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.

The State in education – Part II: Social Warfare

In the article The State in education – Part I: A History, we examined Friedrich Nietzsche’s opinion of the Prussian public school system and his concern when it became the model framework for public schools, both in Germany and in the world. To summarize quickly, the philosopher held that state-funded schooling was an act of social warfare – students, taught to aspire beyond their capabilities, would become resentful and angry, making them susceptible to propaganda and manipulation. Although Nietzsche did not use the term “welfare state” in the educational context, his predicated his denouncement of public education on the idea that it was a form of welfarism and increased state control.

For historical placement, it is important to understand what resources existed for parents pre-public schools. More importantly, it is also important to understand the difference in curricula and their final goals. Before the late 18thcentury, Jean Jacques Rousseau, and the advent of educational “experts,” there were only privately funded schools – many of which were free to those in need – which provided a classical education.

There are two definitions, both equally correct, of “classical education.” The first literally signifies an education based on Latin and Ancient Greek and all the literature in those languages; associated with this definition are skills in music, art, drama, declamation, oratory, and debate, all of which the Romans considered essential to a well-rounded education and which they included as formal subjects in their schools. By the early 19thcentury, this education also carried the expectation that the student could easily acquire most modern European languages since to varying degrees they were all based on the classical languages.

The second definition of “classical education” focuses on the acquisition of a mental toolkit with the goal of enabling the student to think deeply and carefully throughout his life. This system is divided into the trivium and the quadrivium, roughly corresponding to the primary and secondary school levels of the modern system.

As Dr. Peter Lynch of University of Dublin explained,

The organisation of the quadrivium was formalised by Boethius, and this structure endured for more than a millennium. It was the mainstay of the medieval monastic system of education, which had a structure of seven subjects – the seven liberal arts – comprising the quadrivium and the trivium. The trivium was centered on three arts of language: grammar, for ensuring proper structure of language; logic, for arriving at the truth; and rhetoric, for the beautiful use of language. Thus the aim of the trivium was goodness, truth, and beauty.

Dorothy L. Sayers (1893 – 1957), an Oxonian classicist and author, explained in her 1947 essay “The Lost Tools of Learning” that the trivium is the more crucial of the two since it provides all the skills needed to be an independent thinker and learner. In her essay, she also detailed a scheme whereby the modern institutional schools could implement the trivium in place of contemporary curricula. She recognized, though, the unfortunate tendency of 20thcentury society to prefer for “education” to have a concrete banality, with parents focusing on what their children could “do” with a subject.

The quadrivium, though elucidated by Boethius (480 – 524 AD), was based on the writings of the philosopher Proclus (412 – 484 BC), whom the Renaissance men and women relied upon when they incorporated the quadrivium into formal education.  The subjects of the quadrivium are: arithmetic, music, geometry, and cosmology (sometimes listed as astronomy). As Dr. Lynch noted, mathematician Morris Klein described these subjects as “pure,” studying as they do, the abstract and the relationship between the concrete and the metaphysical. In philosophical terms, the trivium is aristotelian and the quadrivium is platonic.

Before turning to the subject of Nietzsche’s Cassandra-like predictions and the loss of classical learning in America, we must briefly look at the history of institutional education since it is the primary component of the American version. As Dr. Lynch remarked, the classical education remained alive in the European Catholic monasteries and convents, which acted as an early form of boarding school.

The schools associated with religious houses were open to all, regardless of rank or income, and did not necessitate a commitment to religious life at the end. That said, it was primarily the nobility who took advantage of the monastic and convent schools, more, in all honesty, because the principle of religious sanctuary meant that the children were secure from predation in times of unrest than from any love of learning. Although there was no prestige associated with this type of education, under these conditions, it became a noble prerogative but not necessarily ennobling in itself. Despite aristocratic mamas and papas seeing education as much less important than sanctuary, the result of this symbiotic relationship was that the upper classes really were better educated than the middle and lower ones, laying the foundation for the educational class war that Nietzsche identified in the 1800s.

Let us fast forward past the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Enlightenment, all of which had profound effects on education, though always within the classical framework, and look at the roots of American public education. The concept of publicly funded education occupied Thomas Jefferson, who initially supported it unilaterally, then opposed it, then compromised (Hegel would be proud) by suggesting that grammar schools might be locally funded and universal but anything beyond that had to be either private or competitive entry, if publicly funded. In general, the Founding Fathers took a laissez-faire view on education, focusing on the aspects of freedom and personal choice. This truly enlightened attitude did not last.

By the 1830s, progressives, including Horace Mann, fell under the spell of the Prussian system. In the 1840s, Mann used his position as Secretary of the (Massachusetts) Board of Education to introduce public schooling. Post-Civil War, in the 1860s, he used his position as a US Congressman to make public schooling compulsory, while homeschooling his own children in a stunning display of “for thee but not for me” hypocrisy. In 1848, as Secretary of the nascent Board of Education, Mann opened his report with these words:

According to the European theory, men are divided into classes, – some to toil, others to seize and enjoy. According to the Massachusetts theory, all are to have an equal chance for earning, and equal security in the enjoyment of what they earn. The latter tends to equality of condition; the former, to the grossest of inequalities. Tried by any Christian standard of morals, or even by any of the better sort of heathen standards, can any one hesitate, for a moment in declaring which of the two will produce the greater amount of human welfare, and which, therefore, is more conformable to the divine will? The European theory is blind to what constitutes the highest glory as well as the highest duty of a State …

The truth is that Mann openly declared that the public school’s purpose is to render control to the state. The awful truth is neatly dressed in a virtue signaling garb that makes reference to religion and God (I challenge anyone to find a single passage in the Bible where God says “go build a public school.”). Buried in this paragraph is one of the major fallacies that afflicts contemporary American society: linking formal education to earning power and social worth. This particular problem we will address in a subsequent article, but it is important to know that promoting this fallacy was a crucial part of the mandate of state-run education.

