Pedagogy with a Hammer: On the Use and Abuse of Nietzsche for a Neoliberal Era

HIGHER EDUCATION in the United States is in crisis, or so they say. For the past few years, journalists have followed its decline carefully, and not without the critic’s thinly veiled enthusiasm for calamity. The universities, they tell us, increasingly resemble global corporations with their international campuses and multibillion dollar endowments. Tuition has skyrocketed. Debt is astronomical. The classrooms themselves are more often run on the backs of precarious adjuncts and graduate students than by real professors. Still, the journalists are equally concerned with issues that can’t be accounted for statistically.

Anxiety over the sanctity of higher education has recently reached critical levels with the arrival of capitalism’s pedagogical instrument par excellence: the “Massive Open Online Course” (MOOC). MOOCs today loom high over the ivory tower, threatening to devalue education by thrusting open the floodgates to whoever wishes entry or, at least, has a vague inclination and internet access. Though the academy once measured its prestige in negative correlation to how few people it would allow, now, it faces extinction at the hand of a new kind of model that professes to allow pretty much anyone.

The do-gooder pedagogical outlook of MOOCs is just one of many. Earlier this year, Governor Scott Walker’s budget proposal included a revised mission statement for the University of Wisconsin, which switched out phrases like “search for truth” and “improving the human condition” for a much more modest, “meet[ing] the state’s workforce needs.” The motto wouldn’t be out of place in open course literature, where traditional humanistic mottos of higher education have been exchanged for a new kind of rhetorical appeal. The fact that education is also, now, a venture for capitalists is no longer a secret but a selling point. In the words of Oakland University professor Barbara Oakley, one can now take courses brought to you in part by “a creative mashup of academia meets Silicon Valley meets Hollywood.”

Like Silicon Valley, and like Hollywood, education has become a place that produces careerist and money-seeking individuals. The statistics support this. A well-known Harvard study from 2013 reported:

that university disciplines must do at least one of three things to draw the support of university administrators […] (i) be devoted to the study of money; or (ii) be capable of attracting serious research money; or (iii) demonstrably promise that its graduates will make significant amounts of money.

With all of this money going around, there’s also a lot of debt. At least one website’s sole function is to keep track of ever-escalating student loans, a digital doomsday clock counting up to the trillions. As long as education remains a profitable endeavor, which the Department of Treasury will ensure it does, the clock shall count ever-upward, and the market — which is to say, the students — will continue to expand ever-outward, accumulating negatively.

In an environment that appears to embrace, in an unprecedented way, the principles of vocation over education, there are more than a few stalwarts who hope to sustain some degree of decency. Their cause du jour: Education’s devaluation — that is, the devaluation of education in itself. This, they think, has been a more subterranean byproduct of the corporatization of higher education institutions. The lofty aims of self-betterment, acculturation, and moral development (to give just a few examples) have been forgotten in the face the recent drive toward newer, populist (but also capitalist) models of higher education. Our pedagogical system appears to operate according to nebulous vocational principles rather than the hodge-podge humanisms of yore. Gone is the heyday of the enlightened institution. It is possible, some fear, that an anti-education has emerged in its wake.


But there is nothing new under the sun, as a forthcoming translation of Nietzsche’s early lectures, Anti-Education (NYRB Classics), indicates. It appears that the hand-wringing over our ostensibly current and urgent crisis has a long-standing precedent, one that dates back to the years surrounding German unification.

In 1869, at the ripe age of 24, Friedrich Nietzsche was appointed to the faculty at University of Basel as a classical philologist. Part of his post required that he give instruction publically for six hours in addition to the eight hours a week he would have to teach at the university. So, in 1872, Nietzsche gave a series of five lectures on the subject of higher education. Though the lectures would consider Prussian education specifically, they were delivered at Basel’s city museum to a crowd of cultured, but not necessarily scholarly, individuals. Perhaps feeling a bit freer to explore oratory form outside of the university context, Nietzsche’s lectures are told as a tale. He recalled before the audience, which usually packed the auditorium fully, a story from his adolescence.

