From a doctorate exam.—“What is the task of all higher education?”—To turn man into a machine.—“By what means?”—He has to learn how to feel bored.—“How is that achieved?”—Through the concept of duty.—“Who is his model?”—The philologist: he teaches how to grind.—“Who is the perfect man?”—The civil servant.—“Which philosophy provides the best formula for the civil servant?”—Kant’s: the civil servant as thing in itself set as judge over the civil servant as appearance.[i]

Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols 


Old libertarians still shake their heads at Alan Greenspan, the laissez-faire economist, advocate of returning to the gold standard, and harsh critic of the concept of central banks, who finally spent almost two decades as Chairman of the U.S. Federal Reserve. What happens in the heart of a man who is distrustful of centralized authority, when he himself is asked by his compatriots to assume that authority? Does he extend his principled distrust to himself, or does he exempt himself from his own objections on the grounds that he, of course, is honorably intentioned?

In 1809, Humboldt was appointed by the Prussian Ministry of the Interior as head of culture and education.[ii] In this role, he undertook to establish “schools to be paid for by the nation alone.”[iii] And when, only eighteen months later, he left his position due to personal conflicts within the ministry, he wrote to his wife: 

The internal administration of a country is beyond doubt far more important overall than its external relations; but the education of a nation over which I presided and which went ahead successfully under my administration is of incomparably greater importance still.… I had drawn up a general plan which covered everything from the smallest school to the university and in which all the component parts fitted together….[iv] 

A comprehensive national education program, with every element “fitted together” under centralized state control, from the man who had earlier described such a system as “oppressive fetters.” What had happened to bring about such a radical change? In short, two things had happened: Jena and Fichte.

Napoleon’s easy victory over the Prussian army in the battles of Jena and Auerstedt in October, 1806, resulting in the occupation of much of Prussia and the exile of the ruling class from Berlin, was a humiliating moment for a Prussian political and intellectual elite that regarded itself as the vanguard of modern civilization.[v] Suddenly, the academics were engaged in profound soul-searching: What had gone wrong? How could they foster the national pride and unity that would allow Prussia, and Germany in general, to rise again from this shame?

Of course, such moments of reckoning, in which fear and despair dominate, are a perfect window of opportunity for clever thinkers with an authoritarian inclination and agenda. Their diagnosis of a need for fundamental social renewal receives its most sympathetic hearing in a moment of defeat, and their grand designs for achieving such renewal are most likely to be embraced without sober reflection by a people in crisis.

Enter Fichte, an exemplary case of a “public intellectual,” who sought to rally the German Volk around a new, stronger sense of unity and collective will in the face of disarray. In a series of polemical speeches delivered during 1807-8, collectively published as Addresses to the German Nation,[vi] Fichte detailed his plan for national revival, or rather “salvation,”[vii] consisting in the creation of “an entirely new self, which may have existed before perhaps in individuals as an exception, but never as a universal and national self, and in the education of the nation, whose former life has died out and become the supplement of an alien life, to a completely new life….”[viii] The primary requirement of this “new self” was that it must, unlike the old, be related to the state not on the basis of “fear and hope”—that is, as an individual human being for whom the state is seen as a protector or guarantor of his interests—but rather as a self which is “conscious of itself only as part of the whole and can endure itself only when the whole is pleasing.”[ix] Note the word “only” in that sentence. The new self is to recognize itself only as part of the whole, i.e., as essentially linked to the state. The “New Education,” then, would be a set of proposals designed to achieve this aim of total submersion of the (former) individual human being into the state or collective will—proposals which laid the spiritual foundation for the updated Prussian school system that so captivated European and North American education reformers in subsequent decades.[x]

