Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon’s (ed.s) Friedrich Nietzsche, Anti-Education: On the Future of Our Educational Institutions – Review By Daniel Blue

51s2ue9tcul-_sx311_bo1204203200_New York Review Books has just issued a new translation of Nietzsche’s “On the Future of Our Educational Institutions” (along with two associated texts), using the comprehensive header, Anti-Education. Although the overall title is not Nietzsche’s and raises concerns, the book itself is intelligently conceived and executed with flair. This is good news, for of the philosophical works which Nietzsche began in Basel but left unfinished, “On the Future…” is the last to be successfully translated into English.[i] Monolinguists now have a new work by the philosopher to enjoy and with it an opportunity to reconsider his whole oeuvre.

Since this work is probably unfamiliar to many readers, one might explain that “On the Future of Our Educational Institutions” was envisioned as a series of six talks –Nietzsche at one point considered seven – composed in dialogue form and centered on two pairs of speakers: a couple of students and an elderly philosopher and his more youthful follower. The students tend to form a team and support one another, while the philosopher and his companion argue both among themselves and with the students, introducing considerable drama. However, a fifth person is expected and indeed is sighted in the distance at the beginning of Lecture Five, the last Nietzsche actually completed. It appears that in contrast to the quieter, more introspective four original participants, he will arrive amid the fanfare of a torchlight procession of fraternity brothers, clearly suggesting some sort of climactic resolution. However, Nietzsche’s notebooks indicate a more ambiguous ending. According to these, the announced guest would turn out to be, not a triumphant bearer of truth, but a literary figure who had succumbed to the tawdry theories of the times. He and the philosopher would argue as to whether art or philosophy was more important in addressing educational concerns, and the fraternity brothers would participate and build a bonfire. Eventually an oath – the nature of which was left unspecified — would be sworn over the flames and the series brought to a close.[ii] We do not know of course, whether Nietzsche would have carried any of this through. The notes are there, but he often changed his mind.

Meanwhile, as the four principal characters consult and debate, they find that they largely agree on a central thesis: the contemporary educational system is defective and must be changed. Numerous themes are woven around this axis as they try to discern the causes of the calamity and how it might be repaired. They discuss the role of the state, the confusion of education with training, the belief that students should be self-sufficient, the claim that the current educational system is classically inspired, the importance of mastering “the mother tongue” (German), and the relation between scholarship and journalism.

These, of course, are just a few of the topics broached in the lectures, some dropped quickly, others addressed at length. Because the themes are so many and complex and the text so new to most readers, it seems premature to offer any final judgments. However, a few provisional observations might be suggested to guide the newcomer.

We already knew, for example, that Nietzsche was fascinated by education – far more than most philosophers. The topic surfaces repeatedly in his books, and particularly in The Twilight of the Idols, one of his most mature, where the four of seven sections in “What the Germans Lack” turn on discussions of schools and their effects.[iii] Yet, as the ambiguity of the word gebildet suggests – it can mean either “educated” or “cultivated” in German – Nietzsche believed that education should not be limited to training toward specific professional ends. True education was superior to the practical.

This belief was not peculiar to Nietzsche. It was widespread in Germany at the time and was symbolized by the distinction between the gymnasium, a middle and high school which centered on Latin and Greek, and the Realschulen, secondary schools which were more science- or trade-oriented. This is not the place to discuss the complex ideology behind the gymnasium. It is enough to say that its very existence pointed toward a belief that humanity’s purpose involved more than making money.[iv] Nietzsche accepts this belief but argues that the gymnasium and other educational institutions have failed to instill it. Yet he never states what this higher learning might be.[v] His characters may pontificate on “education,” but none define what it is. Thus, the philosopher repeatedly asserts that it cannot be crassly practical and must not be confused with training (48-49, 54-55, 57).[vi] He also names a few ancillary functions.[vii] But he never defines it positively. He simply assumes that all participants know what he means without the need to be more specific. Readers, of course, will rush to fill the blanks by hypothesizing some vague humanism, and this is probably correct so far as it goes. Yet Nietzsche does not say this, and it is difficult to believe that anyone so demanding and imperious could be satisfied with so amorphous and vaguely pious an ideal.

The philosopher, a character in the dialogue not to be confused with Nietzsche himself, seems on firmer ground when he acknowledges that the schools once provided a better version of education (33). At least once in history education (in the more austere and demanding Nietzschean sense) was more clearly defined and more effectively inculcated. Unfortunately, the philosopher does not say what made it better at this time. Instead, he contents himself with observing that this superior system failed to take root, mostly because it was not reconceived on a specifically German basis (33-34). But if real education, conceived on a German basis, did not occur then and had never been implemented before or since, then it has never yet existed. It would appear that for the philosopher only the Greeks so far really had education, and nobody since has quite unlocked the secrets of its nature (37-38). This allows him to lay about with a broad stick – by definition nothing in contemporary life measures up – yet it also leaves a wistful deposit of nostalgia and longing. The philosopher and his student often sigh and lament that the current schools are deficient. A deeper void may underwrite their despair. They don’t themselves know what education is, not at least in this “higher,” more admirable sense.

