It’s hard to know what to make of Nietzsche’s writings on education. He makes many compelling criticisms of progressive education, which he sees as insulting true genius, and he attacks the notion of “education for all,” which he views as an impossibly romantic ideal. At the same time, there is a democratic strain in Nietzsche’s educational philosophy, one that recognizes the value of challenging institutional structures, and the importance of thinking independently. He assails the German University system (of the mid 19th century) for turning students into mechanized tools of the state. Yet he also stresses the value of discipline, obedience, and authority, concepts that enlightenment figures and liberal thinkers sought to challenge. So as usual, Nietzsche is giving me as slight headache.
To Nietzsche, education is not an enlightened process of examining the world, and deploying a rational and skeptical faculty to understand how things work. Education is not a practice of freedom, where constraints on individual development are removed, and the learner can grow according to his or her nature. Instead, Nietzsche views education as a process of initiation, one that depends upon the transmission of “culture” from teacher to student. To achieve mastery, the student must engage in genuine intellectual labor, while revering the expertise and authority of the teacher. Finally, Nietzsche’s also believes that true genius, contrary to the romantic ideal, is only attainable by a select few, who can then lay claim to being “truly cultured.”
The centrality of authority in Nietzsche’s educational philosophy, however, does not come from the dim view he takes on intellectual and creative development of young learners. Instead, Nietzsche believes that liberal education (and here he is referring to the German University model) focuses too intently on conferring freedom on students, and avoiding all pretense of challenge and difficulty. As a consequence of liberal education techniques (for example, the seminar) students develop a premature self reliance that prevents them from saying anything original in the long term. Nietzsche also argues that cooperative learning formats and personalized instruction, so central to democratic educational theory, actually subverts the development of independent thinking by making every opinion appear worthy of affirmation and validation. In this environment, the merit of true intelligence is compromised, and students never develop the ability to say anything of mature import:
“Here everybody without exception is regarded as gifted for literature and considered as capable of holding opinions concerning the most important questions and people, whereas the one aim which proper education should most zealously strive to achieve would be the suppression of all ridiculous claims to independent judgment, and the inculcation upon young men of obedience to the sceptre of genius. Here a pompous form of diction is taught in an age when every spoken or written word is a piece of barbarism. Now let us consider, besides, the danger of arousing the self-complacency which is so easily awakened in youths; let us think how their vanity must be flattered when they see their literary reflection for the first time in the mirror.”
The challenging part of Nietzsche’s critique lies in its positive and negative implications. On the one hand, he is correct in asserting that liberal educational tends to glorify self-directed learning, where teachers play the role of “guide on the side,” rather than “sage on the stage.” In this model, students never develop core mastery, because the teacher stresses personal development, and rewards all contributions.
On the other hand, the imposition and inculcation of knowledge, no matter how “mystical,” generates a passivity in the learner that sometimes never recovers, and never matures into independence. Contrary to what Nietzsche argues, teaching that depends on authority and obedience either generates an easily submissive nature, or becomes the mode through which learners become authoritative themselves.
What, then, is the compromise? It’s easy to say “something in between,” but the truer answer is that it depends on how you interpret the relationship between education and democracy. For Nietzsche, democracy depends on the ascendancy of “great men” who have achieved mastery, a model that approximate meritocratic forms of leadership. For figures like Dewey, democracy and education means genuine interaction, participation, and inclusion. Both believe that schools should teach students “how to think,” rather than what to think about. The difference is that Nietzsche believes that a set curriculum in the Classics produces the type of creativity and intelligence that Dewey believes should come from differentiation, diversification, and experience.
The only dependable take away from Nietzsche is that he makes you consider whether liberal educational theory is self-evident, especially in the context of schooling which increasingly insulates students from hard work. The most rewarding part of teaching is stimulating the interest of students, and supporting their intellectual and creative development. The hardest part of teaching is accomplishing these goals, while also exposing students to stress, challenge, and rigor.
But there is another take away as well, one that demands a much longer response. It has to do with whether a “fixed” body of knowledge must be transmitted from teacher to student. Central to Nietzsche’s view is the importance of students being initiated in the Classics. Nietzsche believes that students must learn to read and understand the great works of Ancient Greece and Rome, in their native languages, respectively. This intellectual heritage, to Nietzsche, is essential in preserving and sustaining the heritage of Western Civilization.
As much as I’m sympathetic to some of Nietzsche’s views (I cringe when students read the graphic novel of The Odyssey, rather than the text itself), I object to his aristocratic model, where education is basically a competitive exercise designed to identify and glorify the ubermench. Likewise, though I cherish the Western Canon, a dogmatic emphasis on its value (I think) preserves and sustains systems of power, inequality, and imperialism.
To be continued!