Nietzsche and Schooling
Friedrich Nietzsche’s Human, All Too Human contains a striking statement about education: “The school has no more important task than to teach rigorous thinking, cautious judgment and consistent reasoning” (Nietzsche 1986, p. 125). Can this be Nietzsche that most radical and iconoclastic of thinkers, one wonders? Yes, it is. At any rate, it is the Nietzsche of 1878, the year that begins what commentators call the “middle” period of his published work. Whether it is the Nietzsche of poststructuralist citation and interpretation is another matter. The passage points toward a tension between two aspects of Nietzsche’s thinking relevant to education, that is, between a radical vision of personal development and chosen means that seem to imply a far more conservative agenda. The following discussion locates this problem within a broader context, not in order to eliminate the tension but rather to show that, for Nietzsche, it can act as a productive force within education.
Human, All Too Human is the manifesto of Nietzsche’s commitment to thinking that is both naturalistic and historical in its approach to philosophical themes. A common view among interpreters has been that this was an untypical phase, preceded and followed by periods in which his individual voice and mode of thinking were far more in evidence. In fact, Nietzsche was a “realist” before this time and remained a realist after it ended, despite the apparently skeptical character of his thought (Small 2009–10). One piece of supporting evidence is the consistency of his thinking about education. Its general drift is best expressed in a sentence placed at the head of his most thoughtful essay on the subject, On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life. It is not his own formulation, but a remark of J. W. von Goethe: “In any case, I hate everything that merely instructs me without augmenting or directly invigorating my activity” (Nietzsche 1983, p. 59). The relation between knowing and living is the concern that is central to all Nietzsche’s thinking on the problems of education (Small 2016), and we can see in surveying his writings how this concern becomes steadily more radical in its effects.
What Nietzsche Seems to Say About Education
In considering Nietzsche’s views on education, should we focus on what he says about schools or universities? Not necessarily. For one thing, most of his explicit opinions on the subject occur within a particular project which occupied him for several years. Its aim was to reconsider the nature and meaning of one discipline: classical philology. To do this was to question the school whose curriculum centered upon the learning of ancient languages and literatures. It was also to undermine his own situation as both university professor and school teacher, since his responsibilities at Basel University included teaching at senior level in the city’s Pädagogium (i.e., high school for boys). For a successful young scholar, identified as a future leader in his academic discipline, to query its value so publicly was rather unusual. Part of the motivation was a weakening of Nietzsche’s commitment to an academic career by the attraction of a broader mission of cultural reform. Education was an important aspect of German culture and, given his starting point, a readily accessible one.
As a thinker one should speak only of self-education. The education of youth by others is either an experiment carried out on an as yet unknown and unknowable subject, or a levelling on principle with the object of making the new being, whatever it may be, conform to the customs and habits then prevailing: in both cases therefore something unworthy of the thinker, the work of those elders parents and teachers whom a man of rash honesty once described as nos ennemis naturels [‘our natural enemies’: a remark attributed to Stendhal]. – One day, when one has long been educated as the world understands it, one discovers oneself: here begins the task of the thinker; now the time has come to call on him for assistance – not as an educator but as one who has educated himself and thus knows how it is done. (Nietzsche, 1986, p. 374)
The teacher, he explains further on, is at best a necessary evil. He stands between the creators of knowledge and those who need it and, like every middleman between producer and consumer, acts for his own profit at the cost of both sides. Thus the teacher in the present system can only damage those he purports to serve. The problem with schools and universities, Nietzsche concludes, is not that we have too few teachers but that we have too many: “It is on their account that so little is learned and that little so badly” (Nietzsche 1986, p. 379).