At the same time as Mann was advocating mass education and social equalization on one side of the Atlantic, on the other side, Nietzsche exposed its flaws:

Let me tell you what I think characterizes the vital and pressing educational and pedagogical questions of today. It seems to me that we need to distinguish between two dominant tendencies in our educational institutions, apparently opposed but equally ruinous in effect and eventually converging in their end results. The first is the drive for the greatest possible expansionand disseminationof education; the other is the drive for the narrowingand weakening of education. For various reasons, education is supposed to reach the widest possible circle – such is the demand of the first tendency. But then the second tendency expects education to give up its own highest, noblest, loftiest claims and content itself with serving some other form of life, for instance, the state (Anti-Education, Lecture I).

The conflation that most concerned Nietzsche was that mass literacy did not equal mass education since the connection between reading and thinking was lost. For him, nothing epitomized this more than newspapers and journalism – “Journalism fulfills its task according to its nature and as its name suggests: as day labour.” Everyone learning to pretend to the laurels of the literate, through simply being able to decipher words on a page, created a societal need for professional intellectual caulkers:

It is in journalism that the two tendencies converge: education’s expansion and its narrowing. The daily newspaper has effectively replaced education, and anyone who still lays claim to culture or education, even a scholar, typically relies on a sticky layer of journalism – a substance as sturdy and permanent as the paper it’s printed on – to grout the gaps between every form of life, every social position, every art, every science, every field. The newspaper epitomizes the goal of today’s education, just as the journalist, servant of the present moment, has taken the place of genius, our salvation from the moment and leader for the ages.

Systemic education was the death of the Renaissance man. It created a strange world where everyone could read but no one was learned. This intellectual world is the United States today.

After Mann forced compulsory education on the American people, the literacy rate, previously rising, declined, an event which occurred in Europe as well when Great Britain and France followed Germany’s lead. When angry parents, appalled at the poor quality of the new “free” education, withdrew their children to place them in private schools, Mann launched a media war against them, branding them un-American elitists and/or social malingerers and starting a social shouting match that continues to the present. Discovering that parents, naturally, disregarded name-calling when their children’s future was at stake, the progressives brought the state apparatus in the form of taxation to bear.

Today, the United States ranks in the middle percentiles in education internationally. The nation is behind all of east Asia, even very poor countries like Vietnam, and most of Europe, including poor Eastern European countries. According to the report, over 40% of American high school seniors rate “below basic” for science and mathematics, which by extension indicates an inability to read and reason adequately (both subjects are more tests of those two skills than anything else at that level). Yet the nation houses the greatest number of elite universities and institutions of higher education in the world. The American people have known since the early 20thcentury that public school graduates could not enter these institutions and thrive – Sinclair Lewis’ book Babbitt describes beautifully the dichotomy existing between 1920s middle-America and the push for an elite education – yet only now has the public decided that this is a problem, but only on superficial grounds. No one is interested in discussing the foundational flaws that result in American students lagging behind their European and Asian counterparts.

We are aware through personal experience that the skills of the seven liberal arts of the trivium and quadrivium are gone. We can cry in vain after the American reading public, which, before the advent of public schools and their version of literacy, created one of the first best seller phenomena with James Fenimore Cooper and later devoured the works of Edgar Allen Poe – during his life writing high literature was lucrative. Just as extinct is the British public that devoured Jane Austen with such an insatiable hunger that she could not keep up. The people whose appetite induced Charles Dickens to exploit it with publishing deals that paid him by the word are gone; for that matter, the ability of the reading public to recognize and delight in Dickens’ colorful language and skillful use of words is moribund – alas the trivium! The rage for reading and, by extension, autodidacticism in Britain reached such a pitch that, in the words of a Mises Institute commentator,“England eventually passed a paper tax [raising the cost of books] to quell a public the leaders felt was too smart.” A public too interested in books is not a contemporary problem.

In his inaugural speech, President Donald Trump described the public school system as having “failed so many of our beautiful young people.” In context, the sentence implied that the public school is supposed to turn out competitive, educated smart people. There is a question to this statement, though: Is it really a failure if a system cannot accomplish that which it was never designed to do? On the contrary, if one takes Mann’s opening report as a plan of action, the American public school has succeeded fantastically. Now everyone is equal in mediocrity and lack of knowledge. One of its missions has not been achieved: forcible creation of a classless society. We will examine the causes of this failure next since it relates to Nietzsche’s predictions of unhappiness for those who believed in state-mandated educational equality.

Here’s what I knew about education when I was 18

Fresh out of 12+ years of high end public education in Canada I had learned two (and a half) things about education. These two bits of information are relevant for understanding the closely related problems of poor academic performance and school violence.

1) Education means going to a school where bundles of knowledge are presented to students who are compelled by law (and subsidy, but I figured that out later) to be there. This learning occurs while sitting quietly at desks in rows, listening patiently to a teacher (most of whom genuinely care) teaching a standardized curriculum (the best!). Smart students will get good grades without much effort, “dumb” students will pass without much effort (because they need that education to succeed it would be unfair to deny them their future).

1.5) Europe’s version of this system has higher standards and works better some how.

2) The above I learned from experience and discussion with my peers, the following from watching discovery channel and in science class: all mammals learn by play fighting. Bear cubs gnaw on each other’s faces, squirrels chase each other, and in this constant movement they learn how to survive.

This second stylized fact about education points to a deep systemic cause for gruesome violence in schools. School is not the same thing as education. By confusing the two and establishing policy to dramatically increase schooling, we are essentially bear baiting teenagers and being left with predictable results.