Unthinkable: Is ‘higher education for all’ based on a lie?

Nietzsche believed expanding college access peddled the lie that all students were equally capable

Ireland prides itself on the relatively high proportion of its young people who have higher-education qualifications. But Friedrich Nietzsche would not be impressed. The German philosopher saw the democratisation of higher education as an affront to genius.

In a series of lectures in Basel in 1872, Nietzsche – then a 26-year-old professor of ancient Greek literature – delivered a ferocious attack on the emerging Gymnasien system, which sought to expand access to academia.

The lectures have been republished in a new translation as Anti-Education: On the Future of Our Educational Institutions, and their provocative force remains intact. The lectures take the form of a dialogue between an old philosopher and a younger peer, recounted by a third party. As Chad Wellmon, one of the editors of the book, points out: "Many of the claims and assertions of his characters are deeply undemocratic and anti-egalitarian, but they raise important if uncomfortable questions about our own systems of higher education and their purported egalitarianism."

Wellmon, who teaches at University of Virginia and edits the blog Infernal Machine, is in the Unthinkable chair this week to explore the contemporary relevance of Nietzsche's educational ideas.


None perhaps is more arresting than the thought, expressed in Anti-Education, that "No one would strive for education if they knew how unbelievably small the number of truly educated people actually was, or ever could be".

What was it that provoked Nietzsche to present these lectures?

“Like many of his contemporaries, Nietzsche was particularly unnerved by what he saw as the simultaneous expansion and flattening of German education. On the one hand, German universities were facing broad political and social pressures to expand . . . On the other hand, this pressure to expand, on Nietzsche’s account, led to an inevitable thinning out of higher education.

"As universities and Gymnasien faced pressure to teach more students and more subjects, they watered down their instruction and tempered their expectations. They would end up, he feared, forming mindless dolts for the state and emerging German industries.

“Nietzsche worried that universities would become glorified trade schools focused on skills training that served only the state. He also claimed that Germany’s higher-education system was also coddling young people in to a false belief about their uniqueness. German Gymnasien teachers encouraged their students to express themselves in their essays and university professors shied away from embracing models of excellence.

“Education, as the old philosopher [in Nietzsche’s lectures] argues, is about discipline, about subordination to models of excellence that exceed the self. In his bombastic and over-the-top rhetoric, the philosopher describes a pedagogical system that was increasingly anxious about acknowledging this and instead peddled the lie that all students were equally capable.

“And here you get to the core and, for contemporary audiences, disquieting suggestion of these lectures: democratic and egalitarian commitments may not be compatible with certain humanistic forms of education.”

Is it fair to say Nietzsche’s primary concern was that the education system was hospitable to genius rather than raising the qualifications of the masses?

“Yes. Inspired by his reading of Schopenhauer and relationship with Wagner, Nietzsche embraced a genius theory of culture. Cultures flourished and were carried on through the genial insights and inventions of a few individuals, who managed to overcome the constant pressures of democracy and modernity to revert to the mean, to become the same.

“The commitment to equality was, for Nietzsche, a more pernicious pressure to radical conformity and a reproduction of the same. Again, many of the claims and assertions of his characters are deeply un-democratic and anti-egalitarian, but they raise important if uncomfortable questions about our own systems of higher education and their purported egalitarianism.”

Nietzsche seemed to present journalism as the antithesis of academic wisdom. What would Nietzsche think of academics on Twitter today?

“It would probably depend on whose Twitter account we are talking about. He’d surely dismiss mine as the mindless observations and self-interested promotions of a boring academic. But I imagine that he’d be delighted and encouraged by Eric Jarosinski’s.

“Most tweets are little more than banal commentary or mindless snark. Few are experiments in forms of social critique. But for Jarosinski, Twitter’s formal constraint of just 144 characters has freed him of the endless equivocations of academic prose.

"Jarosinski started his tenure-track position at UPenn in 2007 as a scholar of the Frankfurt School and critical theory, working on figures such as Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin, and Siegfried Kracauer. As he was struggling to write a book and compose in a language that could get him tenure, he started his a Twitter handle that helped him recover, as he recently put it in a New Yorker interview, 'the playful sides of German thinkers'.

“Composing for Twitter also forced him to think about matters of form and the shape that social critique could take, something that Frankfurt School figures like Adorno and Benjamin wrote a great deal about. A good tweet is full of contradiction; it’s an aphorism. And we all know that Nietzsche liked a good aphorism.”

You suggest in the introduction to the book, drawing upon Nietzsche’s thinking, that becoming a student of humanities – and resisting the lure of the marketplace – requires an act of faith. What do you mean by this, and what might be done to strengthen such faith?

“Although Nietzsche’s lectures don’t offer a blueprint for education, they might help us better understand the humanities as a set of traditions and way of life that requires a level of commitment that can never be fully grounded.

"When humanists such as Leonardo Bruni first articulated the humanities as the studia humanitatis in 14th-century Florence, they demanded a certain faith in the transformative power of an ancient Greek and Roman tradition. And generations of students did come to believe that reading Cicero or Augustine could change their life.

“Furthermore, the humanities required a faith that studying them also served the interests of the broader culture and political institutions -that is, that they were crucial not just for the flourishing of the individual but for the broader common, political, good. And that’s a big leap.

“It requires a certain amount of faith in the match between the ideals of the humanities and their mundane institutionalized practice. Will reading the classics, however defined, really make us better citizens? Socrates was not a model citizen. Isn’t there always a danger, for oneself and for the state, lurking in the humanities?

"Nineteenth-century Prussia basically reinvented this humanism in its educational system, which produced bureaucrats who had been trained in classical Gymnasien. Prussia created a system of Latin and Greek-reading managers and state workers who had been formed in the ideals and traditions of particular, Prussian version of humanism. They shared a common culture and a faith, however vague and inexplicit, in the power of ancient cultures to provide norms and ideals for the present.

"When Nietzsche described the death of God in The Gay Science, he was also describing the atrophy of this humanistic faith, this common culture of neo-classicism, and the ideology of humanism. The God of Prussian Protestantism may have died but at least the Prussian's had their Greeks.

“Nietzsche was one of the first to recognize that this faith in humanism and antiquity was also dying. And didn’t know what binding force could replace it.

“As for what might strengthen our own faith in the humanities, I don’t know. I would say, however, that the humanities first need to acknowledge themselves as a form of faith. And, second, the humanities have to more directly confront their future in the face of pluralism.

“Both Florentine and Prussian humanists could more easily appeal to a common tradition and a shared culture. They were dealing with much smaller and more homogenous networks. That’s nearly impossible now. I teach in an American public university. My students come from myriad traditions and cultures. I can’t assume much of anything. It’s a beautiful situation but it’s also a profound challenge.

“I can’t expect my students to believe in any particular tradition, so we spend our time allowing various traditions to collide, and longing for those occasional moments of mutual recognition, however fleeting and incoherent.”

* Anti-Education: On the Future of Our Educational Institutions by Friedrich Nietzsche, edited with an introduction and notes by Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon, translated from the German by Damion Searls, is published by New York Review Books, priced £8.99 paperback.


Question: Should academics engage with the media?

Nietzsche replies: "The newspaper epitomises the goal of today's educational system, just as the journalist, servant of the present moment, has taken the place of the genius, our salvation from the moment and leader for the ages"