The Daily

Posts Tagged ‘school’

Back to School with the Übermensch

September 16, 2015 | by

Nietzsche on education, inequality, and translation.

Nietzsche as a pupil at Schulpforta, 1861.

 When I went off to college, it wasn’t, as far as I could tell, the result of any decision. The assumption—the fact—was simply there, in my family or high school or race and class or wherever it was, that there was more to come after twelfth grade. I didn’t appreciate the privilege nearly enough, but I also felt no need to justify to myself or anyone else how I planned to spend the next four years. There must still be such eighteen or nineteen year olds out there, never expected to explain themselves, but it is harder to imagine them. Nowadays, education is fraught and embattled and debated and doubted down to the core.

I feel like I’ve read the same essay half a dozen times recently­—here are two good examples—an essay insisting that the true value of education is not calculable in monetary terms. Education is moral, philosophical: a process of creating and becoming better people. You can make the argument that a liberal-arts education is “valuable” in the narrow sense, since it is, but even if that argument wins some battles—and it rarely does—it will lose the war. Once you concede that economic striving takes priority over artistic or humanistic goals, then arts funding and English degrees and even pure science are never going to withstand the juggernaut of business and technology. You have to fight under a higher standard.

I agree with this line of thought and am happy enough to see the point made half a dozen times over. I’ve read it recently in Friedrich Nietzsche, too, whose little-known 1872 lectures On the Future of Our Educational Institutions are appearing this fall in my new translation under the snappier title Anti-Education. Even in Nietzsche’s day, the state and the masses were apparently clamoring for

as much knowledge and education as possible—leading to the greatest possible production and demand—leading to the greatest happiness: that’s the formula. Here we have Utility as the goal and purpose of education, or more precisely Gain: the highest possible income … Culture is tolerated only insofar as it serves the cause of earning money. 

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Growing Pains

May 28, 2015 | by


From Punch, 1877.

“Do you realize,” my friend Susannah said to me, “that we’re getting too old to be precocious?” This was at the start of the sixth grade. Susannah was, in fact, very precocious: politically minded, she had styled herself as an outspoken feminist, organizing an abortive boycott of a substitute gym teacher’s sexist softball practices. “I know,” she said sympathetically when she saw my face. “That’s how I felt, too—I almost cried. It’s a tragedy.”

This was dramatic, but Susannah wasn’t wrong. In some ways, the sands of time were running out, and our glory days were behind us. Soon, behaviors we’d once been rewarded for would be recognized as obnoxious, or precious, or odd. We’d have to hide them rather than flaunt them. What had been advanced was now arrested. Students at this point were honored for work and accomplishment rather than for quirks of early development. Read More »

New Words

April 8, 2015 | by


Sometime in the third grade, a girl in my class began to claim she was ambidextrous. Previously, this girl had said she wanted to be a marine biologist. She also claimed to have athlete’s foot. This girl was a pretentious liar.

In fairness, marine-biology ambitions were all the rage that year. We were just moving beyond the easy descriptor stage; it was no longer enough to want an occupation you could identify from a Richard Scarry book, such as baker, doctor, or fireman. Now people wanted to be not just teachers but middle-school teachers, not just football stars but running backs—ideally, our choices conveyed an element of mystery and worldliness to the other kids. Still, generally speaking, our ideas for future careers were about as complicated as those you see in contemporary romance novels, where the heroines have easily explained jobs that seldom seem to interfere with the business of being a glamorous grown-up. Marine biology, with its vague hints of tropical waters and dolphins, seemed like a perfect career path for both the frivolous animal-lover and the committed scientist. None of us was sure what it entailed. Read More »

Wittgenstein, Schoolteacher

March 5, 2015 | by

What the philosopher learned from his time in elementary-school classrooms.

Ludwig Wittgenstein, who knew how to sully a chalkboard with the best of them.

Every philosophy major has at some point had to answer the standard challenge: “What are you going to do, teach?” It’s especially frustrating after you realize that, for someone with a humanist bent and a disinterest in worldlier things, teaching is a pretty good career choice. Unemployables in the humanities might take comfort from the fact that one of the twentieth century’s greatest philosophers, Ludwig Wittgenstein, made the same choice. He revolutionized philosophy twice, fought with shocking bravery in World War I, inspired a host of memoirs by people who knew him only glancingly—and for six years taught elementary school in the mountains of rural Austria. Biographers have tended to find this bizarre. Chapters covering the period after his teaching years, when Wittgenstein returned to philosophy, are usually called something like “Out of the Wilderness.” (That one’s from Ray Monk’s excellent Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. The next chapter is called “The Second Coming.”)

