Rereading Fichte after having read many more modern compulsory state schooling advocates, one is struck by the constant echoes of him. When, for example, William Torrey Harris recommends dark, ugly schools buildings removed from the delights of nature, the better to train children to focus on their intellectual development, he is merely echoing Fichte’s dismissal of direct experience, of the very idea of objective reality, in favor of developing in children the ability to form and be guided by subjective conceptions. Or when that Harvard woman in the news bewails the ‘evils’ of homeschooling, she is but echoing Fichte, who blames all the evils of society on the family’s role in raising their own children, and insists education is something the state must OF COURSE exclusively perform, so that mankind can progress to the next level of enlightenment. More on this below.
It’s been almost 7 years since I first read Fichte’s Addresses to the German Nation, the founding work modern compulsory state education and a declaration of war by the state on the family. In the Addresses, Fichte declares that the state has every right and a sacred duty to simply seize all German children, remove them from all contact with their families for the duration of their education, for their own good, but especially for the good of the Nation. He is a fiery, fanatical believer in the perfectibility of Man and thus of the State, believes the enlightened among us have a sacred duty to lead the unenlightened to the state-mandated Promised Land by whatever means necessary, and has identified education – state controlled, mandatory education – as the key to this Heaven on Earth.
The major thing standing in the way of achieving these ends, ends that justify, evidently, extravagant and brutal means, is the family. Within their families all children (with, I suppose, the exception of Fichte himself?) have been raised to be sensual, weak-willed sheep who do not love the Fatherland, from which all their virtue flows. Properly raised, these New German Men will be virtuous, selfless lovers of Truth, and, incidentally, obviate the need for a standing army. If the Fatherland needs defending, this properly educated, Fatherland-loving, physically fit generation will of course simply form an unbeatable, selfless fighting force against which no unenlightened mortals could possibly stand. (1)
Fichte delivered these Addresses as a series of lecture over the winter of 1807/8. He was evidently a very good orator; certainly, much of the Addresses read like fiery evangelical preaching. His audience for these talks, the admission fees to which paid the the Fichte family’s bills, were the sort of people who would pay money to be alternately flattered and harangued on wintry Sunday evenings. These were professionals living in French-occupied Berlin, butt-hurt over having had that loathsome creature Napoleon crush the previously invincible Prussian army like a bug. Literal blocks away from the site of these lectures, the government of the occupation had its offices.
Just because it’s easy to forget: in the early 1800s, around 80% to 90% of the population of Prussia, and every other nation as well, lived in the country. Farmers could only consistently produce 10-20% more food than was required to keep themselves alive; this put a cap on how many people could be engaged in activities other than farming. I mention this because farmers supplied not only the food, but also armies of any size of any nation. The major target of Fichte’s reforms, therefore, had to be the children of country people.
I’ve long suspected that the myth of the country bumpkin is a result of solid farmers not buying into the fantasies of city slickers. They must be stooopid, those country rubes, because all the smart people agree that anyone who disagrees with them is, you know, stupid. That there might be species of stupid just for those living in cities detached from the work of providing sustenance is an idea that seems to not have occurred to too many urbanites.
Perhaps this attitude has some parallels today?
Fichte begins with and sprinkles liberally throughout his talks the claim that Germans are responsible for pretty much all progress and everything good in the world. He partly attributes this to the natural character of Germans, partly to his claim that Germans have a natural language. The two causes interact: because German Germans never learned a conqueror’s language, they understand the world and express themselves plainly, in words that come directly from common experience. The pointed reference here is to the French, ethnically Germanic for the most part, as the Franks were a German tribe, yet conquered by Rome more or less and speakers of a highly degenerate form of their conquerors language. When he speaks of the German Nation, he means all native German speakers.
Fichte considered states as passing fads, almost, and sees them as each in its own way an expression of fundamental Germaness. The existence of separate German states is no major hindrance to his theories, in other words. One might say: German states are downstream from the German nation to which these Addresses are addressed. The high destiny of the German nation overwhelms and vouchsafes the purity and success of any truly German state. This primacy of German manifest destiny to lead the world to the next phase of Fichte’s 5 stages of human development will keep the state honest, as it were. In any event, Fichte never for a moment entertains the idea that any state pursuing his grant plan might be fundamentally corrupt. Nope: nothing can possibly go wrong with the state exercising its police power to round up everyone’s children and enforce isolation on them, imprisoning them for years with no visitation rights. Fichte goes farther: it is as CERTAIN as day follows night his education system will produce selfless, obedient, patriotic adults who will lead the German Nation and then the world to Nirvana.
