In the Teeth of a Semester

In his Will to Power, the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche — probably enjoying summer weather in his favorite Italian haunt of Genoa — writes about the universal need for thinking individuals to attend a strenuous school at the right stage of life.  There is simply no substutite, Nietzsche says, for a rigorous university education, for the forge that such an education creates, for the habits of sustained psychic struggle that it fosters.

In an environment today where students often style themselves as “consumers” of education and express joy at the slightest indication that an easier path might be taken, do Nietzsche’s words still hold true?

They are probably more true than ever.


  1. I’d say so. Sometimes our educational system leaves something to be desired when it comes to being “strenuous… rigorous… [and fostering] sustained psychic struggle.” I’d be tempted to say we could learn something from the Chinese, but admittedly they seem to have only gotten half of it right (their system has admirable rigour but, in my estimation, doesn’t do a very good job cultivating the mental faculties of “thinking individuals”).

    I doubt Nietzsche would label most current Americans (or Chinese) as “thinking individuals”, though…

    1. That’s a good point, David, about rigor not being necessarily an ends in and of itself, as in the Chinese education system. It’s like saying that being run over by a bulldozer is good for your abs: technically it’s true, but you lose a great deal else in the process.

  2. But you must admit that what the univesities now produce in the language-based disciplines is rotten. Go and look. Miles and miles of flat text. Miles of bibliographies.

    I thought it was maybe a warfare of mutual attrition among university teachers. I worked as a translator at a patent office translating law suits. Once when a text was particularly empty, I told the boss, and he said it had to be this way to make it hard for the lawyers of the other side to find any clues.

    1. Good point, catueso, about the intentional flatness of much academic writing, and the origins of that flatness/obscurity as lying in the need to avoid explicit conflict or criticism. Some people might even enjoy the lack of even a single post-peer-review echo of a journal publication! Academics who also blog, like myself, are not quite so adverse to the “pingback,” even if it sometimes stings a little. Thanks for the comments.

      1. But what is wrong with “miles of bibliographies”? A footnote or a bibliography is essentially the equivalent of a weblink, an attribution. Collation and synthesis is an important task, even if it is done to avoid other, more difficult endeavors.

        1. The miles of bibliographies is the same as no bibliography.

          Or maybe the milelong bibliography should be preceded by some selection. Otherwise there is no orientation and the reader has no idea where to start.

      2. I am not at Facebook, but just now I tried to log into Twitter to see what it was like, since I had heard that there all messages have to be less than 140 words.
        I was there for almost an hour and did not see a single message longer than about 12 words!

  3. Ooops!
    And now I see that I never said what to say I came here for:
    In summer Nietzsche was probably not in Italy, but in Switzerland, in Sils Maria, near the place where I am from, in the Alps.

    1. I will check the big biography I have been enjoying; Nietzsche was a big fan of Genoa, but I do need to be specific about what time of year he tended to spend there. Certainly it helped him to be productive, Cantueso!

  4. Yeah. Consumers of education. What a loathsome phrase.

    Mile long bibliographies = no real historical point of view or identifiable argument. Padding to disguise vacuity.

    I’n a more general vein, I believe that standards in both academic and more popular historiography has vastly improved in the last thirty or so years, and thought I hate to admit it, American scholarship is leading the pack at present.

    1. So maybe there is some merit after all in the alleged drive toward shorter, more tightly argued, books.

  5. Consumption of education… That kind of attitude exists in my place, too, and begins in primary school. I’m sometimes surprised though, when seeing how many of the pampered young crowd still manage to catch up with the real world.

    I’d be tempted to say we could learn something from the Chinese, but admittedly they seem to have only gotten half of it right (their system has admirable rigour but, in my estimation, doesn’t do a very good job cultivating the mental faculties of “thinking individuals”), says David Pritts.

    I’d argue that while it’s true that we don’t do that much better than China re mental faculties, the reasons for that are to quite an extent different from China’s – conformity is no that much a goal at studies. But it’s true that curricula become leaner, in every place – and here are some global factors that seem to matter (in China, too). Even in the Humanities, the student’s real, final goal may be marketing or “event management” – the numbers of museums we can afford is, after all, limited, and not every job elsewhere requires or justifies the cost of more thorough studies. Nietzsche was one out of very few people who was a studied man in his time and society, and universities were less market-oriented than now. In fact, they were probably part of a rather feudal heritage. When people of all social classes to study (which is a good thing), the market that is meant to ask for them will also define their wanted skills – and most bosses won’t miss an employee’s inability to think for him- or herself – not beyond the job-specific issues they are there to deal with, that is.

    One more thing – Nietzsche’s productivity came at a price, I seem to remember. Not sure if syphilis helped to illuminnate his mind (as some artists would claim) – but it probably killed him at an early age.

    But hell, yes – I’m all for people who can think for or by themselves, and who can make conscious choices from tons of more or less relevant information.
    However – anyone who can make such choices should also be able to make a case in a concise, rather than an “elaborate” book – unless he’s writing fiction, drama, or ballads.

    1. I am of the mind that when it comes to North Korea, repetition of old questions doesn’t seem to be yielding much, so a proliferation of new questions just might be of use!

  6. Nice thread. In addition to tightly argued books, decent reviews also have their place, especially for those of us who don’t have access or can afford everthing we want to read.
    As I just noted on JRs site, I found this to be a trove of precise ideas.
    A number of Sino experts commenting on their favourite Sino reads:
    Got to work on the scroll button a bit to obtain maximun benefit.

    And Adam, given your interest in environmetal issues, here is a great quote form Isabel Hilton (one of the recommenders on best environmental publications ( except for that backpacker fodder Wolf Toten):

    “Well, the way China’s approached water management – again, over centuries – is that they’ve always tried to engineer their way out of a problem. There are two approaches: one is conservation and the other is engineering, and the Chinese have always favoured engineering from the Grand Canal onwards”. Chinas’ Water Crisis.
    Ma Jun

    When in doubt in China about your tertiary choice, choose engineering. Look at the educational background of present and past Politburo’s.

    Mao’s Lysenkoism also gets a righteous service. And Victor Shih shows why he is at the top of his game.

    1. Thanks, KT. I need to get over to Just Recently and mix it up soon, there is a Sino-German Media Forum that promises to be positively dazzling in that regard, JR often attacks such subjects with alacrity.

      Thanks for the link and the quote and the analysis.

  7. Adam. I put all the links to the 30 Sino book reviews which I liked on The Browser on my site. While The Browser is an invaluable resource, it is also quite annoying in the navigation department.

    And hope to put together some ideas on China’s grey economy tres soon, as this is a significant and determining feature which should be accorded much greater attention. Best.

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