Humboldt, who had had some association with Fichte for years, now fell under his spell in Berlin. A striking indication of this is that an idiosyncratic education experimenter named Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, whose methods Humboldt had opposed, suddenly received Humboldt’s “undivided support” as chief teaching methodologist for the new Prussian schools in 1809[xi]—after Pestalozzi’s work had been extolled by Fichte as consistent with the latter’s radical theories of nationalist-idealist schooling. Humboldt may have been successful, as he claimed, in getting the administrative ball rolling on the new compulsory school system, but the societal impetus to do so, and the most profound intentions underlying the model, were sown within the Prussian political establishment and psyche primarily by Fichte.[xii] 

All too often, critics of public schooling note this Prussian, or even Fichtean, influence without delving into exactly what would have made Fichte’s model so appealing to the men who eagerly set about transporting it to the nations of the world. That it was compulsory and uniform would have been attractive on its face to bureaucratic minds bent on re-organizing society in their own image. But this is not enough to explain their profound and vehement devotion to the virtues of the specific form of compulsory schooling being instituted in Prussia. What underlay the system? What were the principles and aims that so attracted the world’s universal schooling advocates? To answer these questions, it is necessary to examine Fichte’s recommendations in detail, to understand his reasons for offering them, and to consider why they were so persuasive in rallying first a nation’s, and then a civilization’s, academic and political elite to attempt a radical new model of general education.

We must always remember that the reason compulsory education in our modern sense exists at all is because of the advocacy and political influence of the international admirers of the Prussian system. The degraded schools of today are specifically the degradation—or rather the fulfillment—of the early efforts to transpose the defining methods and aims of Fichte’s dream to other nations. To overlook or diminish this fact as ancient history, and therefore of no importance in understanding today’s schools, is to accept the conclusion of an argument without bothering to examine its premises. Furthermore, for those who assume that the truly subversive agenda of public education in a free society begins with John Dewey, a study of Fichte is most instructive; for it gradually becomes apparent that Dewey was a less original thinker on these matters than might be imagined—and than he wished to appear—and that his general principles regarding the purposes and methods of educating children toward collectivist submission were merely Fichteanism tarted up with a cosmetic veneer of “democracy.”

Thus we must turn to Fichte’s influential Addresses in search of that heart of compulsory schooling which paternalistic Western reformers sought to transplant to their own nations, and which has long since been poisoning the bloodstream of modern civilization, perhaps fatally.

Let us begin with the Second Address, “The General Nature of the New Education,” where Fichte offers the stark declaration of intent which might serve as a definitive synopsis of his theory: 

[T]he new education must be able surely and infallibly to mould and determine according to rules the real vital impulses and actions of its pupils.[xiii] 

Addressing the likely objection that moral development depends on free will, and hence resists such authoritarian “moulding” and “determining,” he responds that the acknowledgment of and deference to free will in the child is 

the first mistake of the old system and the clear confession of its impotence and futility. For, by confessing that after all its most powerful efforts the will still remains free, that is, hesitating undecided between good and evil, it confesses that it neither is able, nor wishes, nor longs to fashion the will.… On the other hand, the new education must consist essentially in this, that it completely destroys freedom of will in the soil which it undertakes to cultivate, and produces on the contrary strict necessity in the decisions of the will, the opposite being impossible.[xiv] (Emphasis added.) 

So the essence of the new Prussian system, at least ideally, is the complete and universal destruction of free will. The first question we might ask is, how did the time-honored concept of free will fall into such disrepute as to be identifiable with the simple lack of firm moral character, which is how Fichte describes it here? The short answer might be “Lutheranism,” but as Fichte’s overall philosophy, while sometimes adopting an exoterically neo-Lutheran aspect, is hardly reducible to doctrinaire Protestantism of any kind, this answer seems an oversimplification. Furthermore, as a self-described Kantian, a certain conception of moral freedom is essential to his ethical thought, all neo-Lutheran posturing aside. Nevertheless, on his framing of the issue here, free will in a man simply indicates immorality, whereas a truly moral man has transcended freedom, and acts out of “strict necessity.”

