OHATCHEE, Ala. April 22, 2013 — MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry caused a stir when she suggested that American public education is deficient because Americans fail to see the value of collectivizing child rearing. The idea that it takes a state-subsidized village to raise a child is at least as old as Plato’s Republic, but what effect does this practice have on individuals’ worldviews?
It has been said that all education is inescapably religious. If we take that statement to its logical conclusion, it might as well be a constitutional argument for the separation of school and state under First Amendment provisions.
Contemporary American schooling is in a paradox, really, in which the Prussian compulsory system of moralizing and educating the citizenry has been adapted to “amoralize” and educate with a worldview like that of Friedrich Nietzsche (1844-1900), who rebelled against the Prussian system in the first place.
Although Nietzsche was clearly academically inclined, something about school deeply frustrated him. He had grown up in Prussia, a German state known for its statist and military-minded school system (Prussia also had compulsory military service, which Nietzsche complied with at the age of 23 until he suffered a debilitating chest injury).
A year before Nietzsche was born, Horace Mann, Secretary of the Massachusetts State Board of Education, toured Europe to investigate European education for the sake of gaining ideas with which to improve Massachusetts’ school system. Mann was most impressed with the Prussian school system because of its collectivist, compulsory design and age-segregated classrooms.
The topic of Prussian schooling conjures up memories of its architect, the troubled and heartbroken 18th century King Frederick the Great. As a young prince, Frederick II was interested in art, music, and philosophy, but his brutal father, Frederick William I, refused to let his heir indulge in such interests.
Frederick William I beat his son and destroyed his flute and books, determined to turn him into an austere monarch. After being imprisoned for attempting to run away from home, eighteen year old Frederick finally yielded to his father’s orders.
When he became Frederick the Great, he blended his intellectual interest with his absolutism as an “enlightened despot,” and centralized schooling under Oberschulkollegium, the national board of education.
Mann declared Prussia’s school system to be the superior one in Europe and a model “for the imitation of the rest of Christendom.” The cultural ideal of school being an institution that cradles the morals of society was manifested in Prussia at that time, as illustrated by the proverb Mann witnessed circulating the country: “THE SCHOOL IS GOOD, THE WORLD IS BAD.” The overall mechanized education system reportedly correlated to the Industrial Revolution.
It does not seem to be too great of a leap to presume that Nietzsche’s motivation to challenge traditional morality and the status quo as inhibitors of individuality began to erupt due to being an unusually deep-thinking student within a society focused on sculpting a nationalist moral populace.
“Morality results from compulsion,” Nietzsche concluded, “it is indeed itself one long compulsion to which obedience is rendered in order that pain may be avoided.”
In a lecture he gave on “The Future of Our Educational Institutions” in 1872, Nietzsche reminisced about the days when he and his fellow college students spent their time forming a little philosophy society and practicing pistol shooting on the Rhine.
“It seemed to us as if we owed the greatest debt of gratitude to that little society we had founded,” said Nietzsche, “for it had done more than merely supplement our public school training; it had actually been the only fruitful society we had had, and within its frame we even placed our public school life, as a purely isolated factor helping us in our general efforts to attain to culture. We knew this, that, thanks to our little society, no thought of embracing any particular career had ever entered our minds in those days.
“The all too frequent exploitation of youth by the State, for its own purposes—that is to say, so that it may rear useful officials as quickly as possible and guarantee their unconditional obedience to it by means of excessively severe examinations—had remained quite foreign to our education.”
After Nietzsche moved to Switzerland in 1869 when he attained his first professorial position at the age of 24 (he joined the classical philology faculty at the University of Basel), he renounced his German citizenship and chose to remain stateless for the rest of his life.
Nietzsche boldly stepped out of the ancient and medieval precedent of systematic discipleship and declared that due to the increase of book publication and distribution, “self-education and mutual education are becoming more widespread, the teacher in his usual form must become almost unnecessary. Friends eager to learn, who wish to master some branch of knowledge together, find in our age of books a shorter and more natural way than ‘school’ and ‘teachers.’”
Nietzsche dubbed teachers as a “necessary evil,” saying, “Let us have as few people as possible between the productive minds and the hungry and recipient minds! The middlemen almost unconsciously adulterate the food which they supply. For their work as middlemen they want too high a fee for themselves, and this is drawn from the original, productive spirits—namely, interest, admiration, leisure, money, and other advantages.”
