Back to School with the Übermensch


On Translation

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. 

To those who believe such things, “any education that makes a person go his own way, or that suggests goals above and beyond earning money, or that takes a lot of time,” is anathema. They hate, in other words, any true education.

The point is even more convincing in German, where the word for education is Bildung, from the verb bilden, to form. Bildung is the process of forming the most desirable self, as well as the end point of that process. Undergoing Bildung means entering the realm of the fully formed: true culture is the culmination of an education, and true education transmits and creates culture. Bildung means both.

All well and good, but Nietzsche, as usual, goes further, ending up in uncomfortable territory.

After all, it’s today’s students themselves who are choosing to pursue Gain over True Education. The self they want to form is rich, or can at least afford rent and health insurance. Nietzsche may have been a music-loving slacker, with a D average one semester in high school and “feeling no need to advance quickly and get on with his career.” (Even in his day, this attitude was “admittedly almost unimaginable in our restless, turbulent times … If such a condition is possible, it must certainly be reprehensible. Our times are so averse to anything and everything useless, and how useless we were in school! How proud we were not to be of use!”) But that was his business. For essayists, educators, or us to say that today’s students have the wrong priorities means overriding their right to decide for themselves.

Education, then, becomes a process that cares nothing for the student’s “individual personality,” as Nietzsche puts it in satirical scare quotes. Such so-called freedom is actually nothing but anarchy and barbarism. He piles it on—“Oh happy age, when the young are wise and educated enough to teach themselves how to walk!” He ridicules the schools of the present day, his day and ours, which “cultivate independence while other eras believed in cultivating dependence, discipline, subordination, and obedience—resisting with all their might every delusion of independence!”

It comes as no surprise that Nietzsche was all for discipline and submission, but perhaps unexpectedly, his ultimate example of this training is writing style. Only an “artistically serious, rigorous training in the use of the mother tongue” is the true path to a “sensibility able to distinguish between form and abomination, the first flutter of the wing that can carry us to the infinitely distant stronghold of Hellenic culture, ringed round with its adamantine ramparts.” (Yowza!) I am happy to report that nothing works better to this end than the splendid practice of translation:

The most salutary thing about the school system as we know it today is that it takes the Greek and Latin languages seriously for years on end. Students learn respect for grammar and the dictionary, for a language fixed by rules; a mistake is a mistake, and one need not be put out at every moment by the claim that caprices and misdemeanors of grammar and spelling, like the ones we find today, can be justified. If only this respect for language were not floating in limbo—a purely theoretical burden, as it were, from which one is immediately released on returning to the mother tongue! But the teacher of Latin or Greek typically doesn’t bother with his native language; from the start, he treats it as a place to relax after the rigorous discipline of Latin and Greek. The splendid practice of translating from one language into another, so beneficial in stimulating an artistic sense for one’s own language, is never applied with appropriate rigor and dignity to the undisciplined contemporary language where these qualities are needed most. And even these translation exercises are becoming less and less common: It is enough to understand the classical languages, one needn’t bother to speak them.

Again, that sounds admirable enough, but the result of this progress turns out to be an ingrained elitism: “After being subjected to such discipline, and only then, the young person will feel physical disgust for the ‘refined diction’ of our literati and the ‘elegance’ of style so beloved and praised today.” Nietzsche imagines the school system itself proclaiming to its students:

“Take your language seriously! If you cannot feel a sacred duty here, then you have not even the seed of higher culture within you. How you handle your mother tongue reveals how much you respect art, or how little; how close an affinity you have for it. If certain words and turns of phrase habitual today do not inspire physical disgust, then abandon your pursuit of culture.”

So learning to write means learning to be physically repulsed by those less talented, or less fortunate in their teachers. The educated loathe the uneducated, the better educated loathe the less well educated, and the Truly Educated are subjected to a constant barrage of nausea from everybody else. Taste is concentrated in ever smaller, if “higher,” circles, and only a tiny few are Educated in the fullest sense. This dirty little secret is “the cardinal principle of education”:

No one would strive for education if they knew how unbelievably small the number of truly educated people actually was, or ever could be. But it is impossible to achieve even this small quota of truly educated people unless a great mass of people is tricked, seduced, into going against their nature and pursuing an education. As a result, we must never publicly betray the ridiculous disproportion between the number of truly educated people and the size of our monstrously overgrown educational system. That is the real secret of education: Countless people fight for it, and think they are fighting for themselves, but at bottom it is only to make education possible for a very few.

Just as capitalism produces increasingly concentrated wealth, education necessarily leads to a widening inequality of culture.

According to Nietzsche, then, it’s not just free-market dogma that goes against True Education, as this version of the argument puts it, but pretty much any ideal of democracy or individual freedom—a much more bitter pill to swallow. If you want your education to have a nonmonetary value, you lose your right to decide what that value should be. It’s a lot less easy to agree with this line of thought, or like it, but it’s hard to see just where it takes its wrong turn—where the gadabout shaking his fist at Utility becomes the nauseated reactionary. Surely a school where students can express some “individual personality” isn’t worthless, but try to work out a vision of education that doesn’t involve forcing young people to do things they don’t necessarily want to do.

I don’t think that for all the first-graders who started last week, going to college will be as self-evident in twelve years as it was for me. It’s all too easy to imagine economic, educational, or social conditions that will make it not worth it. And the mere fact of having to ask oneself what it’s “worth” may be the whole problem, the whole loss.

Damion Searls, the Daily’s language columnist, is a translator from German, French, Norwegian, and Dutch.