Here we have run smack into a seminal case of the progressive urge toward illogical universalization which I described in “The Standards Trap” in Part One. The notion of freedom of the will developed gradually in the wake of the classical, particularly Aristotelian, account of moral virtue as action springing from a disposition toward the moderate mean between excessive and deficient responses to circumstances involving choice. For example, courage as a state of character is the stable disposition to respond to threatening situations in a manner that displays neither excessive fear nor rashness, relative to the particular situation; but what the proper (i.e., courageous) response will be in a given situation cannot be determined in abstraction from the particular context. “Stand and fight” may be the rational course of action in many situations; not necessarily so when you are alone in front of a thousand well-armed men, with three thousand of your own comrades due to arrive in ten minutes. Likewise, strategic retreat may be the best choice when faced with an overwhelming enemy and defending a worthless piece of land; not so when challenged for your dinner by a Chihuahua.

Thus, for most moral decisions in our lives—that is, decisions regarding the means of achieving the good—there can be no simple “rule” of behavior, as the correct course of action will be determined contextually. Indeed, this is precisely the reason individual moral character is essential. There are few universally applicable rules of behavior—the Ten Commandments just about sum them up, and even a few of those may admit of contextual interpretation—so a man must habituate the inclination to desire what is actually good in any context, i.e., the mean, as well as the reasoning ability to allow him to determine how best to realize it.

Free will is related to this contextual notion of virtue. We prove our virtue by making the best choices, for in most situations there is no universalizable rule defining the correct course of action. On this view, then, there can be no real virtue without free will, because it is only the freedom to choose that makes us moral agents at all, rather than machines. Machines, or in general those who act involuntarily, are blameless, as their “choice” is not their own.

Remember our earlier examples of illegitimate universalization, communism in political theory and standardization in education? This same problem was brought to the center of moral philosophy by Kant.

Free will, traditionally (and very broadly) understood, is the ability to choose a course of action in accordance with the faculty of practical reason. Hence moral freedom presupposes the capacity to reason about objects of desire. Irrational animals desire and act; humans desire, deliberate, and act. That is, we become properly human, and therefore virtuous, when reason in conjunction with established character, rather than instinctive bodily urge, determines our action. But this is, by necessity, reason applied to the individual, practical experience of humans, which means to a particular context. Freely willed action, in other words, is basically the voluntary application of rational principle to the circumstances of a particular situation, with the aim of securing the apparent good; and moral virtue as a permanent state of character is the emotional disposition to choose the real good, as defined relative to the circumstances. Therefore, we may say that the moral person is one whose actions are the voluntary products of rational choice directed by sound character responding to particular circumstances.

Kant, and following him Fichte, sought to eliminate individual context and feeling from morality proper by invoking reason generically, which is to say in abstraction from personal circumstances, just as communists seek to universalize the principle “all things in common” in abstraction from its natural qualifying context—“among friends.”

Why? There was a strain of eighteenth century Enlightenment thought that was becoming concerned about the very possibility of moral choice in the cause-effect material world of modern physics.[xv] Must we not, some wondered, view humans as entirely a part of that mechanistic world, and therefore unfree? And if this is so, then is all our moral philosophy built on mere appearances, which is to say on illusion?

Kant’s strategy to overcome this perceived collapse of the moral realm was to isolate the desires, or more generally self-interest, as being merely our way of experiencing and describing our participation in the mechanistic natural order. Actions motivated by interest, on this view, are consistent with the cause-effect mechanism of nature; they are how we perceive ourselves as mere parts of nature, and therefore as unfree. Kant’s solution was that only “disinterested reason” could salvage human dignity in the face of the mechanistic nature of physics. For he believed it was only by regulating our will in abstraction from any individuating context—which means independently of our desires or interests in the situation—and therefore conforming to a law of reason outside of space and time, that we might understand ourselves as existing beyond that world of sense experience to which Newton’s mechanistic laws always apply. This disinterested moral motivation, then, would be the only means by which we might view ourselves as free.[xvi]

Kant’s argument constituted a radical break in the history of moral philosophy, as he had leapt from the traditional emphasis on the habituation of virtuous character in the soul—that is, educating the passions—to a new focus on following generic rules regardless of context. In effect, this meant shifting the locus of ethics from the particular to the universal.