It may be that Nietzsche is undeceived and that the philosopher’s apparent dogmatism hides a wilier, more subtle recognition. Nietzsche does have a solution in view, but it can only arrive through historical processes and these haven’t occurred yet. He is no doubt hoping that illumination will arrive from the same source as that which is implicit at the close of The Birth of Tragedy: “The German Spirit” in communion with the ancient Greeks will guide its people to find a restoration of the Tragic Age and with it a spiritual rebirth and relief from present incertitude (34-35; Compare 50-51). This is surely the “future” mentioned in the lectures’ title but never addressed with any specificity in the talks themselves. And with that future, education will have a meaning drawn from a radically new order of society.

Unfortunately, Nietzsche cannot offer this solution because this revelatory new order hasn’t arrived yet. As one student laments, “Clearly, we have lived and pursued education in entirely the wrong way until now – but what should we do to cross the chasm that separates today from tomorrow?” (60). The Tragic Age has yet to be reborn. So Nietzsche waits, sad but hopeful, aware that a lacuna dwells at the heart of his lecture series, but sure that this absence will eventually be compensated with Dionysian plenitude. This may explain the melancholy which pervades the dialogue. It also indicates why we should probably not expect too much enlightenment from the much-awaited fifth party.

Meanwhile, as stated, “On the Future of Our Educational Institutions” was left incomplete. This was not due to lack of enthusiasm on Nietzsche’s part. On the contrary, at the time he was delivering them, he believed them a great success, and between the fourth and fifth lectures (with a third of the series still unwritten) he made arrangements to have the whole published. He also passed along the manuscript of the extant talks to various friends and received gratifying applause. (A coterie in Florence read them with interest; a friend made a copy.) We must accordingly ask, why didn’t he give the sixth (and potentially seventh) lectures in April 1872, when his audiences would reasonably expect them? Failing that, why did he not write them at all?

It bears saying that late March and all of April were painful months for Nietzsche. Wilamowitz had not yet issued his public challenge, but it became impossible to overlook the judgment conveyed by the academic silence surrounding The Birth of Tragedy. Nietzsche’s reputation as a scholar was ruined. Since he had thought that some philologists would welcome his text, he was disappointed and probably humiliated. Worse, Richard Wagner (and then his wife Cosima and the children) vacated their nearby home that April, depriving him of nearly indispensable personal and intellectual companionship. This was the very month in which the final installment was to appear. He was likely too depressed to write.

Nonetheless, Nietzsche did not give up easily, and he certainly did not abandon plans to complete his lectures. Having failed in April, he tried to finish them again in August, then October, November, and December, each time recognizing a little more clearly that they were fundamentally flawed and beyond correction. In November he acknowledged that the project was unsuited to his audience in Basel. Also, “it [the lecture project] doesn’t go into the depths enough and is clothed in a farce which is too little thought out.”[viii] Just before Christmas he abandoned the lectures decisively on the grounds that he had spent too much time on them and the entire field had become stale. Also, he found the found the dialogue’s setting (a forest overlooking the Rhine) and the purportedly autobiographical passages “horribly false” [erlogen].[ix] He decided instead to write a severely curtailed summary as part of a Christmas present for Cosima Wagner, a version of which is included in this volume (93-95). He did return to some of the themes when he composed “On the Uses and Disadvantage of History for Life,” and as already mentioned, he delivered his final thoughts on education in a section eventually included in Twilight of the Idols. Nonetheless, his quixotic attempt to diagnose and to resolve the basic problems of the German education system at the age of twenty-seven had failed. In the following April he would find some of his views revisited in an essay by Paul Lagarde. Although the project had already been abandoned, scholars believe that this administered the coup de grâce (Niemeyer 2005, 35).[xi] When his thoughts on this subject reemerged in 1874 with his history essay, he would approach the field from a different perspective, and the term “education” would hardly figure at all.

Apparatus and translation

As the above discussions suggest, Nietzsche’s approach to education assumes easy familiarity with its contemporary German manifestations. He was right at the time to presuppose such knowledge because most of his audience were raised in that system and knew its structures intimately. However, the world of nineteenth-century German pedagogy has been subject to change, even in Germany, and is utterly beyond the ken of most Anglophones today. Whole theories of education and practical applications would have to be explained if the reader is to understand the arguments in the lectures. Yet few readers want to wade through such arcane history just to read what they might understandably regard as a minor book.

