MEET THE REAL FATHER OF MODERN EDUCATION – iii. Epilogue: Sleepwalking Through Fichte’s Dream
Of course, the conditions that would be required to realize an authoritarian dream as grand as Fichte’s are rarely, if ever, available. In reality, cutting a society off from its traditions is difficult to do, at least all at once. And practical contingencies make the complete disappearance of a generation of children impossible. They are loved by their parents, who do not perceive the philosopher’s scheme with the “unselfish” objectivity he demands. They are needed at home, to care for sick grandmothers or little brothers; they are needed on family farms, to get produce to market on time; in short, the real miniature community into which they are born inevitably makes claims on their energies and affections that cannot be swept away as tidily as a German idealist might hope.
Fichte was dreaming well ahead of the social and technological means at his disposal. Hence the real public schools that existed in the nineteenth century, based on his ideals, never had such total control of the children. The school days and school years tended to be too short, for practical and financial reasons, to give the government educators primary moral authority over the students. Compulsoriness and universality were still largely pipe dreams, given the practical contingencies of life—the contingencies Fichte denigrates as the “petty meanness and avarice” involved in “making ends meet.” And of course the teachers, even when hamstrung to varying degrees by certification requirements, were not all victims of compulsory education themselves, nor people devoid of deep family attachments and “selfish” hopes of their own, and were therefore highly imperfect replicas of Fichte’s model government teacher. Most of them would have had a soft spot for seeing their students succeed and develop their independence, rather than consistently “exhorting” their charges to the “pure will” of the self-sacrificial lamb, the way they were supposed to do. Furthermore, teachers in nations governed by non-authoritarian regimes would be more likely to incline toward the traditional notions of virtue so odious to Fichte, and the traditional ideas of teaching and learning so antithetical to his plans for a complete break with the past and with individual self-development.
There are, however, always men like Fichte and his international admirers and acolytes, who will repeatedly take up the cause, engage new supporters, co-opt mainstream scholarly venues, and see whether they cannot advance the dream a little further this time. John Dewey was merely the most systematic and serious of these men. They are the practical approximations of the progressive idealist scholar Fichte envisioned, focused always and mercilessly on the future prospects for greater social conformity for the benefit of the ruling elite. They are not, as a class, demons or evil wizards, just as Fichte himself was not. Some of them genuinely lack the moral rectitude and rationality to see that their hopes of “enlightened control” can lead only to the most unenlightened results. Some of them are opportunistic power-seekers or bootlickers, craving their own advancement or personal security, humanity be damned. Most of them are petty and self-important men of some cleverness, but little sober learning of the sort that teaches respect for one’s fellow men, or resignation in the face of life’s imperfections. What they all share is a desire for more government authority, and of course for a designing hand in the use of that authority.
And they are alike in one other way that is relevant to our current state of deterioration. As believers in the infinite malleability of human beings—in humanity as the collectively willed product of a creative progressive imagination—these dreamers invariably short-change human nature, which has no place in their theories and schemes.
Fichte’s dream was supposed to produce a well-oiled societal machine, strong men prepared to care for themselves with skill and independent spirit, while maintaining an abstract universal “moral order” that would render them harmless from the point of view of the ruling class, but competent and diligent enough to sustain the community against all challenges from within and without. And yet as the world has come ever closer to realizing Fichte’s methods in practice—school as the primary moral force, lack of meaningful connection to the practical adult world, collectivist indoctrination, virtual illiteracy, and state-compliant, character-less teachers—the tangible results are quite different from his hopes: increasing dependency, emotional immaturity, lack of self-restraint, navel-gazing elevated to a philosophical pursuit, and the obsessive search for personal gratification of the pettiest sort. In short, Fichte’s pupils are not growing up into adulthood, the way men normally did in the past, when non-school influences were the dominant ones.
Fichte’s educational model, for all his talk of progressive creativity and societal advancement, was hopelessly bound to the specific socio-economic conditions of his time and place. The easy bifurcation of the population into ignorant but efficient workers and a tiny minority of scholar-manipulators may have seemed plausible in an economy based on factories and farms. (And Rockefeller’s General Education Board was still clinging to that model in 1915.) But there was too much reality regarding the social fluidity of industrialization to allow Fichte’s static, abstract design to take firm hold in its pure form anywhere in the industrialized world. New kinds of work would develop that would create new societal needs—new kinds of “useful” citizen, to take the collectivist utilitarian position. And this is in addition to the more fundamental and inevitable problem of imagining one can smother human nature without any undesirable ramifications.
In spite of its practical inapplicability, however, and its being bound to fail on its own terms, the broad principles and ideals of Fichte’s system have remained the basis of all public education theory, and all practical public school development, since the first wave of European and American intellectuals—the mad scientist’s laboratory assistants—brought the Prussian model home to their nations, and set the West, and eventually the whole world, onto the slow, difficult, ever-evolving path to Fichte’s anti-individual, anti-rational dream of the perfectly submissive authoritarian society. Though requiring modifications and frequent patches, and while facing much more internal and external resistance than Fichte would have tolerated, reasonable facsimiles of his system have now been implemented to a considerable degree everywhere in the modern world.
And his system has, though not without growing pains and frequent patience-testing compromises, largely achieved its chief aim, namely societies that obey. Societies that live for the permanent ruling class. Societies in which men regard property as a loan from the collective, and even their own physical survival and well-being as a gift to be freely given (or withheld) by the state. Societies that are easily riled up into mass anger or mass enthusiasm, but that never, never question the underlying Truth which need not be spoken aloud—and indeed would cease to be believable if it were spoken aloud—but which has been whispered constantly and hypnotically into the soul of every citizen from the time of his earliest memories: Collective social existence is reality itself, and therefore the state, which creates and governs this reality, is God.
One of the basic implicit questions, among people looking back at the Nazi nightmare, is “How could the world’s most educated people have been reduced to that?” The correct question, I believe, would be “How could the world’s ‘most educated people’ not be reduced to that, or to something like it?” Intellectual capacities are what they are, but real social outcomes will always be somewhat determined by the moral tenor of the individual soul. The targets of life, both theoretical and practical, will inevitably be in large measure the product of the process of aiming. Education is primarily the moral art of aiming the soul, as Fichte, like all previous philosophers of this art, taught.
Turning life and thought into a limitless game of creativity unrestrained by the ugly imperfections of the external world, while implicitly instilling the population with obedient devotion to the collective, to the land, to the idea of communal progress and collective perfectibility, and to the distrust of those who stand apart from this dream, should have been expected to produce exactly such a result. Germany got there first. That is, she was the first nation to build this mentality incrementally from the ground up (rather than through forced revolutionary upheaval, which is faster but less profound), and was therefore the first to reap the full harvest of such a purely “educational” initiative.
Learning from history entails understanding a societal disaster not by its particularized manifestation of collapse, which by necessity can never be duplicated anywhere else, but rather by its subtler, more philosophical impetus and arc. German idealism was a decisive and deliberate step away from the developing heritage of modern civilization. Its moral and political implications have rippled through our world, infecting even the most quotidian aspects of our societies and institutions. No instantiation of this influence is more universal, or more historically significant, than compulsory schooling. The deliberate detachment of man from his natural well-being, from his natural moral limits, and from his civilizational inheritance, begins in kindergarten. The effects of this reality are all around us in the modern world. Sometimes collapse is noisy and overtly calamitous. Sometimes the fall is quiet, almost gentle, like a dead leaf slowly drifting to the ground.