The fallout of this moral revolution, however, was far graver than Kant had likely foreseen. Practical wisdom and properly developed emotional responses—the essence of classical morality—are precisely what Kant was rejecting. On the classical view, we must perfect ourselves in habit and practical reasoning in order to be virtuous, and we must be virtuous in order to be happy. Hence moral philosophy pursued in the traditional way is, as the ancients taught us, the examination of the meaning of, and means to, happiness. Happiness is the ultimate moral motivation. On Kant’s view, by contrast, the individual agent’s desire to be happy, which is to say his self-interest, confines him to his mere participation in mechanistic nature, and hence cannot be a moral (i.e., free) motive. Kant therefore concludes that in moral reasoning we must leave our desire for happiness aside as essentially non-moral. The moral man is he whose actions are regulated by disinterested reasoning, which means according to universalizable maxims, without regard for any interest in his own personal well-being.

Kant himself does not condemn personal happiness as an immoral concern, but merely bars it from the realm of moral motivation. In one of the most convoluted and cryptic elements of his practical philosophy, he tries to salvage a place for happiness as a human goal, albeit only a natural, which is to say non-moral, goal. In this effort, he shows himself to be less radically disconnected from human experience and history than his successors. He does not wish to declare that all previous men were essentially immoral; he does, however, wish to claim that their motives for action were amoral. Happiness, which Kant often conflates with pleasure, may, he argues, include the delight we experience when we observe ourselves acting in accordance with the universal moral law. We must arrive at universalizable moral maxims without reference to our individual well-being, but the action that instantiates a moral maxim (e.g., telling the truth) returns us to the world of empirical experience, as it were, and may therefore be a source of pleasure.[xvii] (“I acted well.”) That is, happiness may be a result of acting morally, but it may never be a motive for so acting, for this would violate Kant’s defining but precarious conception of moral freedom as disinterestedness.[xviii]

Through all the contortions, then, the basic thrust of Kant’s break with all previous moral theories lies in his declaration that the moral man, as such, never considers his own interest in a situation, or what might be “good for him” in the sense of being conducive to his happiness. This declaration, however, provoked Kant’s successors to a blunter position, dismissing the desire to be happy as selfishness, and the natural desire for self-preservation and self-perpetuation as materialism. This stronger position would categorize all pre-Kantian moral theories as mere rationalizations of selfishness and materialism. Consequently, since seeking personal happiness through living well according to our nature as rational animals would now be considered immoral, true morality would henceforth be indistinguishable from the renunciation of human nature, which is to say self-immolation.

It is neither difficult to see how the Kantian model of morality lends itself to being reconfigured as the support structure of authoritarianism, nor surprising that this is exactly the use to which it was put by the most political and influential of the first generation Kantians.

Two extremely important results follow from this redefinition of morality as disinterested obedience to “the moral law” without regard for one’s own happiness, rather than (as had previously been believed) as the ability to delineate and choose the good in any context with a view to attaining happiness.

First, the separation of moral freedom from “interest” leaves the moral value of the individual human will—which Kant tries to salvage with his notion of humanity as a “kingdom of ends”—on very shaky ground. Kant’s “disinterested” compulsion to “act only in accordance with that maxim which can be willed to be a universal law” is a convenient abstraction which, however, may seem more reasonable than it really is. In brief, the underlying motive of Kant’s project, namely his wish to preserve freedom by showing how moral reasoning can and must be context-free and “universal,” in the sense of being detached from the interests of the individual agent, is suspect in the extreme, and perhaps inapplicable in practice. Is “I must deny my interest and act solely according to universalizable duty” a logically coherent statement? Why must you do this? Try to answer fully without recourse to self-interest.