Another familiar theme:
Now, assuming that the pupil is to remain until education is finished, reading and writing can be of no use in the purely national education, so long as this education continues. But it can, indeed, be very harmful; because, as it has hitherto so often done, it may easily lead the pupil astray from direct perception to mere signs, and from attention, which knows that it grasps nothing if it does not grasp it now and here, to distraction, which consoles itself by writing things down and wants to learn some day from paper what it will probably never learn, and, in general, to the dreaming which so often accompanies dealings with the letters of the alphabet. Not until the very end of education, and as its last gift for the journey, should these arts be imparted and the pupil led by analysis of the language, of which he has been completely master for a long time, to discover and use the letters. After the rest of the training he has already acquired, this would be play.Fichte, 9th Address, pp 136
To sum up: a kid is to spend, effectively, 24 x 7 X 365 in school for around 10 years, learning to be a good German, how to really focus on the task at hand (2) but doesn’t learn reading and writing (and, one assumes, arithmetic) until something like age 15 or 16. If you can read and write, you don’t have to pay attention to the teacher as much – you can take notes, and review later. This will not do, as the child is to accept the state trained and certified teacher in the place of his displaced father, and fulfill his need for approval and love by pleasing that teacher. The magical education works, according to Fichte’s understanding of Pestalozzi, by having the student utterly emotionally dependent on pleasing the teacher, doing what the teacher wants him to do in the way the teacher wants it done, always eager for approval. There is no fallback: by design, a child who fails to please his teacher has no recourse, not to family, not even to books. His family has abandoned him, as far as he knows, and he’s not allowed to explore the world through reading, where he might come across other ways in which people interact.
The scary part: it works great. Modern schooling attempts to achieve the same dynamic by telling the parents, who themselves were schooled in the same way, that they are bad parents if they don’t enforce homework on their child, effectively extending to the home and parents the duty to please the teacher. That the bulk of homework is busy work is the point: it’s not the work itself that is important, it’s the discipline that doing the work as commanded enforces.
Fichte is alive and well in modern schooling. ‘Educators’ are trained and filtered by their willingness to perform busy work and regurgitate nonsense on command, then certified. Teachers may and often do have goals and ideals of their own – these are at best irrelevant, as the structure of the schools is the message. You will sit in the class in which you are placed; you will do what the teacher tells you to do; you will ‘succeed’ by regurgitating what the teacher tells you. Anything else is at best superfluous.
You end up with well-schooled, ‘front row’ (3) people who are utterly convinced of their intellectual and moral superiority, functionally innumerate, scientifically and historically illiterate, convinced that regurgitating whatever the approved authority figure is saying at the moment is the apex of intelligence, and utterly terrified of examining the basis of their confidence. They react with anger to anyone who dares challenge them on any point of their received beliefs. They have received their identity through their schooling (as it was designed to do); any challenge to any idea is thus a personal attack, and proof the challenge is stupid and evil.
See, for example, the knee-jerk shutdown of criticisms of the current lockdown.
- I’ve read in a number of places that German soldier in the World Wars consistently inflicted 30% higher casualties than they received. Those soldiers were educated in schools founded by von Humboldt after the recommendations of Fichte, so maybe there’s something to this claim? But the Prussian state could never quite pull off the whole ‘seize all children from the cradle and prohibit all contact with their families’ thing – which is probably why they lost both those wars…
- The psychologist Alice Miller talks about how children are, of necessity, desperate for love and approval, which they get automatically in any even marginally healthy family. Parents and siblings who are not monsters hold and talk to the baby and interact with the child daily. She also mentions in a couple of her works the standards of German child-rearing manuals from the 19th century, how fathers were instructed to make sure their sons failed at certain tasks just so that they could be punished. Otherwise, if the child were to experience only love, acceptance, and patience, he may not learn to understand discipline and authority. All love is conditional, in other words. Somebody else will need to research what, if any, effect Fichte had on those manuals, or visa versa.
- From the linked article, proof, if any needed, that arrogance makes you stupid:
Front row kids:
Mobile, global, and well educated
Primary social network is via colleges and career
Intellect is primary. View world through framework of numbers and rational arguments
Meaning (and morality) comes from careers and intellectual puruits
Faith is irrational. They see themselves as beyond race and gender
View their lives as better than their parents and their children’s lives will be better than their own