As a student in Bonn, young Nietzsche and a fraternity brother were out in the woods for shooting practice. The occasion was an anniversary of sorts. A few years earlier, they had decided to form a small club with some schoolmates, “an organization imposing certain set obligations on our literary and artistic aspirations.” This extracurricular gathering had been essential to their development as students — it was “no mere supplement to our gymnasium studies,” recalled Nietzsche, “if anything the reverse.” So they decided each year to revisit the “isolated spot near Rolandsdeck” on the anniversary of the late-summer day when they had originally been inspired to start the club. While firing commemorative shots into the air, they startled two other men in a clearing: one, an elderly, solitary but nonetheless renowned philosopher, and the other, his middle-aged former student, a disenchanted academic. The two parties have a brief altercation. It seems that both need to occupy the clearing for the rest of the day: the philosopher told an old friend that he would wait for him there, while the younger men need the space for their ceremonious and reflective purposes. Young Nietzsche explains: “We have made a solemn vow to spend the next hour there. There’s a reason: A happy memory makes the place sacred to us, and we hope it will also lay the groundwork for a happy future.” So, the two groups make amends, share the clearing, and occupy two separate benches at either end. The younger duo’s reflection on their club, and on their education at-large, comes to a close around nightfall when their ears begin to perk up. They listen to the conversation going on at the other end between the philosopher and his companion.

Nietzsche’s rehearsal of this conversation between master and pupil takes up the bulk of the lectures. In his introductory remarks, he says that “the main points” these two men made about education, “along with the whole way they approached the question, impressed themselves so firmly upon my memory that when I consider these matters I have no choice but to reflect along similar lines.” The lectures thereby mimic, to some degree or another, the form of a Platonic dialogue. As he unfolds the positions of this older Socratic figure, and his younger pupil, we can only surmise that Nietzsche’s own argument is to be found somewhere in between. It becomes difficult to parse where and when the “real” Nietzsche emerges in reading through them, especially because he seems to view his younger self with a good deal of critical distance. As with Plato, we might assume, for the moment at least, that he finds in the Socratic figure a mouthpiece more proximate to the truth than his younger self could have conceivably been. And if we remember that Nietzsche was still quite young even when he was lecturing the audience in Basel, his choice of using an esteemed and established figure as a vehicle for his own views would appear to be a fathomable hypothesis. But, more on this later.

Originally called “On the Future of Our Educational Institutions,” these lectures have been freshly and elegantly retranslated into English by Damion Searls, slapped with the title: Anti-Education. Not simply punchier, the new title also performs the service of differentiating this translation from the one by Michael W. Grenke, published only a few years ago by St. Augustine’s Press (2009). Still, it leads us toward the text rather obliquely, gesturing at once toward polemical convention and, on the other hand, toward Nietzsche’s own oeuvre.


In their introduction, coeditors Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon frame Nietzsche’s lectures historically. They take shape, they tell us, at a moment when education in Prussia is undergoing unprecedented democratization. Though a diploma from gymnasium, which only three percent of the population was awarded, had been the only way to attend university, it would now be open to a significantly larger amount of students. The Prussian government had relaxed the requirements in recent years so that university was open to graduates of Bürgerschulen, secondary schools that combined elements of classical and vocational education, teaching Latin alongside crafts and commercial trades. As a result, the universities began to focus on more practical studies, like mathematics and sciences, while humanities enrollment declined through the 1870s from 60 percent down to 53 percent. At the same time, the disciplines began to mirror the specialization and professionalization taking place in the non-academic world. As the older, Socratic figure says at the end of Lecture I, “a scholar with such rarefied specialty is like a factory worker who spends his entire life doing nothing but making one single screw.”

Like the screw-maker, who becomes virtuosic in executing his only task, the scholar’s total separation from all other fields is held up as evidence of his genius. The total remoteness of his work is “a badge of honor, a sign of noble moderation.” Likewise, the philosopher’s student is eminently concerned with this narrowing of scholarship against the background of greater democratization. In a turn of phrase that Nietzsche uses once more at the end of his last lecture, calling it the “thesis” of his argument, he says:

It seems to me 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 expansion and dissemination of education; the other is the drive for the narrowing and weakening of education. 