The second result follows from and punctuates the first. Kantianism makes the moral world “objective” in one key sense, namely that which behavior shall count as the good is determinable universally, a priori, and from the outside. Hence we may in principle know exactly what everyone should do; all that is wanted, then, is the expert with a reliable method of indoctrinating them all to do it. Creating obedient machines does not, on this view, eliminate morality, but rather solidifies it. This is why Fichte identifies free will as the enemy of moral education right at the outset. The obedient machine is the goal; it is his idea of the good man. Voluntarism, the precondition of virtue-based ethics, is essentially irrelevant to duty-based ethics, once one dispenses with the old self-contradictory hang-ups about preserving individual dignity.

In practical terms, Fichte’s mature (fully refurbished) Kantianism may therefore be regarded as a logical improvement. He sees that the quest for a new notion of individual freedom which at the same time denies the individual and his interests is a fool’s errand. The new morality must finally jettison all concern with preserving the “freedom” of obedience to the moral law, in favor of emphasizing the duty to obey. After all, if the abstract moral law, rather than personal virtue, is the good, and if the self-interested motive of personal happiness is to be dismissed from the realm of legitimate moral deliberation, then leaving men “free” to obey or disobey the moral law—which is all traditional free will can mean for a Kantian, having rejected context-based morality—serves no rational purpose. The moral good no longer exists for individuals, but in spite of them. Hence, Fichte’s view is quite right in its way: The consistent Kantian (as Fichte saw himself) must finally reject the now contradictory rhetoric of free will in favor of the unfree—that is, perfectly trained—will. To put it in a manner more sympathetic to the idealist sensibility Fichte represents, we might say that political freedom and moral freedom (in the idealist sense) are essentially incompatible, and hence that if moral freedom is one’s political goal, then tyranny is the road to freedom.

Moral education thus becomes indistinguishable from indoctrination, and as indoctrinating a portion of the population is obviously less socially effective than indoctrinating all of it, the best moral education program will be compulsory. In other words, the only effective way to manifest this morality of self-immolation in practical life is through politics, where the denial of self-interest out of “duty” becomes devotion to the collective, and where the collective, in turn, must be defined in terms of a concrete practical entity toward which to focus men’s moral energies: the state.

Fichte proceeds to set the stage for his new moral indoctrination by outlining what is wrong with all previous education: 

[M]an can will only what he loves.… Hitherto, in its education of the social man the art of the State assumed, as a sure and infallible principle, that everyone loves and wills his own material welfare. To this natural love it artificially linked, by means of the motives of fear and hope, that good will which it desired, namely, interest in the common weal. Anyone who has become outwardly a harmless or even useful citizen as a result of such a system of education remains, nevertheless, inwardly a bad man; for badness consists essentially in loving solely one’s own material welfare and in being influenced only by the motives of fear and hope for that welfare, whether in the present or in some future life.[xix] 

In the past, people raised their children to perceive their own lives, which they naturally love, as also encompassing the well-being of their community. Fichte reinterprets this traditional ladder of moral development as a mere “artificial” mimicry of true moral education, which in his view ought to begin not by assuming natural self-love, but by abolishing it. His condemnation of traditional morality, which had been grounded in human nature and experience, as a kind of trick or hypocrisy, is typical of the post-Kantian filter through which German philosophy inverted Western man’s perception of his own heritage, a misrepresentation which has perpetuated its distorting effects to the present day, with catastrophic results. Every variant of political progressivism begins, explicitly or otherwise, with the idealist moral premise that rooting civic concern in self-concern is illegitimate, because self-concern itself is (supposedly) immoral.

(The early modern thinkers would, according to their character, work themselves into a lather here refuting this anti-human premise; the ancients, according to theirs, would simply laugh at it. And yet, due to the coercive global dissemination of these Prussian distortions, it has become the universal moral premise of our age. There is a synopsis of the decline of the West in there, for anyone who wishes to pursue it.)

