Sunday, February 8, 2009

"On the Future of Our Educational Institutions"

In the early months of 1872, just as The Birth of Tragedy was published but before it had yet caused Nietzsche any professional consequences, he held a series of public lectures delivered before packed auditoriums at Basel University on the subject of education in Germany. They were, perhaps, the highlight of his academic career.

Professor Nietzsche (indeed this is the title he preferred) delivered these five lectures over the course of about 8 weeks from January to March. A sixth lecture was never completed, perhaps an indication of how the response (or lack thereof initially) to The Birth of Tragedy affected him at the time.

What is most interesting to me is not only the ideas presented in these lectures but the fact that Nietzsche places the philosophy inside a story about two young men coincidentally meeting two old philosophers in a beautiful, isolated clearing on a wooded hill overlooking the Rhine River. This is a parable. A parable delivered by Nietzsche orally, telling a different part of the story with each lecture while simultaneously conveying what seem to me to be radical ideas about the nature of education in society.

Briefly, Nietzsche felt the advanced education of the masses should not happen at the expense of the better education of the few; that culture depended upon great individuals and these individuals needed the best education possible. German education was becoming mediocre by pursuing mediocre standards, he said.

Two young gentlemen have traveled to a place in an old German forest overlooking the valley of the Rhine River. They are there to send a signal with pistols to other members of their little troop far off in the valley below. There is a love for nature in these lectures that Fritz reveals as the nest for his tale. They have come here because it is a place of contemplative natural isolation.

In the middle of their second round of pistol firing they are interrupted by a middle aged man and an old man. The older men scold the younger ones for making such a loud noise in a secluded place with their guns and to ask them to leave.

The young men stand firm. This is their “rite”. However, they don’t divulge details about the rite as its sacredness rests on its secret nature among them. It is revealed that the old man is a philosopher of note, though the boys are ignorant of such matters. The philosopher is supposed to meet another philosopher who is coming later from a distant location. Meanwhile, they sit quietly, enjoying nature.

This is wonderful spoken Nietzsche: “Whilst we stood thus in silence for some time, divided into two hostile groups, the clouds above waxed ever redder and the evening seemed to grow more peaceful and mild; we could almost fancy we heard the regular breathing of nature as she put the final touches to her work of art—the glorious day we had just enjoyed; when, suddenly, the calm evening air was rent by a confused and boisterous cry of joy which seemed to come from the Rhine. A number of voices could be heard in the distance—they were those of our fellow-students who by that time must have taken to the Rhine in small boats. It occurred to us that we should be missed and that we should also miss something: almost simultaneously my friend and I raised our pistols: our shots were echoed back to us, and with their echo there came from the valley the sound of a well-known cry intended as a signal of identification. For our passion for shooting had brought us both repute and ill-repute in our club. At the same time we were conscious that our behavior towards the silent philosophical couple had been exceptionally ungentlemanly…”

The lectures are translated in the stiff jargon of the day. But, I try to picture Nietzsche delivering them knowing all that I know about him personally at this stage of his life. The parable is a clever one, filled with twists and turns. The ideas about what I call “heroic education” are developed rather rationally, however, discovered by a young person who knows nothing of philosophy as he eavesdrops on a conversation by the older gentlemen talking on a bench nearby in the clearing’s twilight. It seems to me Nietzsche wanted to infuse a bit of Wagnerian drama into his academic reality.

Certainly, Nietzsche had the reputation of being a fine lecturer, so I suspect this public series of education in Germany were given with an entertaining, yet serious flare.
The Good European indicates how his pupils felt about him in at least the classroom setting. “Their reports are in accord: he was the one teacher whose expectations they did not want to disappoint, and so they worked harder for him than anyone else. As for Nietzsche himself, he prided himself on his ability to reach even the least talented and least motivated of his charges.” (page 66) This last quality is rather ironic, considering the content of the lectures with which we are presently concerned.