Accordingly, the editors of this volume have to offer information but do so tactfully, doling it out without burdening readers. Paul Reitter and Chad Wellmon have approached this difficulty in two ways. First, they offer a comprehensive introduction which presents nineteenth-century German educational customs and Nietzsche’s responses in a systematic and panoramic fashion. They then annotate his text with notes in which they elaborate on specific problems or provide the particulars necessary to explain what he means. This double-barreled approach allows readers maximal freedom: They can return to the introduction when they need a refresher course, or they can turn to the notes when they want to know specific details such as what “newspaper German” (109) or “popular education” (114) might be. The editors have an exceptionally rich grasp of the German educational system, and their presentation is both knowledgeable and helpful.

If the editors have done an excellent job, the new translation by Damion Searls is a worthy complement – vivid, idiomatic, and accurate. As an example of his racy command of language, here is a sarcastic remark made by the philosopher when he finds the two students offensively vain: “Yes, my good friends, you are prepared, you are mature, you are complete – Nature broke the mold after she made you, and your teachers have every right to rejoice in your existence” (74). Earlier, when the educated interlopers threaten to sow disruptive knowledge among the spiritually complete peasants, the philosopher imagines the university types as saying, “Wake up! Become conscious! Be smart!” (42).

It must be allowed that Searls is sometimes vivid at the cost of perfect faithfulness to the original. In a sentence describing the simultaneous freedom and terror of a student, he writes, “He may seem to be the only free man in a world of bureaucrats and slaves, but he pays for this splendid illusion of freedom with constant and ever-growing doubts and torments.” This is excellent, except that “slave” somewhat overdoes the term Nietzsche uses (Bedienstete), which merely means “civil servant.” (In Searls’ defense, “slave” is probably what Nietzsche meant to convey.) Such occasions are rare, however, and are insignificant in light of his successes. Searls manages the rare feat of being both generally accurate and of making Nietzsche sound as though he wrote in English from the start. With its helpful apparatus and excellent translation, this edition of “On the Future of Our Educational Institutions” should inspire English-speaking readers to give that work a read at last.


—Blue, Daniel. The Making of Friedrich Nietzsche: The Quest for Identity, 1844-1869. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge University Press, 2016.
—Niemeyer, Christian. “Nietzsches Bildungsvorträge von 1872; Einige Deutungshinweise zu einem überaus fragwürdigen Text.” Nietzscheforschung 12. 2005. 35-52.
—Nietzsche, Friedrich. Sämtliche Werke: Kritische Studienausgabe. 15 vols. Edited by Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1988.
—Nietzsche, Friedrich. Sämtliche Briefe. Kritische Studienausgabe. 8 vols. Edited by Giorgio Colli and Mazzino Montinari. Berlin: Walter de Gruyter, 1986.
—Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Future of Our Educational Institutions. Translated and introduced by William W. Grenke. South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, 2004.
—Nietzsche, Friedrich. On the Future of Our Educational Institutions. Transalted by J. M. Kennedy. Edinburgh: T. N. Foulis, 1910.
—Thompson, Christiane and Gabriele Weiss. “Das Bildungsgeheimnis: Herausforderung und Zumutung der Lektüre von Nietzsches Bildungsvorträgen.” Nietzscheforschung 12. 2005. 53-72.
[i] I qualify “successfully” translated because the work has been rendered into English twice before but not in a fashion that readers are likely to embrace. See Nietzsche 2004 and Nietzsche 1910.
[ii] KSA 7, 8[64], 246; 8[69], 249; 8[86], 254; 8[103], 262; and particularly 8[89], 255-256.
[iii] “What the Germans Lack,” sections 3, 5, 7. Section 6 also deals with schooling, although it is unclear if Nietzsche conceives this as taking place in institutions. See Niemeyer 2005, 51.
[iv] For a brief account of the gymnasium’s intended function during the reorganization of 1809 see Blue 2016, 103-104.
[v] This discussion of Nietzsche’s inability to define Bildung owes a large debt to Thompson/Weiss 2005.
[vi] Page numbers in parentheses refer to the translation under review.
[vii] For places where the philosopher gestures toward the nature of education, see 23-24, 27-31. For the failure of the gymnasium to instill education, see especially 35-36.
[viii] KSAB 4, Letter 270, 83.
[ix] KSAB 4, Letter 282, 104.
The editors indicate that the version given here is the same as that presented in Nietzsche’s “Six Prefaces to Six Unwritten Books.” This is not quite true. The versions are identical in meaning and largely so in language. However, Nietzsche made numerous small alterations when making the final copy. Compare KSA 1, 648-650, 761-763.
[xi] Niemeyer disputes this, arguing correctly that Nietzsche had already abandoned the project before reading Lagarde. However, he also acknowledges that the Lagarde publication had an effect (48).