Oedipus in Washington: Nietzsche on Education

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So they went straightway and mingled with the Lotus-eaters, and the Lotus-eaters did not plan death for my comrades, but gave them of the lotus to taste. And whosoever of them ate of the honey-sweet fruit of the lotus, had no longer any wish to bring back word or to return, but there they were fain to abide among the Lotus-eaters, feeding on the lotus, and forgetful of their homeward way. These men, therefore, I brought back perforce to the ships, weeping, and dragged them beneath the benches and bound them fast in the hollow ships; and I bade the rest of my trusty comrades to embark with speed on the swift ships, lest perchance anyone should eat of the lotus and forget his homeward way. So they went on board straightway and sat down upon the benches, and sitting well in order smote the grey sea with their oars.

Homer, Odyssey IX, 83 – 104.

Why start with the Lotus-eaters? Because Oedipus has moved to Washington. …How did this happen? Are you saying that a species of addiction has sent Oedipus to Washington? This article offers two angles: 1) a (very) minor archaeology (in the Foucauldian sense) on the vocationalization of the American University and 2) a glance at Friedrich Nietzsche on education. This is all with a view to self-criticism, to a higher form of self-discipline.

Charles William Eliot—appointed President of Harvard University in 1869—wrote the following in an article titled “New Education“:

What can I do with my boy? I can afford, and am glad, to give him the best training to be had. I should be proud to have him turn out a preacher or a learned man; but I don’t think he has the making of that in him. I want to give him a practical education; one that will prepare him, better than I was prepared, to follow my business or any other active calling. The classical schools and the colleges do not offer what I want. Where can I put him?

Universities depend on students for their income. Eliot has invented this ‘speaker’ in order to represent a growing market among American families at the time who have concerns about the practicality of classical education. Now, my intention here is not to trace the precise reforms that Eliot made; I shall rather trace a few angles on how the necessity for institutions of higher education to meet the ‘needs’ of students has changed the purpose of education. That change in purpose has likewise altered the backdrop of American culture from subjects like classical mythology, Christian religion, Roman history, et al. to topics like sports and popular culture.

Eliot developed a vocational program for the large contingent of families who could not recognize any immediate benefit in having studied subjects in the humanities. I should argue that this vocational model has now transmuted itself into the humanities themselves. I have limited experience… but most philosophers don’t know Greek and Latin, and most classical scholars don’t know philosophy. Many professional academics are specialists in a certain area of the humanities. Yet I have serious concerns that being a ‘specialist’ about a subject—e.g., Leibniz—but knowing only English (and this happens) can really lead to a deep knowledge of the topic.

This marks a serious problem… Notice that the speaker in Eliot’s fiction actually reveres ethical and intellectual training. Today, that is not the case. You don’t need to walk into the business–world where you find people who think that classical training is ‘pointless’. You can simply walk into a College of the Humanities. This practical-mindedness has ‘defeated’ classical scholarship, relegated it to its own academic specialty, even in the very academic region to which Greco-Roman thought and culture generated. This leads to countless absurdities.

As an educator, I have had to make sacrifices in order to keep students happy and engaged. But there are times when this can go too far: the student naturally wants study to be easier than it is. The cultural result of continually expecting less and less is that… after 150 years, nobody really knows who Oedipus is. That’s just one example. And when an Oedipus wants to vacation in Washington, nobody can conceptualize him as an Oedipus.

Immediate gratification. Sate me, sate me, sate me. I don’t care: sate me. I cannot bear the feeling of not being sated. This is why Odysseus binds his men to the ship.


Friedrich Nietzsche in Twilight of the Idols argues that the student must learn three things: to see, to think, and to write. I should argue that it is possible to leave a university with as much as a doctorate and be clueless as to what Nietzsche actually means in any or all of these three respects. To understand these concepts in the Socratic sense: to embody their meaning, to understand that one has not embodied their meaning. If one has learned them, then it could well have been by an accident of life.

Nietzsche thought that the the educator played a special social role—one that was constantly under the threat of being reduced to a sort of ‘wet nurse’ status. This ‘caretaker’ role leads to a twofold dynamic that harms the experience of education: 1) a genuinely educated professional must blunt the edge of his art in order to hit the quota of degrees sold and 2) the paying customers punish a genuine professional who refuses to shelter the student from the rigors of education. (Importantly, there are times when the educator truly has something to learn from the student. But that’s the occasional inversion of the rules, not the major premise of getting together in the first place.)

