The State in education – Part I: A History

In Beyond Good and Evil, written after breaking with composer Richard Wagner and subsequently rejecting hyper-nationalism, Friedrich Nietzsche proposed the existence of a group of people who cannot abide to see others successful or happy. Appropriately, he dubbed these people and their attitude “ressentiment,” or “resentment” in French. His profile of the resentful is most unkind, bordering on the snobbish – though Nietzsche had very little personal cause to feel superior (he was part of the minor nobility but always insisted that, due to his father’s premature death and his mother’s lack of connections, his legal rank was never of much benefit to him). Insanely proud of his classical education and remarkable, even for that time, fluency in Ancient Greek and Latin, the philosopher latched onto these languages as symbolic variables in his descriptions of society and its woes.

Much like the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir who, a century later, attempted to prove that history was made by socio-cultural gender dynamics (Le deuxième sexe), Nietzsche proposed that all of (European) history since the fall of the Roman Empire was a battle between the cosmopolitan, classically-educated aristocracy and the technician, parochial lower classes. Unlike de Beauvoir who saw the world as oppressor-oppressed, the German believed that the lower orders, motivated by jealousy and feelings of exclusion, tried to pull their superiors down, creating a peculiar situation in which those who believed themselves the oppressed engaged in oppressive behavior.

As evidence of his theory, Nietzsche suggested in The Genealogy of Morals that the Protestant Reformation was the ultimate achievement of the resentful classes; functionaries, unable to understand the Latin of the Roman liturgy, read the writings of the ancient and medieval philosophers, or participate meaningfully in the conversations and society of the Renaissance, responded by turning the Church into the personification of all they hated – not unlike a voodoo doll – and then ousted it from their lives and countries. At least, this is what Nietzsche thought had occurred, adding that the cloddish nationalism that he had rejected would not have been possible without first banishing the Catholic Church and the refinement it introduced through fostering Latin, Greek, and Classical literature and philosophy.

On the practical plane, Nietzsche’s primary concern, post-Wagner, was the advent of Prussian hegemony and the loss of autonomy among the German member states. Before his friendship with Wagner, Nietzsche gave a lecture series on education which he intended to collect and publish as a book. The book never materialized [until 2016, when the Paul Reitter compiled the notes and lecture transcripts into book form under the title Anti-Education], but the philosopher did write a preface that he gifted to Cosima Wagner under the title “Five Prefaces to Five Unwritten Books,” which helped precipitate the quarrel since Nietzsche signaled clearly that he rejected the Wagnerian philosophy of the innate nobility of the (German) savage.

Much of Anti-Education is harsh and unyielding, moreover because there is much in it that is true. In it, one can see the early kernels of Nietzsche’s identification of ressentiment and the genesis of ideas concerning individuality and nobility that he returned to later in life. There is also much that is applicable today.

Nietzsche asked,

Why does the state need such a surplus of educational institutions and teachers? Why promote popular enlightenment on such scale? Because the genuine German spirit [that of the Renaissance princes] is so hated – because they fear the aristocratic nature of true education and culture – because they are determined to drive the few that are great into self-imposed exile, so that a pretension of culture can be implanted and cultivated in the many – because they want to avoid the hard and rigorous discipline of the great leader, and convince the masses that they can find the guiding path for themselves … under the guiding star of the state! Now that is something new: the state as the guiding star of culture!

Nietzsche wrote / spoke this on the takeover by the state of the education system, also known as the Prussian public school system, which “reformer” Horace Mann promptly imported to the United States. The false promise of public education, as Nietzsche saw it, was that state schools claimed the laurels and legitimacy of private gymnasia through deceit – speaking to a university audience, he expected everyone to know that pre-state control, there were two types of secondary schools: gymnasium, where the student received a classical education and prepared to enter university, and realschule, where the student learned the three Rs, along with some science, and entered the workforce immediately after graduation. Nietzsche claimed that while the gymnasium curriculum needed a significant overhaul, the only products of the realschule were conformity, obedience, and an inflated sense of achievement. Hence, he believed, when the government took over the education system, officials chose to model the public school on the old realschule, while claiming that graduates had the knowledge and skills of the gymnasium.

It is important to note at this juncture that Nietzsche bore a very visceral hatred of the Prussians in general and of Otto von Bismarck in particular. Viewing the former as unintelligent clods whose threat lay in their stupidity, the philosopher deemed the latter and his eponymous Bismarckian welfare state a greater threat to personal freedom. From 1888 until his nervous breakdown and descent into madness in 1899, Nietzsche called for the trial of Bismarck for treason, along with the removal of Kaiser Wilhelm II, in a sequence of letters and essays which his sister and executors suppressed, both to accommodate their own agendas and to avoid the attention of the censors.

The treason of Bismarck lay in his creation of a nation whose people were unwittingly dependent on the state. The state provided education during infancy and a pension in old age. As Nietzsche correctly saw, when the state controls the beginning of the pipeline and the end, everyone is in its employ. As he also foretold, the situation would end in violence (for Germany specifically; hence his interest in preempting war by removing its figurehead king) and heartbreak for those who placed their faith in the anti-individualistic state.

At a very fundamental level, Nietzsche believed that the public school system, with is inadequate education and contempt for classical learning and languages, was a conspiracy designed to drive a wedge among the social classes, enabling the state to increase control in the ensuing vacuum. The other aspect he identified was the use of public opinion to strip the individual of drive or thirst for a better life through a mixture of flattery and subversion of ambition. The outcome would be war and resentment, he predicted, for any country foolish enough to have faith in the Prussian system. Next week, we will examine whether Nietzsche’s predictions have come true in modern American education.