Nietzsche is popularly quoted as saying, “In large states public education will always be mediocre, for the same reason that in large kitchens the cooking is usually bad.”
As a shy little boy with poor health and an unfortunate family situation, Nietzsche only attended public school for a year. But the Schulpforta preparatory school he attended as a young man had a particularly “rigid educational atmosphere” due to its Cistercian monastery background (the school itself was housed in medieval church buildings).
If it is presupposed that institutionalism is of religious origin and religion equals Christianity, a person principally opposed to institutionalism will find discrediting Jesus Christ to be quite an appetizing venture.
“It was the founder of Christianity who wished to abolish worldly justice and banish judgment and punishment from the world,” said Nietzsche. “For he understood all guilt as ‘sin’—that is, an outrage against God and not against the world. On the other hand, he considered every man in a broad sense, and almost in every sense, a sinner.”
Nietzsche appears to have perceived Christ’s message to be about compulsorily pleasing an unseen dictator rather than doing something that benefits humanity. Like the Jewish Zealots under the Roman Empire, Nietzsche had difficulty grasping the meekness and redeeming message of Christ.
In Nietzsche’s mind, will to power in a very Luciferian fashion was a positive trait for developing into an übermenschlich (super human).
“Now however this God hath died! Ye higher men, this God was your greatest danger …” Nietzsche says in his novel Thus Spake Zarathustra. “The evilest is necessary for the Superman’s best. It may have been well for the preacher of the petty people to suffer and be burdened by men’s sin. I, however, rejoice in great sin as my great CONSOLATION.”
After all, Nietzsche believed “everything evolved: there are no eternal facts as there are no absolute truths.” He eventually took pride in dubbing himself “the Antichrist.”
In his late-thirties, Nietzsche suffered a bitter heartbreak after falling in love with a Russian woman who rejected him. He eventually had a mental breakdown and died at the age of 55.
American theologian and philosopher Francis Schaeffer was convinced that Nietzsche’s insanity was not merely the result of physical disease, but a demonstration of philosophical consistency. “Rather,” explained Schaeffer, “it was because he understood that insanity was the only philosophic answer if the infinite-personal God does not exist … With no personal God, all is dead … Without the infinite-personal God, all a person can do, as Nietzsche points out, is to make ‘systems’. In today’s speech, we would call them ‘game plans.’”
If God is dead, then the individual inevitably has to become a god unto themselves, and in the bizarre final letter to his friend Jakob Burckhardt, Nietzsche seems to be feeling this burden in an irreverent joke: “In the end I would have much preferred being a Basle professor to being God …”
Nietzsche loathed institutionalism, but in his quest to liberate humanity from its compulsiveness he inflated the individual to an unsustainable size.
In an ISI summer seminar last year, Dr. Donald Prudlo, Associate Professor of Ancient and Medieval History at Jacksonville State University observed that the radical individualism that emerged from Enlightenment philosophy strips away moral tradition and leaves humanity nakedly exposed and vulnerable before the state.
If there is no acknowledgement of the higher power of God, what is there to reasonably limit the compulsion of individuals by human institutions? Nietzsche prophesied this predicament himself:
“The better the state is organised, the duller will humanity be.
To make the individual uncomfortable is my task!
The great pleasure experienced by the man who liberates himself by fighting.
Spiritual heights have had their age in history; inherited energy belongs to them.
In the ideal state all would be over with them.”
Nietzsche died in the first year of the 20th century – a century in which notoriously fatal attempts at building an ideal state appeared.
Listening carefully in American society, one can probably hear conflicting echoes between the Prussian system of collectively moralizing and educating the citizenry that was handed down over a century ago, and the individualist, nihilist philosophy of the originally Prussian Nietzsche, whose ideas were imported by academics who fled Germany during World War II.
Ironically, the Western world since Nietzsche seems to be on a journey to collectively and systematically “amoralize” culture to some how generate a better populace.
One has to wonder what sort of “Little Nietzsches” might become of it.
This column was an adaptation of Amanda Read’s academic paper Becoming Nietzsche: Prussian Paradoxes.
Amanda Read is a political columnist for the Communities at The Washington Times. A professional writer and researcher, Amanda is also a Christian homeschool graduate, unconventional college student, military daughter, and eldest of the nine Read children at Fair Hills Farm. Find more of her work at www.amandaread.com.