The Blog

After Freshers' Flu: The University Sickness

At this time of year a shared sickness known as freshers' flu makes its way round campus. We like to imagine this is the only sickness facing us at the start of term. Few would think there's a greater sickness, a cultural malady, awaiting all 'freshmen' as they queue up to register. But as I argue below, this wider sickness is already well embedded, having established itself across the university.

You survive freshers' flu - the sore throat, fever and coughing that welcomes you to university - only to discover that your teachers are sick. Worse still, they're unlikely to recover. Your teachers are sick beyond rescue.

This is an odd vision of university life. To think of education as a shared sickness, and to think of your teachers as its worst sufferers, is not the vision of education that your university will promote. But this, I claim, is why we should read Nietzsche, whose Lectures on the Future of Our Educational Institutions remain relevant, nearly 150 years on.

As he prophesied the gradual diminishment and eventual end of humanity as we know it, Friedrich Nietzsche held education - in its current form - to be part of the problem, rather than its solution. He did not think we could educate ourselves out of our predicament, as if more education were the remedy to our social and political ills.

No one likes a pessimist. But nobody likes being a pessimist either. For his own sake, Nietzsche did his best to find hope in education. In his early work he confesses how much he yearned for a great educator, or educating philosopher, who would lead him and the rest of us too, out of our current predicament. But the more Nietzsche looked, the more disappointed he became.

Eventually Nietzsche settled for a different conception of the educator, one that we too might adopt. We should not expect universities to live up on their promise to lead us to a better and more prosperous future. We should not look to our teachers and expect to be enlightened and improved because of the education they give us. As I argue in The Cynical Educator, at best today's teachers serve as cultural exemplars of the enclosed, frantic subjectivity their students are expected to acquire.

From a Nietzschean perspective, teachers still have a role to play, though it is a diminished one. For Nietzsche, the role of the teacher must be shorn of any dignity it still retains in this era of performance management. We must look instead to our teachers for signs of illness, for manifestations of the problems of the age. This is about as gloomy as it gets. But here Nietzsche turns out to be the most optimistic pessimist you'll ever encounter. His overall point is this - only by passing through the deepest despair, can we start to build things anew.

If there were a vision of the university worth saving, it would be an institution that invites, indeed encourages, this kind of unflinching perception. It would be an institution that encourages us to see how bad things might be, using itself as a case study in corruption. As Nietzsche might say: if you look each day at the news, and worry about the problems 'out there', give a second to the unhappy thought they might be just as bad 'in here'. This is hardly consoling, but for Nietzsche, that is precisely the point.