The Sad Retreat

Do not go gentle into that good night / Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

 

~ Dylan Thomas

Thomas’ villanelle to his dying father is one of the most iconic English poems of the 20thcentury. It is also curiously relevant today, though not in a literal sense. The traditional American zeitgeist is the willingness to step forward fearlessly into the unknown, and in doing so to illuminate it and to dispel infantile terror of the dark. Sadly, the contemporary spirit is one of moribund confidence and the acceptance of stagnation.

There was nothing more indicative of the American spirit than the opening lines of Star Trek: The Original Series: “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” The root of the phrase’s power lies in action, an acceptance that man is capable of seizing control and carrying himself into space. Yet, despite the television series’ timing, the American people were not going boldly into the night, or darkness of space, but rather were starting a retreat that continues into the present.

The retreat is not an apparent one. To all appearances there has been no pell-mell flight from a battlefield with weaponry and protective gear to signal a loss of confidence. To quote Kevin D Williamson, “Nothing happened.” It is the lack of action, the stagnation, that signals a retreat occurred.

In his book Slouching to Gomorrah (1996), the late Robert Bork (1927 – 2012) catalogued the ways he believed America had declined since his youth. Buried among the musings are some anecdotes about Bork’s time at Yale as a young law professor in the late 1960s. In that decade, according to Bork, the university had quietly relaxed its admissions criteria and admitted applicants who would not have qualified under the previous standard. From a position of authority, Bork observed as these young people – mostly men as the problem was concentrated at the undergraduate level and the only women at Yale at the time were graduate students – struggled academically due to lack of adequate preparation. Many of these new students began to flunk as individual faculty refused to dilute their syllabi or grading standards.

As he explained, the stakes at the time were particularly high: in 1968, the time of Bork’s first semester, the draft and deployment to Vietnam would immediately and ruthlessly punish academic failure. Additionally, the students described largely came from middle-America and bore the full weight of their families and local communities’ expectations, causing failure to be particularly humiliating. Although Bork rejected the Marxist and anti-intellectual aspects of the 1968 student protests, he presented a hidden facet to the protestors whom he identified as young people angry at a system they felt had betrayed them and doomed them to failure. The message extracted from a well-intentioned policy change was that these people were ones who couldn’t – they couldn’t keep up with their peers, they couldn’t succeed, and all the indicators of their time pointed toward a truncated future. In short, they didn’t matter; they were not strictly necessary for broader society. Aside from property destruction, the turn toward Marxism and anti-intellectualism was a retreat, a flight from reality. With the rout – entirely self-imposed since the simple solution to the problem was to go to the library and catch up, rather than go burn the books, which is the choice the students made – the United States unknowingly set off on a path of becoming a nation of “cannots.”

To present an analogy, in the training of thoroughbred racehorses, a promising colt is raced against another, less able one in order to build the former’s confidence. The second horse is not only expected to lose, he is rewarded for doing so, but very often at the cost of his spirit and willingness to compete. This analogy is somewhat limited since the Yale student protestors of the 1960s chose the role of second horse themselves, but the result, anger, wanton destruction, and futile rage in the face of their inadequacies, are human indicators of broken spirit and loss of competitive edge. These two traits have, since the 60s, trickled down through all echelons of American society, accompanied by all the symptoms of anger and unnecessary misery. The American people have become the second horse.

All statistical evidence indicates that the quality of life in America is higher than ever before; we have record low rates of crime, better healthcare, and unparalleled access to consumer goods and luxury technologies. Under circumstances such as these, we should possess an equally high level of national confidence and happiness. But this is not the case. Currently, a Gallup poll from late 2017 shows that, despite the country’s increased prosperity under the new administration, subjective, or perceived, happiness has declined since the 2016 election. In other words, middle America is no happier now than it was pre-November 2016: it is less happy. Combined with the rise of “deaths of despair (official term for deaths from addiction or suicide in middle-aged or younger people)” and the mediatized claims of loss of opportunity due to – O tempora, o mores – technology and the new economy, the story is one of surrender, nothing else.

In the narrative, especially the one surrounding the 2016 election, the story is one of middle-America neglected and in need of special favors and treatment. As part of this picture, its authors and advocates on both sides of the political aisle sneer at the idea of self-determination, in the way of Michael Brendan Dougherty in the piece that Williamson rebutted with his “Nothing happened.” Technology is a particular target of Dougherty’s ire as somehow destructive to a utopic version of American community and family – his most recent article from May 1, 2018, was an apology for using the internet as a work medium – but ignoring the path to financial independence and economic integration that it provides. Hatred of technology and change, a desire to return to the “good old days” is a symptom of the retreat.

Today the logical and economic fallacy, identified by AEI’s Arthur Brooks, of “helping poor people” instead of “needing them” is dominant. Yet, it is a betrayal at all levels of the American ethos. Protectionism, insularity, and above all else, a desire to justify the degraded state of the American worker, pinning the fault on a wide range of people and things, are all signs of the willful betrayal of the American spirit. Although there are individual Americans who are leaders in technology and new industry, the American people are collectively falling behind, and our policy-makers are rewarding us for becoming the second horse through protectionism and populist speeches that reinforce the notion that there is a wronged group of “left behind.” We are no longer going “boldly where no man has gone before;” instead we are docilely being led into the “good night,” all while thinking that we are raging against it. Without a change, the pasture of irrelevance awaits us.