He later adds that this phenomenon has allowed scholarship to be eclipsed by journalism. “It is in journalism that the two tendencies converge,” he says. “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.” Gravitation toward journalism and other popular forms of critique was wrapped up in a forgetting of classical education. This forgetting begins with the curriculum at the gymnasium, which instructs its students to prematurely cultivate their personalities by writing indulgent personal essays, among other worthless exercises, and ends with the mindless vocational training that goes on in university. And even though both the gymnasium and the university claim to appreciate the classics, a true classical model would involve something to which they have not yet committed, namely, a serious consideration of language. 

“In sum,” the old philosopher says, “the gymnasium has neglected and still neglects the one place where true education begins, and the readiest subject to hand: the mother tongue.” Disciplined mastery of German is, for the philosopher, the only way that a pupil can begin to formulate true critique. Once he understands how difficult language is, how slippery and misguiding, only then will he “feel physical disgust for the ‘refined diction’ of our literati and the ‘elegance’ of style so beloved and praised in our novelists and mass-producers of journalism.” At first this whiff of snobbery seems reasonable enough. But it soon takes on an intensely elitist, if not vehemently oligarchic, bent. Education is necessary only insofar as it allows a society to recognize its own, very select number of geniuses. It is a mistake, the older philosopher says, to think that education can produce a large amount of exceptional individuals. In reality, it produces very few. But it is the responsibility of the cultured and educated to keep one’s eye out for these truly remarkable individuals, and to nurture them when they emerge. “The genius is not actually born of culture, or education: His origin is, as it were, metaphysical,” the philosopher says. “But for him to appear, to emerge from a people […] all of this the genius can only do if he has been ripened in the womb and nourished in the lap of his people’s culture.” It appears the purpose of the institution is not simply to keep afloat amid a sea of deceptive drudgery, but also something more essential, and more authoritarian.


Reitter and Wellmon find Nietzsche’s critiques particularly applicable to our current situation. “Indeed,” they write, “much of what Nietzsche says about the German crises finds an echo in contemporary debates about the humanities, despite vast historical differences.” To draw this comparison, the editors levy examples of contemporary columnists-cum-academics like Mark Edmundson, William Deresiewicz, and Andrew Delbanco, whom they call “three of the most prominent voices calling for American colleges and universities to honor the humanist mission.” These three, surely the kind of journalists that the philosopher and his student would have no tolerance for, brandish a nostalgic concern for the humanities in the face of its current crisis. “In the hands of dedicated teachers,” write Reitter and Wellmon in summary of this position, “the humanities guide students through immersion studies in works that, exotic or irrelevant though they may seem, can change their lives as no other material can.” The difference between Nietzsche and these guys, at least according to the editors, is that while “Nietzsche shared this belief […] he was not content, as Edmundson, Deresiewicz, and Delbanco sometimes seem to be to recite the credo.” In lieu of credos, they urge the reader to consider ostensibly Nietzschean bequests: questions, not truisms. What if, they wonder rhetorically, we looked at the value shifts behind these more seismic changes in the academic landscape?

What if students at elite colleges are majoring in economics rather than English not because they feel they have to […] but rather because in the climate of today, the values supporting this faith have been losing their purchase? What if there is an ongoing thinning of the ranks of students with a visceral belief in the power of reflective conversation […] that is, in the core enterprise of the humanities?

These are the questions that the humanities-loving English professors have failed to ask. They take into consideration a set of “unsettling possibilities,” possibilities more urgent than those who take aim at higher education crisis with numbers or pat phrases. “Whoever wants to think seriously about the future of the humanities,” which is to say, anyone who has picked up a copy of NYRB’s Anti-Education, “would do well to consider these possibilities, even if the answers might bring us little comfort.” But, we might pity the soul who seeks in Nietzsche a salve and finds, instead, a series of doors slamming with the thrust of aristocratic exclusivity.