The environment in which he is educated seeks to make every man unfree, inasmuch as it presents to him the smallest range of possibilities. The individual is treated by his educators as though, granted he is something new, what he ought to become is a repetition. If a man at first appears as something unfamiliar, never before existent, he is to be made into something familiar, often before existent. (Nietzsche 1986, p. 110)
Education in general is “the means of ruining the exceptions for the good of the rule” (Nietzsche 1968, p. 492). In Nietzsche’s eyes, mass societies are dominated by the principle of democracy in one or another form, whether they acknowledge it or not. Modern culture, with its government bureaucracy, its money system, its mass press, and its public education, is in every way an example of this tendency. According to Nietzsche, it displays a drive for more education in the sense of a wider distribution of schooling – but also a drive for less education, since that provided is narrowly defined by aims which are not those of education itself but of some different “way of life” (Lebensform). They belong to forces which intervene in education for their own purposes and in their own interests: the State, business, “good society,” and scholarship (Nietzsche 1983, pp. 164–174). For Nietzsche, as for most conservatives, “more means worse.” These two tendencies, toward a widening of education and a narrowing of its content, are inseparable from each other, and each reinforces the harmful effects of the other.
As long as what is meant by culture is essentially the promotion of science, culture will pass the great suffering human being by with pitiless coldness, because science sees everywhere only problems of knowledge and because within the world of the sciences suffering is really something improper and incomprehensible, thus at best only one more problem (Nietzsche 1983, p. 169).
The pointed reference to the “great human being” reflects Nietzsche’s efforts to recruit supporters for Wagner’s ambitious Bayreuth Festival project. The passage does touch on a genuinely Nietzschean problem, one that remained central to his thinking to the very end, well after its departure from any Wagnerian model. It is the problem of learning and life, prefigured in the words of Goethe. The scholarship Nietzsche is describing is a withdrawal from real life, where knowledge is – or should be – no impersonal and abstract matter but rather a passionate cause, even an adventure. In The Gay Science, he speaks of “the age that will carry heroism into the search for knowledge and that will wage wars for the sake of ideas and their consequences” (Nietzsche 1974, p. 228). This search for knowledge is never disinterested. Rather, it involves a deeply personal commitment; and instead of being a withdrawal from real life, it is a determination to participate in it as fully as possible – to “live dangerously.”
What Nietzsche Really Says About Education
But how do we get from living dangerously to rigorous thinking, cautious judgment, and consistent inference? These look like the virtues of a conventional or traditional form of education. As an individual’s dispositions, they suggest the typical personality of the self-disciplined professional scholar, who is “orderly, parsimonious and obstinate,” to borrow an often quoted formulation of Freud (1953–75, vol. 9, p. 169). Freud was describing what he called the “anal” personality, and, as that label implies, his account of these traits is rather different from Nietzsche’s analysis of academic culture. Even so, the picture is quite similar.
Nietzsche’s later writing takes this emphasis even further. It tends to refer not to education but to “training” (Züchtung). He chooses to use a simplified vocabulary, with a strong bias toward biological concepts, including a version of evolutionary epistemology. As a result, the schooling that he advocates looks more like a course of conditioning than of education. At times military discipline is proposed as an apt model for the scholarly vocation. “The same discipline makes both the good soldier and the good scholar,” he writes (Nietzsche 1968, p. 483).
The most desirable thing is still under all circumstances a hard discipline at the proper time, i.e., at that age at which it still makes one proud to see that much is demanded of one. For this is what distinguishes the hard school as a good school from all others: that much is demanded; and sternly demanded; that the good, even the exceptional, is demanded as the norm; that praise is rare, that indulgence is nonexistent; that blame is apportioned sharply, objectively, without regard for talent or antecedents. (Nietzsche, 1968, p. 482)
What about education for philosophy? This is arguably the theme of Nietzsche’s most important single discussion of education. It occurs in Twilight of the Idols, one of the last books that he completed. There he strips the aims of education down by specifying “the three tasks for which educators are required. One must learn to see, one must learn to think, one must learn to speak and write: the goal in all three is a noble culture” (Nietzsche 1954, p. 511). He then spells out each “task” in turn. One can say that Nietzsche is speaking of education for philosophy in these explanations, because they consistently emphasize the most universal aspects of thinking. He confirms this reading by remarking that learning to think is not found “even in the universities, even among the real scholars of philosophy” (Nietzsche 1954, p. 512).
