Friedrich Nietzsche, Anti-Education: On the Future of Our Educational Institutions
“Education is dead. And we have killed it.” Or so one might summarize the message of these 1872 lectures on education given by Friedrich Nietzsche, freshly translated into English by Damion Searls. Nietzsche is better known for his later philosophical writings; these invited lectures on education came early in his career, just after his appointment as professor of philology at the University of Basel. While on the surface the lectures are more “occasional” than his later philosophical work, they’re surprisingly relevant critiques of trends in higher education that remain with us today: a hyper-specialization that fragments and isolates knowledge, a utilitarian evaluation of education’s worth, and the subordination of education for state purposes.
The lectures take the form of Nietzsche’s narrating an overheard conversation among college students and older philosopher. (As Alan Jacobs notes, this form makes it difficult to say with certainty what Nietzsche thought about the educational systems of his day, though it seems safe to read them as a mouthpiece for at least some of Nietzsche’s own critiques.) Given the cultural moment in which Nietzsche produced his lectures, the evaluation of German education that emerges is surprisingly pessimistic. The educational reforms in German-speaking Europe during the nineteenth century’s first decades had transformed education. These reforms breathed new life in the moribund German university of the eighteenth-century, reanimating it as a leading institution of knowledge and cultural production in Europe. By the time Nietzsche was writing, the world had taken notice. The latter part of the nineteenth-century saw a swell of British and American students crossing the English channel and the Atlantic, journeying to German universities in order to experience what they considered the greatest institutions of advanced learning in the world.
Yet Nietzsche looks past the rhetoric surrounding German education and aims his critique at two contemporary trends: “the drive for the greatest possible expansion and dissemination of education” and “the drive for the narrowing and weakening of education.” Though on their surface contradictory, Nietzsche argues that these two educational trends reinforce one another to “ruinous” effect (15). As Nietzsche witnesses education expanding to a much wider segment of the middle classes, he critiques a rising mediocrity among both students and teachers in secondary and university education. And the growth in enrollment comes mostly at the expense of more humanistic orientations toward education. Nietzsche laments the loss of Bildung—a kind of comprehensive humanistic cultural and spiritual formation—as an educational ideal, and the rise instead of a utilitarianism that valued education for its instrumental ends, especially the economic, political, and social benefits to the state. With growing technical specialization among the academic disciplines—which Nietzsche memorably terms “scholarly obesity” (47)—comes the loss of synthetic unity and education’s ability to serve as a guide for life well-lived. Nietzsche’s icon for this narrowing was the academic philologist, immersed in the minutiae of parsing Greek and Latin words while completely losing sight of classical culture and (even more importantly) the profound relevance of that culture for the present.
Critique comes through clearly in the lectures; proposals for reform not at all. In later lectures, he longs for an educational system in which individual genius could be produced through submission to intellectual authorities, disciplining “genius” in order to allow it mature and flourish. Only then might the “German spirit” attain the levels of cultural achievement for which Nietzsche and many of contemporaries believed it was destined.
While Nietzsche’s calls for cultural authority and the triumph of the German spirit sound troubling this side of two world wars, nevertheless his educational critiques resonate with contemporary concerns about American higher education. We, too, have experienced a “dumbing down” of higher education accompanying the twentieth-century’s massive expansion of college enrollment. The bachelor’s degree has effectively become little more than prerequisite for white collar work, or, in the words of one recent critic, a “modern day finishing school” for professional life. Utilitarianism likewise seems more rampant than ever. College instructors frequently lament that students—even at top universities—approach their education more as a series of hoops to jump through in order to land the necessary credential for a desirable job, rather than as a process of developing mind and character. And the noisy fights of the last couple of years over “safe spaces,” “trigger warnings,” and the like point to a troubling desire among students that college education be comfortable rather than transformative (which almost always requires some measure discomfort and even pain).
Nietzsche left his lectures unfinished, envisioning no constructive proposal for a way through his contemporary “crisis of higher ed.” We live today in a similar moment, where the crises of higher education seems clear, but the way forward still unknown.