The State in education – Part III: Institutionalization of learning

In The State in education – Part II: social warfare, we looked at the promise of state-sponsored education and its failure, both socially and as a purveyor of knowledge. The next step is to examine the university, especially since higher education is deeply linked to modern society and because the public school system purports to prepare its students for college.

First, though, there should be a little history on higher education in the West for context since Nietzsche assumed that everyone knew it when he made his remarks in Anti-Education. The university as an abstract concept dates to Aristotle and his Peripatetic School. Following his stint as Alexander the Great’s tutor, Aristotle returned to Athens and opened a school at the Lyceum (Λύκειον) Temple. There, for a fee, he provided the young men of Athens with the same education he had given Alexander. On a side note, this is also a beautiful example of capitalist equality: a royal education was available to all in a mutually beneficial exchange; Aristotle made a living, and the Athenians received brains.

The Lyceum was not a degree granting institution, and only by a man’s knowledge of philosophy, history, literature, language, and debating skills could one tell that he had studied at the Lyceum. A cultural premium on bragging rights soon followed, though, and famous philosophers opening immensely popular schools became de rigueur. By the rise of Roman imperium in the Mediterranean around 250 BC, Hellenic writers included their intellectual pedigrees, i.e. all the famous teachers they had studied with, in their introductions as a credibility passport. The Romans were avid Hellenophiles and adopted everything Greek unilaterally, including the concept of the lyceum-university.

Following the Dark Ages (and not getting into the debate over whether the time was truly dark or not), the modern university emerged in 1088, with the Università di Bologna. It was more of a club than an institution; as Robert S. Rait, mid-20th century medieval historian, remarked in his book Life in the Medieval University, the original meaning of “university” was “association” and it was not used exclusively for education. The main attractions of the university as a concept were it was secular and provided access to books, which were prohibitively expensive at the individual level before the printing press. A bisection of the profiles of Swedish foreign students enrolled at the Leipzig University between 1409 and 1520 shows that the average male student was destined either for the clergy on a prelate track or was of noble extraction. As the article points out, none of the students who later joined the knighthood formally graduated, but the student body is indicative of the associative nature of the university.

The example of Lady Elena Lucrezia Cornaro Piscopia, the first woman to receive a doctoral degree, awarded by the University of Padua in 1678, illuminates the difference between “university” at its original intent and the institutional concept. Cornaro wrote her thesis independently, taking the doctoral exams and defending her work when she and her advisor felt she was ready. No enrollment or attendance at classes was necessary, deemed so unnecessary that she skipped both the bachelor and masters stages. What mattered was that a candidate knew the subject, not the method of acquisition. Even by the mid-19th century, this particular path remained open to remarkable scholars, such as Nietzsche since Leipzig University awarded him his doctorate on the basis of his published articles, rather than a dissertation and defense.

Education’s institutionalization, i.e. the focus shifting more from knowledge to “the experience,” accompanied a broader societal shift. Nietzsche noted in Beyond Good and Evil that humans have an inherent need for boundaries and systemic education played a very prominent role in contemporary man’s processing of that need:

There is an instinct for rank which, more than anything else, is a sign of a high rank; there is a delight in the nuances of reverence that allows us to infer noble origins and habits. The refinement, graciousness, and height of a soul is dangerously tested when something of the first rank passes by without being as yet protected by the shudders of authority against obtrusive efforts and ineptitudes – something that goes its way unmarked, undiscovered, tempting, perhaps capriciously concealed and disguised, like a living touchstone. […] Much is gained once the feeling has finally been cultivated in the masses (among the shallow and in the high-speed intestines of every kind) that they are not to touch everything; that there are holy experiences before which they have to take off their shoes and keep away their unclean hands – this is almost their greatest advance toward humanity. Conversely, perhaps there is nothing about so-called educated people and believers in “modern ideas” that is as nauseous as their lack of modesty and the comfortable insolence in their eyes and hands with which they touch, lick, and finger everything [….] (“What is Noble,” 263)

The idea the philosopher pursued was the notion that university attendance conveyed the future right to “touch, lick, and finger everything,” a very graphic and curmudgeonly way of saying that a certain demographic assumed unjustified airs.

Given that in Anti-Education, Nietzsche lamented the fragmentation of learning into individual disciplines, causing students to lose a sense of the wholeness, the universality of knowledge, what he hated in the nouveau educated, if we will, was the rise of the pseudo-expert – a person whose knowledge was confined to the bounds of a fixed field but was revered as omniscient. The applicability of Socrates’ dialogue with Meno – the one where teacher and student discuss human tendency to lose sight of the whole in pursuit of individual strands – to the situation was unmistakable, something which Nietzsche, a passionate classicist, noticed. The loss of the Renaissance learning model, the trivium and the quadrivium, both of which emphasize an integrated learning matrix, carried with it a belief that excessive specialization was positive; it was a very perverse version of “jack of all trades, master of none.” As Nietzsche bemoaned, the newly-educated desired masters without realizing that all they obtained were jacks. In this, he foreshadowed the disaster of the Versailles Treaty in 1919 and the consequences of Woodrow Wilson’s unwholesome belief in “experts.”

The philosopher squarely blamed the model of the realschule, with its clear-cut subjects and predictable exams, for the breakdown between knowledge acquisition and learning. While he excoriated the Prussian government for basing all public education on the realschule, he admitted that the fragmentation of the university into departments and majors occurred at the will of the people. This was a “chicken or the egg” situation: Was the state or broader society responsible for university learning becoming more like high school? This was not a question Nietzsche was interested in answering since he cared more about consequences. However, he did believe that the root was admitting realschule people to university in the first place. Since such a hypothesis is very applicable today, we will examine it in the contemporary American context next.

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