In 1872, the same year as his lectures, Nietzsche published his famously un-acclaimed The Birth of Tragedy. Part polemic, part historical argument, this was the work of an impassioned yet disenchanted scholar. Like the lectures, The Birth of Tragedy’s style refuses the contemporary conventions of academic style, borrowing instead from what he would later call “psychological innovations and artists’ secrets,” rather than reasoned philological research. This made for quite the controversial publication. Nietzsche was all but ostracized from the philological community for producing such an unrigorous study, and essentially ignored by his advisor, Friedrich Wilhelm Ritschl, who had formerly said of his student, in his recommendation for the post in Basel: “He is the idol.” 

Even Nietzsche admitted his disappointments. Reflecting back on Birth in the 1888 preface to the book, “An Attempt at Self-Criticism,” Nietzsche concedes that it was both “impossible” and “questionable.” But, he still believed that what he had “managed to seize upon at that time, something fearful and dangerous, was a problem with horns.” Looking back, he wrote, “I would state that it was the problem of scholarship itself, scholarly research for the first time grasped as problematic, as dubious.” Wrestling with the so-called dubiousness of scholarship, The Birth of Tragedy is a reckless and reactionary reflection on the development of Greek art forms as they tend toward, well, the birth of tragedy. Tragedy, says Nietzsche, is born out of a characteristically Greek kind of suffering, which is to say it’s born from the encounter between Apollonian and Dionysian forces. (The presence of such obviously dialectical form later led Nietzsche to say of the book: “It smells offensively Hegelian.”) These forces comingle to produce an image of suffering at once indifferent and passionate, ugly and beautiful, and this, for Nietzsche, is precisely the crowning achievement of Classical culture: it admits and affirms the world even in spite of its hideousness. 

Like all things, Greek tragedy dies. And according to Nietzsche’s story, it was murdered by none other than Socrates. Against tragedy, it was Socrates who first proposed that suffering could be understood rationally and scientifically rather than artistically. The entry of cold-blooded Socratism into Greek culture meant that creativity withered away to admit the kind of reason that Kantianism took as its foundation and, thus, made way for the modern rationality that Nietzsche so criticized in his later writings. But, in an age overwhelmingly dominated by the ghost of Socrates, there was still a way to circumvent his influence and continue creating art. For Nietzsche, this is most clearly evinced by Plato’s dialogues, where the Socratic figure is manipulated to fit Plato’s philosophical needs. In The Birth of Tragedy, he writes:

[T]he Platonic dialogue was the boat on which the older forms of poetry, together with all her children, sought refuge after their shipwreck; crowded together in a narrow space, and anxiously submissive to the one helmsman, Socrates, they now sailed into a new world which never tired at gazing at this fantastic spectacle.

The world we have inherited is not so distant from this one. Even Plato, whose debt to Socratic reason was much more immediate than ours, was able to distance himself from Socratic influence precisely by appropriating Socrates’s voice as one among many others. In other words, Platonic dialogues are distinct from Socraticism insofar as they employ stylistic heterogeneity in order to survive the hegemony of the helmsman. They both identify with Socrates and rebuke him — it is the pupil’s half-hearted denunciation of his master.

When seen alongside The Birth of Tragedy, Nietzsche’s use of Platonic dialogue, and the presence of our old philosopher friend, gets a bit more complicated. Can we trust him? Do we believe that his opinions are the same as Nietzsche’s? The co-editors suggest that any dissonance in opinion is merely Nietzsche’s way of underscoring “the difficulty of reform.” But is this really why the students and the companion “overlook what the philosopher takes to be one of his essential points”? In light of Nietzsche’s stance on the Platonic dialogue, each viewpoint takes on an additional layer of hermeneutic difficulty. It could be the case that young Nietzsche, his companion, and the disenchanted academic, are crowded together in a skiff, anxiously submissive to a lunatic of a helmsman, raving about a womb-ripened genius. But even though it’s tempting to graft Nietzsche’s disavowal of Socrates onto this philosopher, and annul his views, it turns out that, particularly in Nietzsche’s case, nothing can be said so straightforwardly.


