There's nothing Nietzsche couldn't teach ya...

August 18, 2000

On the centenary of Nietzsche's death, Duncan Large and Richard Smith discuss his place in contemporary debate and ask how a Nietzschean campus might function.

The post-structuralist Nietzsche vogue of the 1960s and 1970s was surveyed some 20 years ago in a collection of essays offering answers to the question: "Why Nietzsche now?" The question posed this year, a century after the philosopher's death, by a collection from the University of California Press is: "Why Nietzsche still?" Its editor, Alan D. Schrift will speak in Durham next month at the tenth anniversary conference of the Friedrich Nietzsche Society. Earlier in the summer an annual series of Nietzsche Workshop Conferences was inaugurated at the University of Warwick; later next month, the Institute of Germanic Studies in London is celebrating its own 50th anniversary with a conference on "Nietzsche Revisions in the 20th Century". Outside the UK, next Friday's centenary is being marked by more than a dozen events.

Academic interest in Nietzsche has never been more intense, and over the past decade it has been fuelled by three developments: the institutionalised promotion of Nietzsche in Germany, a new wave of editorial activity and the availability of electronic resources.

Reunification of Germany led to the reopening of the Nietzsche Archive in Weimar, closed under the GDR regime, and last year an independent Nietzsche Research Centre was established there. Its director, Rudiger Schmidt, will speak in London next month on the vexed question of Nietzsche editions - a hot topic as the editorial policy behind the standard edition comes under fire over the material it has omitted. That edition, more than 30 years in the making, has been edging towards completion. An English translation, from Stanford University Press, has also begun to appear, giving English-language Nietzsche readers access for the first time to the mass of notes previously available only in the unsatisfactory posthumous compilation known as The Will to Power. Finally, the availability of Nietzsche's work on CD-Rom since 1996 has allowed the corpus to be analysed in ways hitherto inconceivable.

Meanwhile, Nietzsche has been an inspiration across a spectrum of philosophical discussion, from the "post-analytic philosophy" of thinkers such as Bernard Williams, to the debates over "post-humanism" and genetic engineering that took an explosive turn in Germany last year after Peter Sloterdijk raised the possibility of a new "Nietzschean" eugenics. Nietzsche studies, though, have come a long way from the need in the immediate postwar period to dissociate the philosopher from his appropriation by the ideologues of National Socialism. The events this centenary year demonstrate the wide array of questions and approaches, and provide an opportunity to appreciate not only how far Nietzsche studies have come, but how far they have still to go.

Duncan Large is lecturer in German at the University of Wales Swansea and chairman of the Friedrich Nietzsche Society. Further details on centenary events are available on the FNS website: www.fns.org.uk.

In The Will to Power Nietzsche wrote that "the highest values have devalued themselves. There is no goal. There is no answer to the question, 'why?'." Values, that is, have become mere slogans and shibboleths. They do not command our engagement or passion. They are signs of "indigence, of impoverishment, of the degeneration of life": they should rather reveal "the plenitude, the strength, the will of life, its courage, confidence and future" (The Genealogy of Morals). For lack of any real sense of value, the smooth running of the system becomes the highest goal. People turn into willing functionaries: what Nietzsche called "the mentality of the herd" prevails. This devaluation of value is a variety of nihilism. Nietzsche criticises it in his own time, and his critique resonates in ours.

Consider, first, the debate on higher education that - like the Dearing report itself - is so little concerned with the fundamental question of what universities are for ("There is no goalI"). The debate focuses on funding, access and participation - all for perfectly good reasons - yet the issue of quite what it is we want to fund, or ensure access to, is barely raised. Where, in the millions of words published on higher education in the past three years, might you have glimpsed that connection between "knowledge and the zest of life" that A. N. Whitehead believed was the very justification of the university?

Or consider how odd it is that the whole complex business of quality in education has been reduced to raising standards. Academics devote their creative years to pursuit of the perfect 24 in subject review, just as schoolteachers fret over their school's standing in the league tables. Yet what standards are these? Not one under that you can rally in affirmation of what is educationally worthwhile. Like Richter, or Celsius, they are single scales against which all must be measured and compared. They beget homogeneity, teaching to the test, benchmarking, quality assurance and all the rest.

