Readings — From the September 2015 issue

The Genealogy of Orals

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By Friedrich Nietzsche, from Anti-Education, which will be published in November by New York Review Books. The volume gathers five lectures on “the future of our educational institutions” that the philosopher presented at Basel’s city museum in 1872, when he was twenty-seven and a professor of philology. The lectures take the form of a fictional dialogue. Here, the voice is that of the cantankerous “old philosopher” who is the conversation’s main speaker. A Gymnasium is an elite secondary school. Translated from the German by Damion Searls.

When someone from abroad wants to learn about our university system, his first pressing question is: How do your students participate in university life? We answer: By means of the ear — they take part as listeners. The foreigner is amazed and asks: Purely by listening? Purely by listening, we repeat. The student attends lectures. The teacher speaks to listening students. Anything else he may think or do remains inaccessible, cut off from the listeners by a monstrous chasm. In general, the professor wants as many students in attendance as possible, but, if need be, he makes do with few. One speaking mouth plus many ears and half as many writing hands: that is the academic system as seen from outside — the educational machinery of the university in action.

The possessor of the mouth is separated from, and independent of, the possessors of those many ears. This independence is glorified as “academic freedom.” To make for even greater freedom, the one can more or less say whatever he wants, and the others can more or less listen to whatever they want — except that in the background, a discreet distance away, stands the state watching with a certain supervisory look on its face, making sure to remind everybody from time to time that it is the aim, the purpose, the essence of this whole strange process.

Since the listening is a matter of personal judgment for the independent-minded student, and since this student can refuse to believe anything he hears, can deny it all authority, the educational process is, strictly speaking, left in his own hands. Oh happy age, when the young are wise and educated enough to teach themselves how to walk! Oh incomparable Gymnasiums, cultivating independence where other eras believed in cultivating dependence, discipline, subordination, and obedience — believed in resisting every delusion of independence with all their might! Now you see why, from the standpoint of education, I regard today’s university as a mere extension of the Gymnasium. Do not let the Gymnasium graduate fool you: believing himself to have received the blessings of education, he remains a schoolboy shaped by his teacher’s hands. In academic isolation, having left the Gymnasium, he is now beyond the reach of any guidance, living from that point forward entirely free and on his own.

Free! Put this freedom to the test, you connoisseurs of human nature! A freedom built on the crumbling foundations and soft soil of today’s Gymnasium education stands crooked, vulnerable to the breath of the whirling tempest. Take a good look at this free student, the herald of independent higher education, and divine him by his instincts, know him by his needs! What will you think of his education when you measure it by the following three yardsticks: his need for philosophy, his instinct for art, and, finally, the standard of Greek and Roman antiquity — the categorical imperative of all culture?

We are so beset by serious, difficult problems that, when brought to see them correctly, we acquire a lasting philosophical wonder. Only in this fertile soil can a deeper, nobler education grow. Most often, it is a person’s own experience that brings him face-to-face with such problems. Especially in tempestuous youth, almost every personal incident shimmers in a double reflection: as an instance of everyday triviality and as an example of an eternal, mysterious problem that cries out for an answer. At that age, when we see our experiences ringed with metaphysical rainbows, as it were, our need for a guiding hand is at its peak. A young person has suddenly and almost instinctively learned the double meaning of existence and at the same time lost the firm footing of beliefs and received opinions he once cherished.

Clearly, the beloved independence that today’s educated young person is groomed for could not be more opposed to such a need for guidance. Young men “of the modern age” are eager to suppress, indeed to crush, this need, to divert it or deform it, and their favorite method for paralyzing such a natural philosophical impulse is through so-called historical education.

Historical, in fact philological, considerations have slowly but surely taken the place of profound explorations of eternal problems. The question becomes: What did this or that philosopher think or not think? And is this or that text rightly ascribed to him or not? And even: Is this variant of a classical text preferable to that other? Students in university seminars today are encouraged to occupy themselves with such emasculated inquiries. As a result, of course, philosophy itself is banished from the university altogether.

As for how the university stands in relation to art, the truth cannot be admitted without shame — the two stand in no relation whatsoever. Not a trace of artistic thinking, learning, striving, or comparative analysis is to be found there. No one can seriously claim that the university lifts its voice to advance important national artistic projects. An individual professor may happen to feel a personal inclination for art, or an endowed chair may be established for aesthetic literary historians, but that is not the point — the university as a whole does not and cannot impose strict artistic discipline on the young people in its charge. It simply lets happen whatever happens, willy-nilly.

Our “independent” academics lead their lives without philosophy, without art: why, then, would they want anything to do with the Greeks and Romans, whom no one has to pretend to respect anymore, and who, remote and nearly inaccessible, sit enthroned in majestic strangeness? The universities of today quite logically don’t bother with this now-extinct sense of regret. But take away the Greeks (never mind the Romans), together with philosophy and art, and where is the ladder you can use to ascend to a true education?

