Tuesday, July 13, 2021
Professional educators still talk about fashioning well-rounded graduates, but their words ring hollow. In our age of corporate wokeism, public and private schools from kindergarten to graduate school strive to turn students into standardized units of social and human capital. Confident expressions of cultured thought and feeling are in alarmingly short supply at the termini of what is now called the “education pipeline.” Schoolteachers and professors wield ideological abstractions like hammers to pound down individual particularities of heart and mind. Just as smooth blanks are needed for pressing coins, contrarian idiosyncrasies must be removed from souls that are to be stamped with the characterless visage of total political conformity.
This is no random analogy. As Friedrich Nietzsche observed in a series of public lectures at the University of Basel in 1872 (published in 2016 by New York Review Books under the title Anti-Education), the goal of the modern educational institution is to form people as rapidly as possible “who are, as the French say, ‘au courant’—the same way a coin is courant, valid currency.” Nietzsche fought against the reduction of education to the minting of civil servants, managers, and workers as ardently as any nineteenth-century German poet or philosopher. Like Goethe and Hegel, he conceived of education as Bildung, the “formation” or “cultivation” of individual natures—ideally worked, turned, and sown by their teachers with a lush variety of intellectual and spiritual seeds, stored up over centuries. If education is in some essential sense the internal development of individual nature, then it cannot be achieved by the outward stamp of orthodoxy.
“The free man ought not to learn any study slavishly,” Plato writes, for “no forced study abides in the soul.” The sorts of study that do abide in the soul are those that awaken and enliven the learner. For Nietzsche, it was the strange, dense, questionable books of antiquity—the classics—that drew him into the disciplined passion that the Greeks call philologia, or the love of words. The formation of “finished, ripe, harmonious personalities” (Nietzsche’s phrase) can take various paths, but all have one thing in common. They all require leisure—scholē, in Greek, the root of our word “school”: time away from material urgencies and social distractions.