You will notice in the above passage that Fichte merely presupposes that a citizen’s devotion to the state, and his usefulness to it, is identical with the “good will.” He engages in a serious equivocation, using the moral good and the socially useful interchangeably. The good man sacrifices himself to the state; the “bad man” considers his own “material welfare.” No argument is offered for this—it is taken as given. And by “material welfare,” you must not imagine we are merely speaking of petty materialism or greed (i.e., of excess or defect, in the classical moral vernacular). Fichte speaks here of the bad man’s concern for his material welfare “in some future life.” Thus, even belief in some form of afterlife or immortality constitutes concern for one’s material welfare. In other words, Fichte is designating nothing less than the desires for self-preservation, self-realization, and a glimpse of eternity—the chief motives of human nature as this was understood prior to Kant—as evidence of immorality. It is immoral to seek one’s own survival, perpetuation, and salvation. In such a philosophical climate, does individual liberty stand a chance in the long run?

The collectivist presupposition of his argument is given further emphasis by his subsequent observation that “material love of self cannot be turned to our advantage in any way.”[xx] Why is “our advantage” (i.e., the good of the collective) the paramount moral concern? Simply because “the good” has been stipulated to mean submission to the state. The perspective of the state—“our advantage”—is intrinsically moral; that of the individual, intrinsically immoral.

It is one thing, however, to reject all previous methods of education, but quite another to propose an alternative. How is this new moral education in self-loathing to proceed? Here we arrive at the most important and, if you will allow the anachronism, Deweyesque element of Fichte’s plans. The precise connection between early German idealism and today’s illiterate high school graduates, thirty-year-old dependents, and elementary school transgender bathrooms may not be obvious, but it is intimate. The nineteenth century German elite’s impulse to reject history and human nature in the names of progress and collectivism may be traced right into today’s teaching methods and textbooks. And the source of that long downward arc may be found right here, in Fichte’s Second Address. To ignore this is to fail to see how we got where we are, and thus to misunderstand the profound nature of our challenge, and what must be done to overcome it.

The centerpiece of Fichte’s conception of childhood education is a concerted effort to detach the child from his physical reality, and indeed from the sensory world itself, as far as possible. This, he maintains, is essential to the whole molding process, because if the child is allowed to begin perceiving himself as an individual being standing in definite relations to his surroundings, then the ultimate moral goal (complete identification with and devotion to the collective) is compromised. The child must unlearn his natural awareness of himself as a separate entity as quickly as possible. This detachment of the child from himself is to be achieved in several ways, some of them highly speculative, others quite practical, and all of them relevant to today’s educational norms.

The state’s most important weapon in this subordination process is pleasure. A child naturally takes pleasure in the discovery of his surroundings. (This is the base meaning of the opening sentence of Aristotle’s Metaphysics: “All men by nature desire to know.”) This natural pleasure, therefore, must be supplanted in favor of a new pleasure which can divert the mind from its traditional path of discovery, the path rooted in the individuating circumstances of real life.

Fichte turns for this soul-diverting pleasure to imagination, by which he ultimately means the capacity to “create spontaneously” ideals “which are independent of reality and not copies of it, but rather its prototypes.”[xxi] In other words, he intends to displace the pleasures of understanding with those of creation, the natural joy of becoming fully human with the artificial joy of playing god.

In its initial stage, the hope is to provoke children to produce images which give pleasure as products of active creation, rather than as “passive” discoveries of reality, and which inspire a desire to realize the creations in the external world.[xxii] Fichte intends that this activity of guided creation should eventually lead the child to imagine the laws of mental activity itself, such that he learns the universal conditions of all possible experience without direct reference to the world of sense which is conditioned by these universal laws. To clarify: According to Kantianism, the world as we experience it is produced by the mind’s own innate categories. Learning, therefore, which begins at the level of experience, can produce only “knowledge” of the world as conditioned by our own mental activity. Fichte translates this view into a theory of education by suggesting that an early step in learning must be the creative discovery of the pre-experiential laws of mental activity. In other words, rather than learning in the normal (natural) direction, from particulars to universals, he proposes to begin with the universal, thereby circumventing any deference to sense experience at any stage of learning.