The whole of his five critical lectures can in a sense be summed up in these spoken words by Nietzsche in the third lecture: “I have long accustomed myself to look with caution upon those who are ardent in the cause of the so-called ‘education of the people’ in the common meaning of the phrase; since for the most part they desire for themselves, consciously or unconsciously, absolutely unlimited freedom, which must inevitably degenerate into something resembling the saturnalia of barbaric times, and which the sacred hierarchy of nature will never grant them. They were born to serve and to obey; and every moment in which their limping or crawling or broken-winded thoughts are at work shows us clearly out of which clay nature molded them, and what trade mark she branded thereon. The education of the masses cannot, therefore, be our aim, but rather the education of a few picked men for great and lasting works.”


From the fourth lecture we find a commentary on allowing students the freedom to choose their own classes: "All culture begins with the very opposite of that which is now so highly esteemed as 'academical freedom': with obedience, with subordination, with discipline, with subjection. And as leaders must have followers so also must the followers have a leader—here a certain reciprocal predisposition prevails in the hierarchy of spirits: yea, a kind of pre-established harmony. This eternal hierarchy, towards which all things naturally tend, is always threatened by that pseudo-culture which now sits on the throne of the present. It endeavours either to bring the leaders down to the level of its own servitude or else to cast them out altogether. It seduces the followers when they are seeking their predestined leader, and overcomes them by the fumes of its narcotics. When, however, in spite of all this, leader and followers have at last met, wounded and sore, there is an impassioned feeling of rapture, like the echo of an eversounding lyre, a feeling which I can let you divine only by means of a smile."


According to Young, Nietzsche expressed these lectures within the context of a greater criticism of capitalistic European society: "The 'mechanization' of education is an aspect of the mechanization of life in general. Nietzsche's critique of education is addressed to those 'few human beings' who, like himself, feel out of step with the rolling age, those who 'still do not feel the idolatrous pleasure in being crushed by its wheels'. (page 143)


Still, the purpose of education is to propagate "great individuals" in spite of the dominant trends in society. "In accordance with 'the aristocratic nature of the spirit', the 'natural order of rank', Nietzsche tells his audience, the proper order of society is 'the mastery of great individuals', the 'servitude of the mass...under the sceptre of genius'. What is important to him is not that the genius should assume political leadership of the state but rather that he should provide 'spiritual leadership' in 'the empire of the intellect', cultural leadership in the realm of civil society." (Young, page 145)


"The ultimate reason, then, that 'education to culture' is important is only by giving birth to, and nurturing, the genius and his works can a community recall itself from a 'fallen' and 'barbarous' condition to those 'eternal', but 'infintely distant', values which make it the community that it is." (Young, page 146)

Cate writes: “Nietzsche (in a letter to his mother and sister) felt the success of his lectures had been ‘extraordinary – emotion, enthusiasm, and hatred – nicely combined’. Jacob Burckhardt, who attended all five lectures, later wrote to a friend that he and all the others were waiting impatiently to hear what kind of solution Nietzsche was going to provide to the ‘questions and complaints so boldly and broadly tossed out …You should have heard them! In places it was quite enchanting, but then a sadness again made itself heard, and just how the Auditores humanissimi should draw comfort from the matter, I do not see. One thing was surely had: a man of lofty aptitude, who takes and dispenses everything from the first hand.’” (pages 150-151)

The effect was to make these lectures somewhat of a sensation with the public though this would soon wane as The Birth of Tragedy became better known.

But, Fritz never wrote the last lecture. Worries over the fact the The Birth of Tragedy had not generated much public comment at all (the negativity arrived slowly) combined with trying to amend for being temporarily out of favor with
Richard Wagner led Fritz to throw himself into a polemic to impress die meister.

Throughout his life, Nietzsche left towering issues almost unresolved, as if they needed no interpretation. Of course, these are the very sources for some of the most serious academic debates about Nietzsche today. Some think he did this intentionally, not to be vague, but to be true to himself. Things must be intimately experienced and interpreted. Nietzsche is a guide but the destination is a multiplicity.

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