The first of his three tasks for educators is the most unexpected one. Philosophers of education often consider the need to learn to think and write, but few mention “learning to see.” So, what does it involve? First and foremost, Nietzsche explains the strength of will that enables one not to follow any impulse or react immediately to any stimulus but instead to postpone judgment about the content of one’s experience. Doing this enables one to consider it from different and opposing perspectives, a capacity that Nietzsche particularly prizes. “Learning to see” is also a promotion of truthfulness or integrity, although the link is not self-evident. In another work from that final year, The Antichrist, Nietzsche writes, “By lie I mean: wishing not to see something that one does see; wishing not to see something as one sees it” (Nietzsche 1954, p. 640). Clearly he means what we call self-deception. Lying to oneself, he suggests, is more common than lying to others. He identifies its immediate cause as having “convictions” – that is, as being tied to particular interpretations of the world and of past history in particular – convictions being, as one of his best-known aphorisms puts it, far greater enemies of truth than straightforward lies (Nietzsche 1986, p. 179).
“Learning to see” also has a positive sense: it is identified with objectivity. Now, one might argue that this term is so compromised by careless use and idle talk that it may be wiser simply to give it up and use a different vocabulary for issues of epistemic validity. Still, Nietzsche makes an attempt to reclaim the concept, although he undermines his own case at times by using the same word for something that he altogether rejects: a passive approach to knowledge that simply accepts any fact that presents itself to observation, however trivial. No doubt this is an exaggerated picture, even for the routinized kind of academic research that Nietzsche repudiates. Still, it provides a sharp contrast with his declared approach to knowledge, which involves actively testing ideas and theories: “I favour any skepsis to which I may reply: ‘Let us try it!’ But I no longer wish to hear anything of all those things and questions that do not permit any experiment” (Nietzsche 1974, p. 115).
Such experimenting is what “learning to think” consists in, with the suggestion of a playful and creative use of concepts. The clue provided by the allusion to “scholars of philosophy” points to a convergence of thinking about education and a conception of philosophy or at least of philosophizing. Hence, to know what Nietzsche has to say about education, one has to focus on his conception of education for philosophy, because that is where he thinks the central purpose of education is seen most clearly.
An education for philosophy is, if not the essence of education in general – for there is no such thing if, as Nietzsche puts it, “only that which has no history is definable” (Nietzsche 1969, p. 80) – the key to understanding education in terms of three basic tasks: learning to see, learning to think, and learning to speak and write. Within each of these, the tension between self-discipline and creative freedom is a central feature and even a driving force. Any impression of a conservative position given by Nietzsche’s remarks on education comes from their emphasis on self-discipline, and from his bold simplified curriculum for types of learning which at first sight resemble the three Rs. What makes this a radical vision, looked at more closely, is its connection with Nietzsche’s most challenging doctrines: in particular, with his project of a “revaluation of values” that, in the aftermath of the “death of God,” sets out to replace morality and religion with a new “tablet of values.” That can be achieved only by the “philosopher of the future,” a further development of the middle period’s “free spirit” (Nietzsche 1966, pp. 53–54).
The ultimate task of education, then, is just to make such a figure possible. What is needed to achieve that goal? Despite his praise of self-education and mutual education, Nietzsche recognizes a crucial role for teachers and schools in promoting the skills and dispositions without which independent learning is difficult or impossible. “Rigorous thinking, cautious judgment, and consistent reasoning” are not held up simply as ends in themselves, as in a traditional education, but as strengths that will enable the philosopher “of tomorrow and the day after tomorrow” (Nietzsche 1966, p. 137) to create different ways of knowing and living.
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