Nietzsche’s ‘Supreme Principle of Education’

Nietzsche claims that the “supreme principle of education” is that “one should only offer food  to him who hungers for it.” That is, roughly, teaching should be guided not by the requirements of an abstract, generalized curriculum, but by the expressed needs of the learner. In keeping with Nietzsche’s generalized aristocratic and hierarchical sensibilities, education is not for all; it is only for those who express a desire to learn. Moreover, what they wish to learn will be guided by this desire, this hunger; they will not accept a substitute deemed necessary or desirable for them by some planner or designer of an educational system. Find out who wants to learn, and what they desire to learn (and why); education is thereby facilitated, and indeed, only becomes possible under these circumstances.

Nietzsche suggests that rather than having mathematics and physics forced upon us in the form of “thousands of…annoying, mortifying, irritating problems” our education should show us, in response to our lived experience of the world, that we “needed a knowledge of science and mathematics.” We should turn, perplexed by our interactions with a mysterious world that seems to embody regularities, to those whom we think know better and ask for guidance. Then, perhaps, we might find “delight in science.”

Needless to say, very little in our educational systems resembles the implementation of the prescription that Nietzsche offers here. They resemble instead, giant factories, which prepare and condition students for the world; rather than responding to the students’ hunger–of which they have plenty, even if inarticulately expressed–they seek to inculcate in them a hunger for a particular set of socially chosen aims and goals and ends. They are factories of ideology; they impress upon the student a value system that prepares them for efficient functioning in the world to which they are preparing to enter. A student might ‘choose’ a major but little about this choice is free; the student has been instructed and channeled for so long that his or her choices are all too plausibly viewed as the resultant effect of the various ‘educational’ (ideological) constraints  placed upon his or her learning.

A straightforward, ‘practical’ assessment of Nietzsche’s philosophy of education is that it is ‘impractical’ and implausible: students need to instructed, by those who know better, what they need to learn, so that they may make their way through this world as best as possible. But it is our desires, our ends, that predominate this discussion; there is little consultation with the students. Such an attitude is forced upon us, for we are in a terrible hurry to train our students, our children, and to send them out into the world to be productive and useful. There is a timetable of educational markers waiting after all; can we afford to let children play and explore and attempt to figure out this world and their educational needs for themselves when everyone knows that a child of four years must begin formal schooling in preschool and be out of high-school by the age of eighteen? Moreover, who has the time? Parents cannot spend such time with their children; they have to go to work, and must leave their children with other caretakers. Our society cannot afford so many little parasites running around, contributing little to the national GDP.  This is our train and it is headed for distant stations; there is no room for stragglers here, no time to seek out the hungry and ask what will nourish them.

Note: Excerpts from Daybreak: Thoughts on the Prejudices of Morality (trans. R. J. Hollingdale, Cambridge University Press, 1991, Book III, Section 195, p. 115)

Mary Wollstonecraft, Philosopher Of Education

In ‘Observations on the State of Degradation to which Woman is Reduced by Various Causes’ (Chapter IV of A Vindication of the Rights of Woman), Mary Wollstonecraft writes:

Reason is…the simple power of improvement; or, more properly speaking, of discerning truth. Every individual is in this respect a world in itself. More or less may be conspicuous in one being than another; but the nature of reason must be the same in all…can that soul be stamped with the heavenly image, that is not perfected by the exercise of its own reason? Yet outwardly ornamented with elaborate care, and so adorned to delight man…the soul of woman is not allowed to have this distinction…But, dismissing these fanciful theories, and considering woman as a whole…the inquiry is whether she has reason or not. If she has, which, for a moment, I will take for granted, she was not created merely to be the solace of man…

Into this error men have, probably, been led by viewing education in a false light; not considering it as the first step to form a being advancing gradually towards perfection; but only as a preparation for life.

The power of generalizing ideas, of drawing comprehensive conclusions from individual observations, is the only acquirement, for an immortal being, that really deserves the name of knowledge. Merely to observe, without endeavouring to account for any thing, may (in a very incomplete manner) serve as the common sense of life; but where is the store laid up that is to clothe the soul when it leaves the body?

In the second para quoted above, Wollstonecraft, after asserting the existence of reason in women–via a theological claim–goes on to establish a normative standard for education: its function is not purely vocational but also a spiritual and moral one. The task of education is the development of reason, the business of bringing to full fruition the divine gift granted all human beings by their Creator. The task of education is not mere ‘preparation’ for a narrowly circumscribed sphere of profane responsibility; it is, rather, to elevate and uplift each human being by making it possible for them to exercise their reason–as part of a process of gradually ‘perfecting’ their souls. Education is not prelude to the ‘real business’; it is the real business itself.

In the third para, Wollstonecraft asserts the importance of abstraction and generalization–implicit in these claims is the importance of pattern recognition. Humans cannot be content with particulars, with living from moment to moment; they must, through the mastery of these powerful intellectual tools, rise to a vantage point from which disparate phenomena can be tied together into explanatory wholes (and serve as the basis for future theory-building.) The ‘common sense of life’ is not the only standard that humans should aspire to; there are far loftier goals visible, the journey to which may only be made possible by the right kind of education.

Note: My Political Philosophy class and I read and discussed some excerpts from Vindication of the Rights of Woman yesterday; these two paragraphs led to a very interesting digression (ending up in computer science and binary numbers). Which is why I make note of them today.