The “are they or aren’t they” of Nietzsche and Wagner finds striking similarities to the equally tempestuous relationship between Nietzsche and Socrates. Walter Kaufmann and Sarah Kofman have argued, among many others, that it’s complicated. According to them Nietzsche’s apparent hatred has been taken too much at face value. Although he undeniably pegs Socratism with the murder of tragedy, it’s also necessary for the continuation of art “by virtue of its own infinity.” Kaufmann goes so far as to suggests that Nietzsche experiences a special “self-identification” with Socrates, an inclination confirmed by an unpublished note from the summer of 1875 where Nietzsche writes: “I must confess that Socrates is so close to me that I am almost always fighting a battle with him.”

Yet, neither the most choice nor opportune fragment can serve as tidy metonymy for the philosopher’s corpus. This we learn from Derrida in his 1978 study, Spurs: Nietzsche’s Styles. He brings to our attention a very strange item from Nietzsche’s unpublished manuscripts. Fragment no. 12,175 reads, spuriously: “‘I have forgotten my umbrella.’” Derrida considers the existence of this scribble from a few different angles. Do we know, even, that Nietzsche wrote it? Is it a citation? An overheard something-or-other? It resists interpretation if that interpretation depends upon understanding Nietzsche as a coherent person contiguous with his writing since, “the meaning and the signature that appropriates it remain in principle inaccessible.” Derrida follows this up with an even more harrowing proposition: “What if Nietzsche himself meant to say nothing, or at least not much of anything, or anything whatever? Then again, what if Nietzsche was only pretending to say something?” These hypotheticals imagine “unsettling possibilities” beyond the editors’ wildest dreams. But, they beg to be considered when our most famous philosophers’ most minor writings continue to be published at a relative remove from the rest of their work.

Timely though it may be, Anti-Education should not simply allow us to perceive the historical resonances between Nietzsche’s time and ours, but to question what kind of forces have created these resonances. And, furthermore, think about the way we ask these kinds of questions. In one of the first attempts to take Nietzsche seriously in the 20th century, Gilles Deleuze points out that Nietzsche was never content to ask the Platonic question “what is…?” but radically reformulated the questions that metaphysics could ask, wondering instead: “which one is it?” Deleuze summarizes Nietzsche’s position by asking: “what are the forces which take hold of a given thing, what is the will that possesses it?” To think with Deleuze, we might ask ourselves: which Nietzsche is being engaged by this publication?

“Sharp and mild, dull and keen, well known and strange, dirty and clean, where both the fool and wise are seen: All this am I, have ever been, — in me a dove, snake, and swine convene.” Nietzsche was self-declaredly difficult to define. He resisted the synthetic and the systematic, the whole and programmatic — all things Hegelian and the Socratic. He sought to leave the contradictions unsolved. But particularly in America, Nietzsche has been made to mean certain things at certain moments; his thought has been leveraged according to varying agendas and aims: anarchist, socialist, and neoconservativist alike. Here, now, the publication takes great pains to unleash a progressive and liberal Nietzscheanism, to wield it against the education institutions of our time. The aristocratic and anti-democratic elements, Nietzsche’s unsavory bits, have been elided in order to provide an occasion to reflect on our own situation — to treat him presciently. What gets ignored is that these lectures also provide an occasion to reflect on the proto-fascistic tendencies of Nietzsche’s thought: the emphasis on the renewal of the German spirit, the effort to create a connection between the Germanic and Classic, the latent authoritarianism lying behind the struggle to found a cult of genius — all of these things would, too, be unleashed and wielded on behalf of National Socialism not a century after the lectures took place. But this book, insofar as it can be said to have some bearing on the current situation, at least lends us a picture of what it looks like when disparate pedagogical tendencies get trapped together in a remote clearing. That is to say, it gives us an idea of just how far removed these conversations about the institution are from the institutions themselves.


Mimi Howard is a sometime scholar and writer living in New York.