations – On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life (1874), and Schopenhauer as Educator (1874).
In Nietzsche’s thoughts, education and culture are inseparable. There can be no culture without an educational project nor education without a culture to support it. Education in German schools springs from a historicist conception and gives origin to a pseudoculture. Culture and education are synonyms of “selective training,” “the formation of the self”; for the existence of a culture, it is necessary that individuals learn determined rules, that they acquire habits, and that they begin to educate themselves against themselves or, better, against the education forced upon them.
In his lectures on The Future of Our Educational Institutions, Nietzsche examines the entrails of the educational system of his time. He perceives that the State and businesspersons are primarily responsible for the impoverishment of culture. They block the slow maturation of the individual, the patient formation of the self – that should be the finality of every culture – demanding a rapid formation so as to have efficient employees and docile students at their service, youngsters that will learn how to earn money rapidly. But this is not all. When they demand a more profound education, allowing for in-depth specialization, they do so in order to make even more money. But this is not all. This indecorous haste leads students, at an age when they are not mature enough to ask themselves which profession they should pursue, to make bad choices.
Nietzsche detects, in the educational system of his time, two tendencies that do nothing but work for the impoverishment of culture – the “maximum amplification of culture” and the “maximum reduction of culture.” The first tendency, “maximum amplification,” intends that the right to culture be accessible to everyone and demands that the dogma of economic policy be followed: “as much knowledge and culture as possible; hence, as much production and demand as possible; hence, as much happiness as possible: this is more or less the formula” (Ueber die Zukunf unserer ildungsanstalten, p. 667). The second tendency, “reduction of culture,” intends that individuals devote their lives to the defense of the interests of the State and demands that its servants seek specialization that they be “faithful to little things” and to the State.
Linked to these two tendencies, according to Nietzsche, there is the journalistic culture. It is the confluence of the two previous tendencies, the place where they meet and hold hands. Amplified culture, specialized culture, and journalistic culture complete one another to form one “unculture.” The journalistic culture, according to Nietzsche, gradually substitutes true culture. The journalist, “the master of the moment,” is a slave to the present, the ways of thinking and fashion. He touches topics quickly and lightly. He writes about artists and thinkers and slowly takes their place, destroying their work. But, while the journalist lives off the moment, thanks to the genius of other men, the great works of great artists emanate the desire to survive and surpass time though the power of their creations.
With the purpose of restoring German culture, Nietzsche examines the educational institutions responsible for the different stages of scholastic formation – gymnasium (the equivalent to junior – school and high school), technical school, and university – and denounces the evil that poisons them and indicates remedies to combat this evil.
Nietzsche has a lot to say about the gymnasium. In his mind, nothing was done for this stage of the students’ formation – possibly the most important one of all – for it reflects in all the coming stages of learning. Therefore, the renovation should begin in the gymnasium. He acknowledges the need for a greater investment in the learning of the native language and in the art of writing – the most essential chores of secondary school. The German language, at that point in time, was contaminated with the “deceptively elegant style” of journalism. The access of the semiliterate to power had provoked a drastic reduction in the wealth and dignity of the language. The question, however, was not only the poverty of vocabulary but also the ill use of the resources offered by the language. The chore of a high-quality school should always be to lead the student to understand the importance of studying his native language in depth, for if it loses its vital strength, culture itself will tend to degenerate. If the professor is not able to impress on his young students, a physical aversion to determine words and expressions which journalists and bad novelists have grown them accustomed to, it is better – according to Nietzsche – to renounce culture. Therefore, it is imperative to analyze the classics – line by line, word by word – as well as to stimulate the students to try to express the same thought several times, improving this expression each and every time.
Education begins with habit and obedience, with discipline. To discipline the youngster linguistically does not mean to overburden him with historical knowledge about the language but to make him build determined principles from which he can build on, both internally and externally. It means to turn the student into the master of his language and to give him the possibility to construct an artistic language, starting from the works that preceded him. This, according to Nietzsche, is the only way to revive German education and culture.
The growing disregard for the humanistic formation and the increase in the scientific tendency in school; schooling guided by historical and scientific questions and not by practical teachings; the abandonment of teaching that aims to form an individual in an artistic sense of language, in favor of a doubtful journalistic style; and the emphasis given to professionalization that aims at forming people prepared to make money – all of this prevents the educational system from turning itself toward culture.
One must point out that Nietzsche is not hostile toward the implementation and proliferation of technical schools in Germany. There, individuals learn to calculate conveniently and to dominate the language of communication. They acquire natural and geographical knowledge. In a way, these schools accomplish their objectives: to form businessmen and women, civil servants, officers, agronomists, doctors, and technicians. What Nietzsche censors when he states that culture is not a servant of livelihood and need is the fact that the gymnasium and university have turned toward professionalization, even though they continue to believe that they are temples destined to teach culture, when in fact they are not much different from technical schools and their objectives.
Nietzsche also spares no criticism for university schooling: “A mouth that speaks, many ears and less than half the hands that write – this is the apparent academic mechanism, this is the culture machine of university put into activity.” The professor speaks. The student listens and writes as he listens. “These are the moments when he is linked to the umbilical cord of university. He can choose what he is going to hear, he does not need to believe what he hears, he can cover his ears when he pleases” (Nietzsche 1988, p. 740).
“Academic liberty” is the name given to this double autonomy: on one side, the autonomous mouth; on the other, the autonomous ears. Behind these two groups, a relative distance away, is the ever-present State, reminding the student that the State is “his final objective, the end and the essence of these proceedings of speech and hearing” (Nietzsche 1988, p. 740).
The “achromatic” style of teaching that privileges the oral exposition of the professor and the students’ hearing is the opposite to what Nietzsche understands should be university education. There, where one ought to demand rigorous training from the student, autonomy was invented. This autonomy is nothing but the domestication of the student, to turn him into a docile creature, one that submits himself to the interests of the State and the rich bourgeoisie.
It is necessary, according to Nietzsche, to contain this historical, scientific, and professionalizing tendency in the university – a tendency that demands swift teaching, deep enough only to transform individuals into efficient servants. These institutions should turn their attention to the problems of culture or, better, the essential questions posed by the human condition.
- Nietzsche, F. (1988). Ueber die Zukunft unseres Bildunganstalten, in Sämtliche Werke. In G. Colli & M. Montinari (Eds.), Kritische Studienausgabe. Berlin: deGruyter.Google Scholar