By the time he decided to teach, Wittgenstein was well on his way to being considered the greatest philosopher alive. First at Cambridge, then as an engineer and soldier, Wittgenstein had finished his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, at once an austere work of analytic philosophy and—for some readers, Wittgenstein apparently included—an almost mystical experience. In it, he claimed charmingly and not without reason to have solved all the problems of philosophy. This was because of the book’s famous “picture theory of meaning,” which held that language is meaningful because, and only because, of its ability to depict possible arrangements of objects in the world. Any meaningful statement can be analyzed as such a depiction. This leads to the book’s most famous conclusion: that if a statement does not depict a possible arrangement of objects, it doesn’t mean anything at all. Ethics, religion, the nature of the world beyond objects … most statements of traditional philosophy, Wittgenstein contended, are therefore nonsense. And so, having destroyed a thousand-year tradition, Wittgenstein did the reasonable thing—he dropped the mic and found a real job teaching kids to spell. Read More »

Inch by Inch

January 31, 2014 | by


When we graduated sixth grade, in the skirts and ties we had laboriously sewn—mine was apple-green gingham—with the corsages and boutonnieres our teachers had made to match, I was the first to receive my diploma. This was not a particular distinction; it was just because I was the shortest person in the entire grade. And at the end of the ceremony, we sang “The Garden Song,” aka “Inch by Inch, Row by Row,” and I remember being very conscious that this was the last time we would ever sing it, and that now everything would be different. And not just because we were moving to the Upper School Campus a few hundred yards away. Because we would not be allowed to be kids in the same way ever again. I remember blinking back tears.

All week, I have wanted to write about Pete Seeger, but every time I sit down to do so I have been overcome with emotion and affection for my progressive elementary school with its earnest devotion to the tenets of secular humanism and folk music, and have wanted to write hundreds of pages. I want to write about City and Country and the Weed Wallow and the holiday assembly and the apple assembly. And Mary and Sally and Joyce and Colleen and and Mrs. English and Betty (teachers) and Mr. Schwartz (the principal) and Mr. Ellis (the custodian).

In fifth grade, in June, we donned costumes and did sword dances and played recorders and invited our parents to the medieval feast. At the third grade cookout we wore the Native American garb we had sewn and beaded and dyed with onionskins and cooked fish and oysters in a fire behind the upper-school library. Then, there was the endless work on those skirts. I also know that none of this would mean anything to anyone who didn’t attend my school, and that we all have our own early memories, tender as a bruise, and that unless one is Proust, it really doesn’t much matter. Read More »

Unbroken Crayon

August 20, 2013 | by

one wax crayon

Everywhere I look there is paint. In the bristles of the brushes, hastily run through the sink, that bake atop the windowsill, on the collage of red and black splotches staining the metal table, filling bottles on the back shelf with tempera greens and blues, and dirtying the smocks my classmates gleefully slip on. To them, making papier-mâché panda bears out of old newspapers is a reward for practicing rows of cursive Ks and struggling through multiplication quizzes. I am the one who stares at the clock waiting for a sluggish second hand to make its orbit so I can be a minute closer to the well-worn marble notebooks tucked inside my desk.

Mrs. Grigg is our art teacher. She has a mane of gray curls, wears long, flowing skirts, and smells of musk. I discover that her first name is Yolanda, an ethereal departure from the Pats and Joannes who preside over the PTA bake sales, and I think maybe I can ask her what is wrong with me. Yolanda will tell me the truth. But I see the way she scowls when my ruler fails to prevent crooked lines, and when my green, left-handed scissors leave ragged edges, maligning what could have been a perfect triangle. So I remain silent. One day we are making Santa Clauses out of construction paper. For the artistically average children they will become centerpieces at the Christmas dinner table. I will toss mine into a garbage can on the walk home from school. As I curl strips of white paper around a pencil to make Santa’s beard, frustrated they aren’t half as springy as those the kids around me are churning out, I sulk.

“Are you miserable?” Mrs. Grigg asks me as she shifts the glasses from around her neck to the bridge of her nose and peers at my deformed Santa. I nod. Finally, I tell myself, Yolanda realizes no good can come from me sitting in this room pretending I have a shred of artistic talent. I fear art class almost as much as gym, where I can’t dribble a basketball and am picked last for teams. Even when the kickball is placed on home plate instead of rolled to me, my foot fails to make contact. Surely, being uncoordinated is punishment enough for an elementary school girl surrounded by ruthlessly laughing children. But Mrs. Grigg does not tell me I can sit in the corner and read my language arts textbook as I have dreamed. “You should have told me. You could have made a dreidel,” she says. She leaves me choking in the mist of her earthy perfume before I can tell her I am not Jewish. I continue winding shreds of paper around the unsharpened No. 2, one eye on the clock. Read More »