Seeing. For Nietzsche, true seeing involves the suspension of judgment that allows all sides of a case to present themselves. Can a person resist the stimulus to act that the perceptual object imposes? Can a person resist the immediate compulsion to act? Conceptualize that form of action—reflexive stimulus response—as compulsion… Seeing involves the capacity to see the thing in a more comprehensive way; the capability to ignore impulses…

A practical application of having learned to see: your learning process in general becomes slow, mistrustful, reluctant.

This reluctance creates a barrier of reality between the mind and the intellectual-perceptual object. I think that training in science can teach this reluctance to accept a ‘hypothesis’. But what about even a person trained in science who then thinks unproblematically about psychology, literature, or everyday life? How often do people question those assumptions?

Nietzsche thinks that to be able to see is to be able to bracket judgment, to disrupt the immediacy of the desire to act in response to an external stimulus. This is the ἀρχή φιλοσοφίας in the Platonic sense–the reduction of the self-deceived interlocutor to a state of ἀπορία. The interlocutor is made to see that he does not know… and thereby to suspend what he thought he knew. That ‘forgetting’ by self-conceptualization as perceptually interferent is itself a precondition to knowledge… even for Nietzsche, who prizes innocent immediacy. †This topic relates to my book Spinoza’s Science.†

Thinking. Nietzsche thinks that the art of logic is dying out in German universities. But what does he mean by logic? I think that it has to do with a capacity to suspend the naive logic of an everyday metaphysics… and I use everyday metaphysics in the sense of having no meta-analytic angle on one’s own motives and assumptions. Being stuck in one’s own beliefs and perceptions.

Nietzsche is at odds with naive forms of metaphysics that think themselves able to uncover naturalist synapses between words and things. “Thinking wants to be learned like dancing, as a type of dancing…” Productive thought requires flexibility, and subject specialties (outside of rare accidents) do not create it. Subject specialties create a certain employable and intelligible product—as it were, a piece of a human mind. In order to become educated, the student must incur the penalties that come with disavowing the social norms that govern ‘becoming intelligible’. A piece of mind for peace of mind. ‘Becoming intelligible’ instead of ‘becoming intelligent’.

The university as a manufacturer of human bodies that have intelligible economic functions. But thinking qua dancing has nothing to do with that process… and being branded with an ‘intelligible economic function’ has nothing to do with being able to generate lasting value. The strange thing: this reduction of the mind to productive instrumentality is the result of nothing less than the democratic ideal: that the people are free to purchase whatever mentors and friendships they ‘desire’. James Madison might say: give the demos its Oedipus, its executive, its rex. But are there long-term consequences for the other branches?

Writing. Thinking with a pen. Thinking as such. The capacity to create and destroy. What do we call ‘writing’? Bloviation confined to one region of ‘reality’ that only accidentally encounters reality in its richness. What kind of writers does the university produce? “Academic specialists”. Partially Socratic: the academic indeed knows that he knows nothing… 500 page books titled ‘Towards’… Introductions that contain sentences like… “I cannot hope to treat the subject at length within these 20 allotted chapters”… except that the academic writes in such a way that forces him to reach the limits of what can be known about one way of looking at one kind of thing. But that is not thinking, that is not writing as Nietzsche conceives it. Plato puts it well: authors should be able to write both comedy and tragedy (Symposium 223d). Have a little fucking depth.


I’ll shut up now. This is not a new debate. Before Nietzsche, there were the Scriblerians. Before them, there were Roman authors like Petronius, whose Satyricon opens with this precise argument. I think that I am speaking about a public education that has a more liberal arts perspective, even at the university level. Or, having acceded the battle to the capitalist mode of education—to produce intelligible and employable brains, then is it not viable to place the responsibility on individuals (and employers) not to accept the fiction that education (in the true sense, in the liberal arts sense, in the ethical sense) ever stops mattering?

Oedipus in Washington: Friedrich Nietzsche on Education
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Oedipus in Washington: Friedrich Nietzsche on Education
This article explores the history of the vocationalization of the American University and its consequences using the work of Friedrich Nietzsche on Education.
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