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)

School Discipline And Socialization For The Carceral State

Schools are a buffer zone, artfully, strategically, placed between zones of dysfunction–the homes of ‘broken’ families, populated by the wrong ethnicity and racial category, which produce criminality and social pathology–and the rest of society. Here, a net may be cast, trawling through the swarms of schoolchildren, catching the bad, the misbehaved, the unrepentant repeat offenders practicing the tricks of the trade. Here, discipline may be applied in the name of tough love and muscular pedagogy, all the better to nip future outbreaks of antisocial violence in the bud. Here, police and school administrations may co-operate to give education a much-needed ‘correctional’ and ‘carceral’ edge.  Here, students may learn what fates await them in case they do not heed the warnings–dispensed with appropriate force, of course–that police officers, in co-operation with school administrators, direct at them.

Such, apparently, is the vision of school that underwrites school discipline today, one in which administrators, under the sway of a relentlessly constructed and reinforced vision of their wards as potential criminals, not only hasten to call in for armed and uniformed help on all too many occasions, but also demand the constant presence of the constabulary on campus.  In this vision–one that supplements the ‘teachers are babysitters’ one which is trotted out when school teachers go on strike–the burdens of disciplining the unruly can now be shared between the adult penal system and this ‘juvenile education facility.’

Education-shmeducation; reading-shmeading; learn to behave first.

Unsurprisingly, given the animating sentiments at play, students are treated by police–sometimes described as ‘school resource officers’ but always armed and equipped like folks with far less benign monikers–much as the residents of a correctional facility would be. A refusal to leave a classroom pops into focus through the lens of the school-as-prison perspective and appears akin to a jailyard riot; failure to comply entails the death of discipline. The police officers on duty in schools, taught and trained to extend their vision of the streets and neighborhoods outside as war zones into the boundaries of the school campus, respond to reports of such misbehavior with alacrity; it’s a 911, it’s a four-alarm fire, we need backup and possibly covering fire. Their responses and behavior, observed by the other students, inculcates important lessons: do not talk back to authority; comply with alacrity or face the consequences; violence will be visited upon you if arguments are not resolved. The critical thinking and speaking truth to power can come later, much later. Much, much later; once you are done serving time, that is.

The old saw about hammers and nails is inescapable here. When order is judged our supreme value, then all will be bent to its directives and requirements. A non-authoritarian society is a messy, fractious business; its path ne’er did run smooth. But it is the price that has to be paid if our obeisances to a democratic society are to not ring hollow. If the administration of our schools is any evidence, it has been judged too high a price to pay.

Our Police, Keeping Our World Safe From Young Black Women

The next time a video link passes you by on social media stop and take a closer look. Chances are, the dysfunction implicated in it can be traced back to one cause, and one cause alone: teenaged black women. And the police of this nation are on the case, keeping us safe by any means necessary.

Remember that black girl from the swimming pool party in McKinney, Texas, this past summer, the one wrestled to the ground by a brave policeman, Eric Casebolt, the one who executed a smart SEAL move, rolling and leaping into an Action Jackson move on his way to making said maneuvre? (For good measure, that policeman pulled his gun on the girl’s friends–presumably other thugs on the make–and let them know the precise fates that awaited in case their expressions of concern for their friend grew any louder.)

Attack_of_the_14_year_old_girl_Web

 

Well, she has a counterpart in Spring Valley, South Carolina, right down to a policeman with itchy arms and shoulders.

This juvenile miscreant, after committing the high crimes of being disruptive, and indulging in the dangerous activity of refusing to vacate the premises–nothing quite as threatening as a black person that does not leave when asked to–had to be wrestled to the ground and dragged out by a brave police officer.  The escalator to escalation was hailed and used quickly by him; not for him the patient assertion of his authority with judicious application of force. No, this called for application of the Powell Doctrine: overwhelming power, applied quickly and efficiently, with an aim to neutralize any hostile responses. (The application of a military doctrine to community policing is but one of the many talents this extremely accomplished officer of the peace–a ‘school resource officer’–brings to his daily assignments in the war zone, er, local neighborhoods. Officer Ben Fields’ “biography on the [school] website” indicates “he also coaches the school football team’s defensive line and is the team’s strength and conditioning coach.” Strength and conditioning well utilized, Sir.)

As the police officer performs his duties, quietly–except for the one warning directed at some ruffian in his audience that he will be the next person to feel the strong arm of the law on his collar–and efficiently, the other students look on in some awe. They have, in all probability, given their dark complexions, already experienced some of this tough love; they have now received another demonstration that that force may be applied, violently, to their recalcitrant behavior. This too, is education. It too, is dispensed in schools. Those students who will not learn their lessons today–about directing appropriate respect at uniformed armed men capable of exerting deadly force against you–will take their chances in the future, at their own risk. The ‘smart’ ones will police themselves from now on.

Officer Fields was not just subduing one stubborn subject; he was making other subjects docile too. And keeping all of us safe from those dangerous young black folk.

School as Preparatory Space for the Workplace

During the course of an essay on Keith Moon and the pleasures of drumming (‘The Fun Stuff‘, The New Yorker, 29 November 2010) James Wood writes:

Georges Bataille has some haunting words about how the workplace is the scene of our domestication and repression: it is where we are forced to put away our Dionysianism. The crazy sex from the night before is as if forgotten; the drunken marital argument of the weekend is erased; the antic children have disappeared; all the passionate music of life is turned off, and a false bourgeois order clothes you with the sack and quick penury awaiting you if you don’t obey. But Bataille might also have emphasized school, for school is work too–work before the adult workplace–and school tutors the adolescent in repression and the rectitude of the bourgeois order, at the very moment in life when, temperamentally and biologically, one is most Dionysiac and most enraged by the hypocritical ordinances of the parental league. [link added]

Bataille, Dionysus; these are some pretty heavy-duty invocations, marshaled to make a point almost every schoolboy knows and senses almost instinctively, deep in the core of his already-repressed self. School is a training and staging ground, a rehearsal space, a green room, for the regimented and regulated world on the ‘outside.’ But it does even more service than that, of course. It also frees up the child’s parents to put in their inadequately compensated eight hours or more in the workplace. School is not just preparatory for the workplace; it supports and enables it.

Some schools–like parochial religious ones, appropriately enough–perform this task of preparation better than others: generic school buses, pompous titles for teachers and administrators, prayer assemblies, and most interestingly, uniforms. Why do you think so many perfectly intelligent human beings put up with the idiocy of rigidly prescribed dress codes, which homogenize and straitjacket and which, as the examples of jackets and neckties in hot summers remind us, are so often inappropriate and uncomfortable? If they haven’t worn uniforms themselves, they’ve seen children wearing them; it reminds them of order, a good thing, as we are often old. The bit about assemblies and uniforms remind us that schools are also venues for flirtations with the military: who better to instruct and inspire us on the virtues of order and discipline and immediate, instinctive, unthinking obedience?

Note: It has been said the primary value of a putative employee’s college degree–for employers–is the knowledge it provides them of his or her ability to persist with a structured program for four years, maintain a schedule, read and write with some adequacy, and follow instructions.  This reductive view of a college education seems to be the one uppermost in the minds of those who plan university reform these days. Critical thinking would be a disruptive, subversive skill; better to merely emphasize the routine and the structural, all the better to prepare today’s graduate for the arrangements that await him in the workplace, the enduring site of his or her control, a space where–in the American context at least–the Constitution is put on hold.