On the Nature of Teaching: Regarding Three Aphorisms from Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil

Whoever is a teacher through and through takes all things seriously only in relation to his students – even himself.

Nietzsche, Beyond Good and Evil section 63, trans. Walter Kaufmann

This is one of those things which has been around for a long time, and I have dwelled on it for an even longer time, and come to no certain conclusions.

What seems to be immediately going on is revealed in the epigrams that follow:

(64) “Knowledge for its own sake” – that is the last snare of morality: with that one becomes completely entangled in it once more.

(65) The attraction of knowledge would be small if one did not have to overcome so much shame on the way.

The issue generally is the relation of having knowledge to being human. A teacher that takes his students seriously knows, in a way, through and because of his students. He does not know a science, say geometry, and then puts it forth in lectures and papers. Rather, the activities are intertwined with something key to communicating knowledge.

Now granted, we live in a day and age where teachers don’t really have to “know,” as much as “know how to teach” – if that sounds disparaging, note that it probably isn’t too far off the mark from where education schools want to go. The key is method – method itself may not be self-evident, but it seems to make knowledge self-evident when used correctly. I assume Nietzsche has a more complicated understanding of how an educator relates to his own knowledge – he probably doesn’t think of an educator as a device for putting forth a method, and rather sees the character of the educator himself as something we need to pay attention to.

After all, he says that an insistence on the purity of knowledge inevitably leads to a morality of sorts. We wonder what kind of morality it could lead to, since it does not seem the sorts of people who say “I’m pursuing knowledge for its own sake” use that pursuit to bolster morality. They seem indifferent to morality, actually, if they are not outright hostile.

And to say “modern science, for example, has an ethic of its own that is implicit” gets tricky. Mansfield did a very nice job illustrating that in the Jefferson lecture, but he did it through modernity’s only apparent ability to sidestep the issue of pursuing greatness. It seems like the claims of modernity are full of hubris in the final analysis, but what about before such a conclusion is drawn?

Perhaps what Nietzsche means in 64 is that any attempt to divorce knowledge generally from the human ends up as a restraint on humanity for both better and worse. The only issue is whether one wants to be caught up in the project of such restraints knowingly or unknowingly.

65 is an understanding of what went wrong in Eden. Knowledge was to be had at the expense of obedience, and in order to be liberated from obedience, one had to start hating being ashamed.

It should be noted that 65 is a slight on the sort of person who would declare having knowledge for its own sake. No one really pursues knowledge for its own sake. Overcoming shame, like trying to be beyond all earthly honor, is impossible. We need to feel respected, and note that the overcoming of shame only means total freedom for the most boorish, those who would act however they wanted anyway. For the rest of us, the attempt to overcome shame would probably result in a greater feeling of shame from within if there was something we didn’t get.

With all that in mind, let us return to the beginning. A good teacher will know how to employ shame and convince his students of the truth of certain moral observations. He will do this not by lording over them, but by seeing as they see, and taking what they see of him seriously.

His position, on earth, is actually beyond pride and beyond morality. Students nowadays almost pay a homage to this truth by keeping their teachers at a distance and not relating to them as people. They’d rather sit and gossip about their teachers instead of asking them questions directly.

No one said we know how to pay homage.

For the teacher, equality with the student through the means of the literal condescension – the teacher assesses seriousness through their values – implicitly means that he is the ultimate student. In all this pride, there is humility. And yet there is a darkness to the teaching, for the moral observations that a teacher may impart – well, not everyone is going to understand them.

The equality occurs for the best teacher because the best students have already selected themselves, perhaps have been worked with, and are drawing their own conclusions.

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