Top positive review
In Search of True Education
Reviewed in the United States on February 9, 2016
Although it may seem a matter of recent concern, the debate about the state of education in America is one that has been ongoing along similar grounds for decades and across many countries. Friedrich Nietzsche is now the bogeyman of philosophy, but in his early years he was a rising academic and tackled this same subject. At the age of twenty-seven, he gave a series of public lectures in Basel, Switzerland and later edited them into a book. Perpetually revising his work, the material was never published during Nietzsche’s lifetime, but was recently printed by the New York Review of Books in a translation from Damion Searls. Succinctly titled Anti-Education, the critique Nietzsche offers is much more nuanced than that, and has a great deal of relevance for our time.
Nietzsche himself offers the best summary of his outlook: “[N]o one would strive for education if they knew how unbelievably small the number of truly educated people actually was, or ever could be. But that it was impossible to achieve even this small quota of truly educated people unless a great mass of people were tricked, seduced, into going against their nature and pursuing an education.” Although he offers the fiction that he is merely recounting an overheard dialogue between a philosopher and student, both are stand-ins for his own views on education. From the beginning of instruction, Nietzsche says educators are making mistakes. Giving a student the intellectual independence of the essay and then striking down their confidence with critical marks is a recipe for disaster. A proper teacher should offer rigorous, uniform instruction that drills proper grammar into the student until they physically wretch at poor sentence structure. The old adage that muddled writing hints at a muddled mind might be an apt summary.
This is not merely a matter of style for Nietzsche, however. He asks the serious question of whether, in the government’s attempt to extend thorough education to everyone, we risk diluting its more rigorous intellectual demands, while also unnecessarily burdening those who simply desire technical skills. It is a question I myself have asked frequently. In my evening hours, I teach a few courses at a community college and after class I often end up in conversation with my students about their personal lives. Some are there because the course is in their major or they have a desire to learn about the subject, but many openly admit they attend because their job requires a certain number of credit hours to receive a raise or promotion. I have severe moral doubts whether it is proper to saddle individuals with thousands of dollars of debt to teach them a course unrelated to a job they can already perform. In this aspect of his critique, my biggest criticism of Nietzsche is he never specifies at what level he would limit education. I do not imagine he seriously contemplates enforced illiteracy, but like most education reforms, the devil is in the details.
He offers a few other criticisms that have a surprisingly modern ring to them. The seemingly continuous specialization that limits a scholar’s ability to comprehend factors outside of his own field is a long-echoed complaint, as is education’s tendency to develop a jargon incomprehensible to outsiders. His criticism of the growing size of student bodies at universities would leave him shocked at today’s numbers. In Nietzsche’s day, less than 0.2% of the German population was enrolled in a university at any given time; today that number for the United States of America is over 5%. Over the course of his five lectures, Nietzsche promises a national movement or charismatic figure will turn the tide of decline, but I ultimately found this argument unconvincing. Bureaucracy is more powerful than any individual and, perhaps most tellingly, Nietzsche never gave a sixth lecture explaining what this anticipated figure would need to do to accomplish his goals.
While Nietzsche’s condescending, elitist view is grating to the modern egalitarian ear, his criticisms have substantial merit. We encourage students to venture out intellectually without giving them the proper tools to analyze the problems life will pose. Our methods of instruction in higher education are generic enough to be easily understandable, but hold back the gifted and are not adaptable for those who might need a different set of skills. Most people enter with an optimistic sense of the future, but leave tired and glad the experience is over. Perhaps these are challenges unavoidable in any large-scale institution, but Nietzsche’s book serves as a reminder the burdens of education are not a newly discovered problem.