Public education exists primarily to supply economic and political necessities: basic literacy and numeracy, a dollop of civics. But beyond these modest (and increasingly unmet) goals, schools once gave students a taste of what Matthew Arnold called “the best which has been thought and said in the world”—or, if not that, then at least a few good books. The idea didn’t seem to need justification. At any rate, Mrs. White, my sixth-grade English teacher, born at the turn of the twentieth century, never offered us any. If pressed, she might have said something about developing competencies and virtues that would give our lives wholeness and character.
Professional educators still talk about fashioning well-rounded graduates, but their words ring hollow. In our age of corporate wokeism, public and private schools from kindergarten to graduate school strive to turn students into standardized units of social and human capital. Confident expressions of cultured thought and feeling are in alarmingly short supply at the termini of what is now called the “education pipeline.” Schoolteachers and professors wield ideological abstractions like hammers to pound down individual particularities of heart and mind. Just as smooth blanks are needed for pressing coins, contrarian idiosyncrasies must be removed from souls that are to be stamped with the characterless visage of total political conformity.
This is no random analogy. As Friedrich Nietzsche observed in a series of public lectures at the University of Basel in 1872 (published in 2016 by New York Review Books under the title Anti-Education), the goal of the modern educational institution is to form people as rapidly as possible “who are, as the French say, ‘au courant’—the same way a coin is courant, valid currency.” Nietzsche fought against the reduction of education to the minting of civil servants, managers, and workers as ardently as any nineteenth-century German poet or philosopher. Like Goethe and Hegel, he conceived of education as Bildung, the “formation” or “cultivation” of individual natures—ideally worked, turned, and sown by their teachers with a lush variety of intellectual and spiritual seeds, stored up over centuries. If education is in some essential sense the internal development of individual nature, then it cannot be achieved by the outward stamp of orthodoxy.
“The free man ought not to learn any study slavishly,” Plato writes, for “no forced study abides in the soul.” The sorts of study that do abide in the soul are those that awaken and enliven the learner. For Nietzsche, it was the strange, dense, questionable books of antiquity—the classics—that drew him into the disciplined passion that the Greeks call philologia, or the love of words. The formation of “finished, ripe, harmonious personalities” (Nietzsche’s phrase) can take various paths, but all have one thing in common. They all require leisure—scholē, in Greek, the root of our word “school”: time away from material urgencies and social distractions.
But how can one find refuge from the incessant intrusions of politics and the smartphone (the two are now virtually synonymous)? Hot takes and virtue signaling are now more important in American universities than slow reading and substance. Anyone who doubts this should ponder the decision by Princeton’s classics department, once the nation’s best, to drop the requirement for undergraduate majors to learn Greek or Latin—an approach, the department’s website explains, “based on inclusion” and aimed at “removing barriers to entry.” My closest academic friends were stunned by this event. The Ivy League’s ivoriest tower had fallen with a whimper; the war was lost, with hardly a shot fired.
None of this would have surprised Nietzsche. It’s been a century and a half since he observed “two dominant tendencies in our educational institutions . . . 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”—as in the idea of free college for all, which Bernie Sanders hopes to endow with the force of federal law. The second is a push for “the narrowing and weakening of education.” This combination of collapsing educational content and standards and federally driven expansion has turned American education into a ruinously expensive fraud.
The ancient Greek sophists—the first professional educators—made a show of being wise (sophos) but were merely sophisticated. They traded in appearances, conventional opinions with no necessary relationship to permanent realities. The most successful of them achieved intellectual stardom and enormous wealth. The brightest body in their firmament was Protagoras, who taught that man was the measure of all things—not, as simpletons like Socrates supposed, the things themselves, or the gods, or the Good. Then as now, the seductive notion that human beings determine what is and what is not appealed to naïve youths and cynical opportunists.
Today’s sophists—a motley band of headmasters, superintendents, chancellors, administrators, consultants, accreditors, and the like—promise the fullness of genuine education but deliver only a void. Many seem incapable of distinguishing between phantasms and substantial realities, much less of feeling guilty about swindling young souls out of a liberal education. But the good news is that concerned parents and serious students are increasingly able to tell the difference and are looking for the genuine article.
Nietzsche suspected that the renewal of German education would have to await the destruction of both the gymnasium and the university. That’s exactly what we are witnessing today. The time is ripe for new, non-ideological academic ventures, not least because (if my circle of friends and relatives is any indication) many experienced and talented schoolteachers and professors between 55 and 65 have taken early retirement since the coronavirus hit. Their services are now in high demand. This past winter, I taught an online course at the Hertog Foundation on Dostoyevsky’s Demons to some of the best undergraduates in the nation; the course was oversubscribed, and two additional sections had to be added. Classical academies are proliferating, some with the support of Hillsdale College. Several new liberal arts universities are in the offing, including one not yet publicly announced but whose founders include the outgoing president of one of the nation’s oldest liberal arts colleges. This summer the Tikvah Fund, where I work, is launching a curriculum on Greeks and Jews for ninth- through twelfth-graders and is actively exploring the feasibility of founding a high school or a college. These new ventures will require courageous and persistent defense because corporatist progressives will immediately portray their cultural conservatism as right-wing political partisanship.
The Hebrew Scriptures teach that man cannot see the face of God and live. This providentially leaves room for the cultivation and multiplication of the divine image in human beings, something that becomes nearly impossible when educational institutions demand uniformity of opinion and feeling. Let us rededicate ourselves to forming young people who can understand what this means.