Article

Alan Jacobs


"The Centrifugal Experience of Knowledge"

Education as "character-forming."

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It is, of course, impossible not to flinch for a moment when the philosopher declares that "just as great leaders need followers, so too must the led have a leader"—ein Führer. But perhaps it softens the blow to see how the philosopher's image of the ideal leader is an orchestral conductor, who is able to bring out the greatest gifts of the musicians and their variety of personalities and inclinations, and draw forth from them the most beautiful music—something that Germany's existing educational instructions simply cannot do.

And with this image the lectures come to an abrupt stop.

How might Nietzsche have finished his lectures? According to his correspondence, he failed to do so not because he ran out of time but because he didn't know what to say. The narrator and his friend, who had encountered this philosopher by accident when they brought their pistols to a park to engage in some target practice, have listened attentively—but has the philosopher moved them? Has he provided for them a compelling picture of education as Bildung—one that, despite their occasional interest in art and ideas, they have not yet followed? The lectures end as a crowd approaches the park where the philosopher has been lecturing to his tiny audience—and that crowd is made up of (oh how the innovators of an earlier generation would be dismayed!) young men who belong to the narrator's fraternity. Presumably they would be unlikely even to grasp the philosopher's picture of true education. Did Nietzsche fail to finish his lectures because he couldn't imagine a meeting of those minds that wouldn't be either Utopian or despairing?

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Why is it so depressing to think about universities? There seem to be a multitude of reasons: universities are too rich or too poor, pompously intellectual or grossly anti-intellectual, absurdly élitist or nastily populist, hopelessly irrelevant or shamelessly chasing after relevance, too expensive—but never too cheap.

The range of complaints suggests that there is no general understanding of the purpose of the university and therefore no possible agreement about whether it is living up to its obligations. And American universities in recent decades have responded to this discordant chorus of complaints by adding on new programs, departments, institutes, schools, initiatives … As Wellmon writes near the end of Organizing Enlightenment about the university where he teaches,

The University of Virginia, for example, is an institution of knowledge, but it is also a health care provider, entertainment center (its basketball arena hosts everything from Bruce Springsteen concerts to monster truck rallies), sports business, start-up incubator, sustainability coordinator, and industrial and government research center, not to mention a mental health provider, food service, and employment agency for more than twenty thousand students.

In part, this expansion of tasks, functions, and options results from something that very much concerned Nietzsche's philosopher: The transformation of the university into an arm or agent of the State. The leaders of public universities have for decades understood themselves as needing to market their wares to a constituency of taxpayers. But the percentage of public universities' operating budgets provided by state legislatures has been plummeting, which has left those institutions joining private schools in competing for students. That has, in turn, required them to treat students not only as their constituency but also (and primarily) as consumers. And what do most young American consumers want? Ample recreational opportunities, interesting food, competitive athletic teams to participate in and cheer on, and at the end of it all a good job. (Remember Nietzsche: "Here we have Utility as the goal and purpose of education, or more precisely Gain: the highest possible income.")

Perhaps none of this is incompatible with the production of good citizens or useful instruments of the state, but none of it aims at such things. Still less does it comport with any of those noble invocations of greatness of spirit and strength of character Wellmon's great reformers advocated: No Bildung on offer here. If Nietzsche was right that, almost from the start, the modern research university abandoned, or at best neglected, Bildung in order to serve the State, then what happens when its ties to that same state grow attenuated? What is the university now for? Apparently it is for whatever its students want. But given the plurality, not to say superficiality, of our culture, this will mean that the university is for nothing in particular, and must be prepared, whatever it is for today, to be for something else tomorrow.

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