Among philosophers of the Western canon, Friedrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900) has, second only to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, the ability to terrify, delight, inspire and repulse readers. And like Rousseau, whose writings Edmund Burke charged with fomenting the French Revolution, Nietzsche’s powerful rhetoric, too, has been misinterpreted and abused throughout history. However, it seems that Nietzsche was, from the earliest stage in his philosophic thought, aware of this power and sought, at least for a time, to construct his texts in a way that would force discerning readers to “guess what could only be suggested, complete what must be concealed.” That is to say, he took marked care that what might have been most explosive in his writing could only be understood by those who could “read the secret between the lines.” This new manner of writing, signifying perhaps a shift in Nietzsche’s philosophic presentation, began with “On the Future of Our Educational Institutions.”

Except for one thing.

“On the Future of Our Educational Institutions,” a book that would have followed immediately from his first, “The Birth of Tragedy,” was never officially published (“Untimely Meditations,” instead, came second). Conceived as a philosophic dialogue between an aged philosopher, his school-teacher friend and two university students, Nietzsche presented the drama in a series of five public lectures at the University of Basel between January and March 1872. After its resounding success—it attracted the attention and attendance of Jacob Burckhardt and Richard and Cosima Wagner—Nietzsche edited and sent the text in for publication. Surprisingly, however, Nietzsche later decided to pull it from the publisher for reasons St. John’s College tutor (and translator of an excellent English edition of “On the Future of Our Educational Institutions”) Michael Grenke notes may lay more in a concern for “the quality of the readers” than dissatisfaction with the quality of his writing. Expressed differently, “On the Future of Our Educational Institutions” had, at its core, a profound, perhaps even dangerous lesson; one that even in its dialogic form could not be responsibly presented to the public.

The dialogue takes place in a mountainous, heavily forested region along the Rhine, where two university students (one of whom is the narrator) have gathered to shoot pistols and engage in philosophic reverie. They bump into another twosome, an old philosopher and a middle-aged teacher, who are waiting for the arrival of a third friend. After an initial misunderstanding over the firing of pistols, and as the sun fades and dark settles round, the two students find themselves listening to a conversation between the two pedagogues, the subject of which is the state of education in Germany (or rather, the state of education simply) and—crucially—what is to be done, if anything, toward its reformation and revitalization.

Admitting “On the Future of Our Educational Institutions” is a complex text, and guarding against the temptation to assign a one-to-one correspondence between Nietzsche’s thought any one of the interlocutors, a few themes emerge from the text fairly clearly. Chief among them is the argument that the German Gymnasium (university) no longer educates for or toward “culture,” and forsakes in its curriculum that most noble of all ancient cultures, the Greek. That is to say, what were once incubators, if only for a few lofty spirits, of classical education and mores, in Nietzsche’s time became designed for the production of lawyers, technocrats and government functionaries. As the philosopher-protagonist notes, “For the present-day Gymnasium students the Hellenes as Hellenes are dead: yes, he has his joy in Homer, but a novel by Spielhagen chains him more strongly by far.” Substitute, perhaps, Harry Potter or Malcolm Gladwell with Spielhagen, and one begins to understand Nietzsche’s point.

Much of “On the Future of Our Educational Institutions” will be familiar, and may even arouse sympathy, with those engaged in the culture wars of today. But what is unfamiliar, and would surely shock now as it would have in Nietzsche’s day, is the refrain that the “education of the mass is not our goal;” that “true education” is for those with aristocratic souls. The German state—writ large—impedes the reformation of the educational apparatus. As the philosopher-protagonist suggests, it simply has too much to lose. Thus, throughout the dialogue, Nietzsche appears to set in opposition the needs of the many with the needs of the few. This relationship, and how it ties into an ennobled education, lies at the heart of a text anyone concerned with the private or public function of education should read.

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