There is something numbing about our contemporary discourse of higher education. We may welcome widening participation, for example, yet find it odd when that seems to have become the university's main aim. Who can be against accountability, when we know that public money must not be wasted? Yet we are uncomfortable with the way accountability, transparency and their siblings have grown fat at the expense of creativity, of intellectual excitement, of taking our students on a journey into the not fully known. The manifest desirability of the prevailing values, the eminently reasonable language in which they are discussed, stifles necessary criticism.

Nietzsche wrote little directly about education, higher or otherwise. His explicitly educational writings are not among his best, and it is unhelpful, if not dangerous, to look for a legacy of Nietzschean ideas or doctrines that we can follow (Nietzsche would have been horrified at the thought). His immense value to us is rather in his ability to shock us into re-examining and re-evaluating our orthodoxies. And he does this in a language and with a style that makes what is written about education in our own time look grey and sickly.

Take the notion of accountability again. What, Nietzsche asks, is the value of this value? What is the moral climate in which it becomes so significant? It might be one where we merely seek to make plain the trustworthiness of professionals who are in fact trusted. Or otherwise:

"Everywhere accountability is sought, it is the instinct for punishing and judging which seeks it. The doctrine of will (and accountable acts) has been invented essentially for the purpose of punishment, that is of finding guilty" (Twilight of the Idols).

This is what accountability is doing in our world. It is, Nietzsche tells us, part of the "slave morality" that elevates the interests of the weak over those of the strong, "for thus they gain the right to make the bird of prey accountable for being a bird of prey" (Genealogy of Morals). How long have you been a bird of prey? What are your objectives in being an osprey? What evidence can you give us that customers are satisfied with what you provide? Yes, we must have accountability. But what nonsense when this minor necessity becomes so puffed up. It could only happen in a nihilistic culture where - as instinctive relativists, perhaps - we lack the confidence to affirm our own values.

Our best shot then is to form our morality by reaction against its opposite, in the process that Nietzsche called ressentiment. They do media studies (sniff). That lot over there are elitists, conservative forces who stand in the way of change (wonderfully, we are now encouraged to react against reactionaries). Instead of exploring and deepening our values, we have mission statements, with their attempts to appeal to all possible sources of funding, and their obligatory and vacuous references to excellence.

What, then, might the Nietzschean university look like? No blueprint, but a few suggestions. First, it would foreground the live engagement between teacher and taught. Aims and objectives are fine, and so are outcomes: but there is something in between. It is where people know each other's names in seminars, where tutors understand how to stimulate dialogue, where students can find the courage to ask the questions that matter to them, where people are not ashamed to admit to intellectual excitement. It is where Dr Jones's door does not declare that he is available to see his tutees between 11.00 and 11.30 on alternate Thursdays. This is not mere nostalgia for a more leisurely age. It means there is some learning - about how to teach - for academics to do.

Second, such a university will see its activities in irreducibly ethical terms. Here, too, there is work to do. "A virtue has to be our invention, our most personal defence and necessity: in any other sense it is merely a danger" (The Antichrist). Neither God, society, our parents or ancestors can pass values on to us ready-made, Nietzsche declares. There is no escape from the difficult task of thinking them through, again and again. They might, for example, centre on ideas of attentiveness, justice, responsibility, even love and courage (such as the courage to take risks in our teaching). They cannot be replaced by the accountant's bottom line.

Third, we might take language seriously. The range of our language and the quality of our thinking are not two separate matters. Nietzsche makes us question the easy distinction between theory and more literary forms of expression. He employs different styles - ironic, apocalyptic, aphoristic, poetic - as well as a range of personae. If we continue to write about higher education in the reasonable language of the bureaucrat or the dullest kind of academic theorist, we shall never climb out of the mire of nihilistic instrumentalism.

We need to find the words to inspire us, the words with which to mock the absurdities of our educational age. In his prefix to The Gay Science, Nietzsche writes: "I live in my own house, have never copied anyone elseI and at any master (Meister: 'manager', perhaps) who cannot laugh at himself - I laugh!" This, he says, is written "over the door to my house". Let it be written over ours too.

Richard Smith is a reader in education at the University of Durham. Education in an Age of Nihilism, by Nigel Blake, Paul Smeyers, Richard Smith and Paul Standish, will be published by Routledge-Falmer in December, Pounds 55.00.

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