However, it is important to emphasize, as Fichte himself does, that this coerced, unnatural flight from real experience into the imaginary world of a priori creation is not an end in itself. Rather, its purpose in education is to condition the young mind to disregard the material, practical, and sensory—that is, the world of individual existence—in preference for creative wish fulfillment at the universal and collective level. 

This method of mental training is…the immediate preparation for the moral; it completely destroys the root of immorality by never allowing sensuous enjoyment to become the motive. Formerly, that was the first motive to be stimulated and developed, because it was believed that otherwise the pupil could not be influenced or controlled at all.[xxiii] 

Remember that by such phrases as “sensuous enjoyment,” Fichte merely means the pleasure we naturally take in noting our surroundings, in observing our relation to things, and especially in gaining knowledge as a means to our own well-being. On the traditional learning path, this pleasure in knowledge as a means may finally give way to pleasure in knowledge for its own sake. That is, the path to wisdom, in which our individual concerns are left somewhat behind, is rooted in our natural sense of individual existence and desire for happiness. (This, for example, is why Plato identifies the highest intelligible being as “the Good”—it is the final step in an educational continuum that begins in the immediate pleasure of fulfilling earthly, practical interests.) In Fichte’s view, by contrast, individual existence and the desire for well-being (happiness) are to be undermined at the very beginning of life, as a precondition for molding the child into a purely disinterested servant of the state’s existence and well-being.

Of course, no real education system ever did or could proceed consistently according to this theoretical beginning. If you have a hard time picturing a six-year-old spontaneously creating a priori universal laws, let alone “imagining” the categories of the understanding, you are not alone. What is important here, however—and this has proved to be quite applicable in practice—is the basic principle of appealing to imagination as an alternative source of pleasure to trump reality, and to fantasies of “creativity” to short-circuit the desire for knowledge which, left to follow its natural course, roots the child’s mind firmly in its individual existence, and fosters a pleasure that imaginary creation can never produce: the pleasure of practical efficacy.

Premature efficacy must be avoided, both in the child’s psyche and in reality. Fichte, like his spiritual children from Lenin to Dewey to Mao, to every advocate of public school “socialization” today, is emphatic on this point. The child must not be permitted to experience himself as a functioning, organic whole existing independently of the schooling process. This mental conditioning is to be achieved by ensuring that the child remains “continuously and completely” under the state’s influence, and is “separated altogether from the community,” i.e., from his family.[xxiv] If you doubt that Fichte could have intended this separation of the child’s mind from its natural course of development as radically as I am portraying it, here is Fichte’s own summary of his program’s moral aims: 

[The child] must not even hear that our vital impulses and actions can be directed towards our maintenance and welfare, nor that we may learn for that reason, nor that learning may be of some use for that purpose.[xxv] 

In other words, the child must be fully habituated to serving the state’s needs before he is even allowed to notice that he might have had needs of his own.

Imagination activated without meaningful connection to the sensible world, the world in which the child actually has to learn to live; indoctrination deliberately conducted apart from, or over the heads of, the intimates who ought to form the child’s first and most natural community; “knowledge” presented in abstract form, without any discernible real world context or relation to practical needs or goals; the pleasures of an imaginary world, and of dreams of creation, that subvert the natural pleasures of mastering one’s practical surroundings. These are the Fichtean means that have been retained, broadened, and adapted to account for contingencies of politics and national temperament, straight through to the compulsory schools of our day.

“The Fichtean means to what?” one might ask. Fichte answers this question forcefully, if not exactly clearly, in his Third Address. The simple answer: a new religion.

All previous religion, he insists, by emphasizing the private spiritual life and individual salvation, merely exploited the divine as an excuse for “self-seeking.”[xxvi] 

Such a religion, which was obviously a servant of selfishness, shall indeed be borne to the grave along with the past age. In the new era eternity does not dawn first on yon side of the grave, but comes into the midst of the present life; while self-seeking is dismissed from serving and from ruling, and departs, taking its servants with it.[xxvii] 

The starting point of establishing this new religion through education, then, is to condemn all previous religious belief as a mere rationalization for “selfishness.” Again, we are reminded that German idealism’s rejection of the past is intended to be comprehensive. Seeking personal happiness, regardless of the terms or methods, is now inherently immoral. Religion is thus caught up in the wide net with which Fichte seeks to remove all evidence of human nature and its consubstantial impulses and goals, as these had been experienced, theorized about, and pursued throughout the prior history of civilization. 

