Nietzsche's school jeremiad sounds oddly familiar

But that's partly because we still don't have good answers to the questions he raised

5 March 2016

9:00 AM

5 March 2016

9:00 AM

Anti-Education: On the Future of Our Educational Institutions Friedrich Nietzsche

NYRB Classics, pp.124, £8.99, ISBN: 9781590178942

When Friedrich Nietzsche was offered a professorship in classical philology at the university of Basel in 1869 he was so happy he burst into song. He was only 24 at the time — a year younger than Enoch Powell, who became a professor of Greek at the university of Sydney aged 25 — and looked forward to a brilliant academic career.

Three years later, when he delivered the six lectures contained in this book, he was already showing signs of disillusionment. His teaching duties included six hours at the local gymnasium — the German equivalent of a secondary school — and he wasn’t impressed by what he found there. To anyone who’s followed the debate about failing standards in Britain’s schools that dates back to the publication of the first ‘Black Papers’ in 1969 and probably long before that, Nietzsche’s complaints will have a familiar ring to them.

The teachers possess ‘limited gifts’, the students are of a ‘low level’ and the curriculum owes far too much to ‘the plebeian “culture pages” of magazines and newspapers’. Nietzsche is particularly incensed by the claims of the gymnasiums to be providing a classical education — or should that be gymnasia?

‘I have never once found in the German gymnasium a single gossamer thread of anything that can truly be called “classical education”,’ he harrumphs. It’s all a far cry from the ‘true education’ he received — although, unusually for someone looking back at his own schooldays through rose-tinted spectacles, Nietzsche is talking about a Golden Age that existed less than ten years earlier.

The fundamental problem, according to the philosopher, is that German secondary schools have expanded too quickly in an attempt to keep pace with the growing demand for state functionaries. They’re trying to educate too many people, rather than the intellectual elite, and this has inevitably led to the emergence of ridiculous, progressive ideas about the intellectual abilities of ordinary students.

He complains:

They treat every student as being capable of literature, as allowed to have opinions about the most serious people and things, whereas true education will strive with all its might precisely to suppress this ridiculous claim to independence of judgment on the part of the young person, imposing instead strict obedience to the sceptre of the genius.

Phrases like ‘the sceptre of the genius’ crop up often in Anti-Education and it’s not hard to detect the seeds of the Übermensch — an anti-Christian superman who will revitalise the German volk. As fans of Nietzsche will know, his sister Elisabeth edited his works to enable the Nazis to claim him as an intellectual forebear, but she won’t have needed much red ink here. In passage after passage, Nietzsche exalts the grandeur of ‘the German spirit’, whether expressed through the German Reformation, German music, ‘the tremendous courage and rigour of German philosophy’ or, most ominously of all, ‘the German soldier’.

When Nietzsche complains about the decline of German secondary education, he doesn’t just mean that insufficient deference is shown to the Greek poets and philosophers, but also to Goethe and Schiller, particularly their command of language. ‘Everyone nowadays automatically speaks and writes in a German so vulgar and bad that it could only exist in an age of newspaper German,’ he scoffs, one of several disparaging references to journalism. ‘A true purification and renewal of the gymnasium can proceed only from a deep and violent purification and renewal of the German spirit.’

Much of Anti-Education is taken up with these bombastic calls to arms and you can imagine his audience sniggering at the spectacle of an excitable 27-year-old
decrying the decline of German education; but it would be wrong to dismiss it out of hand. At its heart, the book contains a powerful critique of the principle of universal public education that was soon to become established in modern democracies all over the world. Given the cost to the public purse, isn’t it inevitable that the aims of education will become subordinate to those of the state? And if schools are expected to educate all children, not just those of exceptional ability, how do you avoid the debasement of the curriculum?

If these issues continue to be debated today, as they surely are, that is partly because the questions posed by Nietzsche in these six lectures have yet to receive any satisfactory answers.

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  • misomiso

    Despite your best efforts Toby, State education has failed in its current form.

    bring on full educational choice. Bring on Vouchers.

    • Sue Smith

      Exactly. And in Australia we have ‘free’ public education. This is a throwback to the horse and buggy days of the colony and we now have very affluent parents getting these freebies and then telling us all they support ‘free’ public education because it helps ‘the disadvantaged; i.e. people like them who want to use their own cash to buy ‘other stuff’ including, but not limited to, over indulging their little emperors! Bring on “user pays”!!! It’s an idea whose time has come.

  • pobjoy

    British education was ok before smirking Kenneth Baker was allowed near it.

  • Bob339

    The destruction of British education began with the abolishment of corporal punishment in schools. A triumph of bad government. It continued through the avenues of parental incompetence/ indifference which led to teacher fatigue with uncontrollable scummy brats. It has now entered the final stage: teacher shortage. This will bring an end, in time, to a once-excellent system. Well done leftie scumbags: a real achievement in accelerating our journey downhill.

    • Morseman

      Leftie scumbags?
      Someone who writes that kind of English claims to have a higher level of education?

      • Bob339

        Get off the computer and do your homework. You have school tomorrow.

  • Morseman

    “..the local gymnasium — the German equivalent of a secondary school…”
    A Gymnasium is a higher level secondary school, perhaps comparable to a grammar school in England.

    • clarity

      i totally agree with u

  • ashley_li

    i want to ask what does the” bombastic calls” refer to ? cz i feel a little bit confused here, and why would the audience snigger at him?