If you are honest, and honestly accept this threefold insight — if you admit that today’s students are unprepared for and unsuited to philosophy, lack any artistic instincts, and are mere barbarians with delusions of freedom compared with the Greeks — then you will not flee from these students in disgust, although you might well want to avoid coming too closely in contact with them. For the condition of such a student is not his fault. The kind of creature you have recognized him to be is merely a silent yet terrible rebuke to those who are truly to blame.

You have to understand the secret language of this innocent weighed down with guilt: only then will you be able to understand the inner nature of the independence he so likes to show to the outside world. Not one of these nobly equipped young men has escaped the restless, exhausting, confusing, debilitating crisis of education: he may seem to be the only free man in a world of bureaucrats and slaves, but he pays for this splendid illusion with constant and ever-growing doubts and torments. He feels that he cannot guide himself, cannot help himself — and then he dives hopelessly into the world of everyday life and daily routine, he is immersed in the most trivial activity possible, and his limbs grow weak and weary. Suddenly, he pulls himself together; vigorous as ever, he feels the strength that might keep him afloat. Proud and noble resolutions form and grow within him. He is terrified of sinking so soon into the narrow confines of professionalism, and he grabs at struts and supports so as not to be swept downstream. But for naught! The supports give way: he has grasped at the wrong thing, tried to hold fast to fragile reeds. In a low and despondent mood, he sees his plans go up in smoke — his condition is sickening and humiliating — he vacillates between exaggerated, bustling activity and melancholy sluggishness. Tired, lazy, afraid of work, shrinking back from everything great, full of self-hatred, he analyzes his own abilities and finds, when he peers into himself, only a hollow void or chaotic mess. Then he plummets once more from the heights of imagined self-knowledge into ironic skepticism. He sees his struggles as meaningless. He declares himself ready for any task, however low and humble, so long as it is real and useful. Now he seeks consolation in frantic, incessant busyness — anything behind which he can hide from himself. And so his perplexity, his lack of a leader to guide him, drives him from one way of life to another. Doubt, elation, affliction, hope, despair, everything hurls him this way and that. All the stars that he might have used to steer his ship have gone out.

That is how this famous independence, this academic freedom, looks when seen through the fate of the best souls, those with the deepest need for education. Compared with them, the cruder and more easygoing natures, who enjoy their freedom in the purely barbaric sense, count for nothing. With their low pleasures and premature professional narrowness, they fit perfectly into this so-called freedom — who would deny it? Their satisfaction, though, does not outweigh the suffering of even a single young man drawn to culture, who, in need of a guide, at last gets discouraged, lets drop the reins, and begins to despise himself. He is the guiltless innocent. For who weighed him down with the unbearable burden of standing alone? Who urged him to be independent, at an age when the desire to devote oneself to a great leader, to follow enthusiastically in a master’s footsteps, is practically a person’s most urgent and natural need?

It is troubling to think about what happens when this need is so violently crushed. Anyone who looks long and hard at the most dangerous friends and advocates of today’s despicable pseudoculture will too often find men who have suffered this degenerate and derailed education, now driven by inner desperation to a furious rage against a culture that no one was willing to show them how to reach. It is not the worst men, not the lowest, whom we later meet as journalists and feuilletonists after they have undergone the metamorphosis of despair; certain well-groomed literary types these days might well be characterized as essentially desperate students. Here we have a desire for culture that has gone to seed, as it were, and is finally driven to cry out: I am culture, I am!

It is frightening indeed to see that our whole educated reading public bears the mark of this degeneration. When our educated men ceaselessly read journalists, and even cooperate in their work of corrupting the people, we have no choice but to suppose that their erudition is functioning for them much as writing novels functions for others: as a flight from themselves, a desperate self-annihilation, an ascetic strangulation of their own cultural drive. The same sigh gushes forth from our degenerate literature and the senselessly bloated book-scribbling of our scholars: How could we have so lost sight of ourselves? But the effort fails. Whole mountains of printed pages are shoveled on but memory refuses to be stifled, and every so often it repeats the refrain: “A man of degenerate culture! Born to education, and raised in miseducation! Helpless barbarian, slave to the present, lying in the chains of the passing moment, and hungering — always, eternally hungering!”

Oh, these miserable innocents who are held to account! There is something they do not have, the lack of which every last one of them must have felt: a true educational institution, which could provide them with proper goals, masters, methods, models, companions, and the invigorating, uplifting breath of the true German spirit streaming up from within it. Instead, these creatures waste away in the wilderness; they devolve into enemies of the very spirit that is, at bottom, so like their own; they heap guilt upon guilt, more than any generation ever has, sullying what is pure, desecrating what is holy, canonizing what is false and fake. In them you can see what power our universities have to shape culture.

Ask yourself, in all seriousness: What is it that you are promoting with these institutions? German erudition, German ingenuity, the honest German drive for knowledge, German industriousness capable of any sacrifice — splendid and beautiful things, the envy of other nations, the most splendid and beautiful things in the world, in fact, as long as that other, true German spirit spreads above them like a dark thundercloud, aflash with lightning and bursting with the fruitful benediction of the rain. Instead, you live in fear of that spirit, and thus it is a heavy and oppressive fog that has gathered around your universities, and in this miasma your noble young scholars breathe heavily and laboriously, and the best of them perish.

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