Reading Nietzsche: Anti-Education

Here’s a review in The Guardian of a newly published series of Nietzsche lectures called Anti-Education. The lectures themselves and the resulting analysis are surely useful, but in the brief biography the author uses to set up the piece, there is perhaps the most concise summary of the anti-education about Nietzsche himself I’ve ever read:

Until his death in 1900 Nietzsche remained a mute invalid under the guardianship of his sister Elisabeth, a repulsive individual with whom he quarrelled bitterly when she married an antisemitic high school teacher, Bernhard Förster, and accompanied him to found an “Aryan” colony, Nueva Germania, in Paraguay. Following the failure of the fly-blown settlement and the suicide of her husband, Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche continued promoting racist ideas by seizing control of her helpless brother’s writings, establishing a Nietzsche Archive and methodically deleting passages in which he lambasted the “race swindle”. For this service she was duly rewarded. On the basis of a highly selective biography and a heavily redacted compilation of Nietzsche’s writings that she published under the title The Will to Power, she was several times nominated by admiring German academics for the Nobel prize in literature. When she died in 1935, Hitler attended her funeral.

It would be fantastic if, some day, people would stop mentioning The Will to Power in the same breath as Nietzsche altogether, but I’m of course pessimistic about such an outcome. That he never wrote the work—and that it’s antithetical to his project—never seems to stop people from citing it, and then proclaiming to understand what he meant, having never read it or any other of Nietzsche’s writings. “You have to take power by any means necessary,” is usually the philosophy, if we can call it that, that most assume from the title and related connotations.

Anyway, on to the lectures. Here’s another concise summary:

There is more than a little truth in Nietzsche’s indictment. But to reach this nugget, you will have to wade through pages of Romantic gibberish about the aristocracy of the spirit and the privileges of genius, which foreshadow the absurd figure of the Übermensch that he concocted in his later work as a redeemer for modern times. But when he observed that education was increasingly being shaped by external forces, Nietzsche was on to something important. A shift of the sort that was under way in 19th-century Germany began in the UK with the regime of monitoring and assessing research that was imposed in the late 1980s. Until that time universities had been autonomous institutions. Now they have to justify themselves as somehow increasing national output – a requirement that denies that intellectual life has value as an end in itself and assumes everything of importance can be measured.

The only exception I’ll take with this analysis is that ubermensch—literally over-man—was perhaps not invoked as some sort of messiah figure, but was instead intended to be internalized by each and every one of us—or at least those with the courage to be open and vulnerable; we all have the capacity to rise above (overcome, better said) the temptation to simply follow orders, to muddle through a banal existence in a cold, indifferent universe, to take whatever meaning is handed to us by demagogues and “poison-mixers” (what he called people who preached of other, heavenly worlds). That’s perhaps just my reading of his use of the term, but I say that having a hard time believing that someone who makes their own meaning, usually through the destruction of conventional wisdom, would just sit around waiting for anybody. But moving on…

The author of the article ties in more recent trends in academia, notably the protests about making campuses “safe spaces” and the like, as if to say Nietzsche would disapprove vehemently, given that he would frown on any attempt to put a lid on free expression, anywhere. I’m not so sure this is true; he might applaud students’ efforts to not simply take the history that has been handed to them. And if they’re attempting to destroy old values in the place of new ones—which inherently calls all values into question—then he might support such a cause—or at least not publicly denounce it. I hesitate to add my own comment to the campus debates, mostly because I’m not on campus anymore, and the interest of the corporate media to sensationalize and polarize every, little, event—or statement, or tweet—makes discerning the facts of any case almost impossible. Furthermore, since schools are, at heart, socialization machines for the dominant culture at best (or is it worst? since otherwise they’re simply warehouses, but at least there’s a chance of a fruit or vegetable somewhere), then I tend to disagree with almost all of their policies anyway.

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5 thoughts on “Reading Nietzsche: Anti-Education

  1. Yikes. And I thought my sister was bad! And these days I think most school (at every level) is more about indoctrination than critical thinking.

    • Yes, they’re cubicle farms, mostly. Note that this only increases my respect for most teachers, who have the lovely job of forcing schools to do something that they’re not set up for.

  2. Teachers in the USA today have an impossible job. The few I know suffer soul crushing defeats on a regular basis while struggling to survive on their salary. I have great respect for them too.

  3. The democratization of education started as a beautiful idea. Any person who wants to learn more ought to enjoy that privilege. Whether they are super-geniuses or not. But our schools and universities have transformed into something pretty awful. (And yes, cheers to any teacher who attempts to subvert the industrialization of children.) I agree with John Gray’s suggestion that some pieces of popular culture have much more to offer than a lot of what gets academy approval. The arts & humanities have been gutted. Science seems to be trapped into justifying industry or examining trivia.

  4. Agreed on all fronts, except I’d also like to point out that by “genius” it’s very unlikely that Nietzsche means someone born smart or talented—i.e. someone of elite status by family or name—but rather someone who has put in the physical and intellectual work in order to see things from great heights. Anyone can rise above (pun intended) by questioning all values, making ethical choices based on this world (and not some fabricated one in the sky or ether), and by, as he put it succinctly, “living dangerously.”

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