Anti-Education: Nietzsche on Our Learning Institutions

In these lectures Nietzsche is not yet philosophizing with a hammer, but the hammer is certainly within arm's reach.

Friedrich Nietzsche was only 27 years old when he gave a series of lectures On the Future of Our Educational Institutions at the University of Basel. Twenty-seven. I had to keep reminding myself of this fact as I was reading the New York Review of Book‘s new translation of those lectures collected as Anti-Education.

Nietzsche seems self-conscious of the fact himself, and begins his first lecture by stating: “The topic you have decided to reflect on with me today is so serious, so important, and in a certain sense so unnerving, that I, like you, would listen to anyone who promised to teach me something about it, no matter how young he was — even if it seemed truly implausible on the face of it that he could achieve anything adequate or appropriate to the task.”

Nietzsche is not yet philosophizing with a hammer, but the hammer is certainly within arm’s reach. While these lectures lack the lightning bolts of genius found in his aphorisms, or the insidious charisma of a character such as Zarathustra, readers familiar with Nietzsche will find traces of both here, and the lectures are framed in the guise of a chance meeting with a wizened philosopher in a woods. The conversation immediately turns to education: its purpose, its institutions, and the state of it in Germany (in 1872).

Surprisingly (or not so surprisingly, given the author), the lectures do not have a youthful tone, but rather, at least at times, a startlingly senescent one. At one point, Nietzsche’s protagonist resorts to a trite argument ad antiquitatem when he says:

Maybe I’m wrong… but I suspect that mastery of language, the ability to express oneself comfortably in speech and in writing, is precisely what is being lost with how Latin and Greek are taught in gymnasiums today. My own generation, admittedly old now and much reduced in number, excelled at this ability; today’s teachers, it seems to me, proceed with their students so textually and historically that at best they might turn out some more little Sanskritists, or etymological Roman candles, or wanton conjectural text reconstructors, but not a single student who can read his Plato or his Tacitus with pleasure, as we old men could.

Though critical of his culture and institutions, the philosopher-protagonist of the lectures also reveres and admires “the genuine German spirit — the spirit that speaks to us so wonderfully from the innermost core of the German Reformation, German music, and German philosophy.”

Nietzsche is as conservative and nationalistic as ever in these lectures. Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon’s introduction and notes helpfully contextualize Nietzsche’s barbs, though much of what Nietzsche has to say transcends the milieu in which it was written, and many of his criticisms will resound with readers today.

“It seems to me we need to distinguish between two dominant tendencies in our educational institutions, apparently opposed but equally ruinous in effect and eventually converging in their end results. The first is the drive for the greatest expansion and dissemination of education; the other is the drive for the narrowing and weakening of education.” In modern parlance, the tendencies towards standardization and specialization.

Standardization serves the state by preparing workers for exploitation in the form of careers. “And that is the goal of the modern educational institution: to make everyone as ‘current’ as it lies in his nature to be, to train everyone to convert his innate capacity for knowledge and wisdom, whatever it might be, into as much happiness and income as possible.”

On the other hand, overspecialization has led to “the point where the scientist or academic as such has nothing to say about any serious general question, especially the deepest philosophical problems.” Nietzsche’s condemnation of linguistics anticipates that which will befall Derrida and other postmodernist thinkers a century later.

In either case, for Nietzsche, the true offense is that education is reduced to a sort of professional training. “As far as I am concerned, there is only one true opposition: between institutions of education and institutions for the struggle to survive. Everything that exists today falls into the latter category, but what I am describing is the former.”

By all means, Nietzsche suggests, people have the right to prepare themselves for the struggle that we call life–just don’t call such preparation an education. “A person needs to learn much if he is to live, to fight his battle for survival–but everything he learns and does with that aim, as an individual, has nothing to do with education and culture. On the contrary, culture begins in a layer of the atmosphere far above the world of necessity, scarcity, and struggle.” To his mind, true education serves no practical ends.

It will not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with Nietzsche that the endeavor to educate the masses is one he finds abhorrent and absurd. “Education for the masses cannot be our goal–only the cultivation of the chosen individual, equipped to produce great and lasting works.” Most people, he argues, are ill-equipped to think. “They are born to serve, to obey. Every time their creeping thoughts try to get anywhere on their wooden legs or broken wings, it only confirms the kind of clay from which Nature has made them, the mark with which she has stamped them.”

Nietzsche’s elitism is impossible to ignore and difficult to swallow. It may be the most mordant reminder that, as modern as he is, Nietzsche is not our contemporary. Readers looking for insights regarding the most salient topics in education today–the impact of poverty, racism, discrimination based upon gender, gender identification and sexuality, to name just a few, on learning and within our institutions–will not find them here. As he says in another context, “it is a book for the few.”

Nietzsche looks backwards, to the Greeks of antiquity, for true education and inspiration. Yet in our rapidly changing times, J.G. Ballard’s quip that “the future is a better key to the present than the past” may be closer to the mark.

Having finished the lectures, it was not Nietzsche’s diagnosis of the ills afflicting our educational institutions, or his psychology of the masses that made an impression on me, but another observation. At one point Nietzsche says:

“Only the truly educated person is granted the priceless treasure of being allowed to remain faithful to the contemplative instincts of his childhood, and so he attains a peace, unity, communion, and harmony that those raised for the struggle for survival cannot even dream of.”

Who is to decide which few merit this true education? This is well worth reflecting upon as standardized testing, business interests, and economic austerity measures conspire to all but eliminate common access to a liberal arts education.

Anti-Education is not essential reading, except perhaps for Nietzsche scholars, but this translation, with its useful notes and introduction, certainly provokes and surprises.

One would expect nothing less from Nietzsche, and I am grateful to the educational institutions that obliged me to read him as part of my own “academic training”.

RATING 6 / 10