Education to true religion is, therefore, the final task of the new education. Whether in the creation of the necessary image of the supersensuous world-order the pupil has really acted spontaneously, and whether the image created is absolutely correct and thoroughly clear and intelligible, education can easily judge in the same way as in the case of other objects of knowledge, for that, too, is in the domain of knowledge.[xxviii] 

Again, imagination, acting “spontaneously”—Fichte’s euphemism for the carefully manufactured conditions of isolation from practical reality that he seeks to impose on children by force—is supposed to create images that contain genuine knowledge, this time of the “supersensuous world-order,” i.e., the divine. Before we turn to the question of what this true religion’s divine order consists in (as if you couldn’t guess by now), it will be useful to follow Fichte’s explanation of how the educational overseers may discern whether the pupil’s religious knowledge is genuine, and as such completely devoid of selfish underpinnings.

The problem, as Fichte notes, is how the educator can be sure that this knowledge is not merely “dead and cold,”[xxix] but that it will actually be the pure motive of the student’s life in the real world upon release from his imagination-indoctrination center. For as long as school life continues, all students will be held captive in a world without alternative motives and influences, so that there will, in principle, be no true tests of the success of a child’s mental training until he leaves school.[xxx] 

Fichte’s solution to this problem is most revealing—or, to state this more correctly, it gives the game away. The only assurance of success in this education, he informs us, is the certainty that it has been designed to achieve “clearness” of understanding in perfect union with “purity” of will,[xxxi] so that the pupil learns simultaneously to will, which is to say love, what he knows—that is, to love the true world he has “learned” through spontaneous creation.

To differentiate this true understanding from any previous claims to truth, Fichte now distinguishes two kinds of consciousness, which he names “dim feeling” and “clear knowledge”: 

The first kind of consciousness, that which is the first in point of time to develop, is that of dim feeling. Where this feeling exists, the fundamental impulse is most usually and regularly comprehended as the individual’s love of self; indeed, dim feeling shows this self at first only as something that wills to live and to prosper. Hence, material self-seeking arises as the real motive and developing power of such a life engrossed in translating its original impulse thus. So long as man continues to understand himself in this way, so long must he act selfishly, being unable to do otherwise.[xxxii] 

This first kind of consciousness, “dim feeling,” is Fichte’s denigration of human nature as we actually experience it. We are living individuals. We seek to preserve ourselves. Gradually, we come to understand that our preservation and prosperity entail an ever-widening sphere of concerns and possibilities. Our goals remain broadly the same, but with maturity comes a deepening of the sensibility and intellect regarding what these goals ultimately mean, and how they may best be attained. This is the maturation process of a rational animal, as it was perceived prior to Kant, and as it must be lived by anyone who wishes to achieve his birthright as a human being. On Fichte’s account, this natural will to “live and prosper”—the starting point of every previous theory of human nature, or of education—is reducible to “material self-seeking,” and is thus the impure will that his new education is designed to eradicate. (To his credit, the system seems well-designed to achieve its purpose in this respect.)

The second, higher kind of consciousness is the one resulting from Fichte’s “New Education” method of abstraction and indoctrination, the kind he calls “clear knowledge,” as opposed to the “dim feeling” of selfish (i.e., natural) man. His opening attempt to describe this clear knowledge, which he has previously said may be “easily judged” as to whether it has been fully learned, is a classic of German idealism worthy of Hegel, and therefore deserves to be quoted at length: 

Clear knowledge is the second kind of consciousness, which does not, as a rule, develop of itself, but must be carefully fostered in the community. If the fundamental impulse of man were embraced in this principle, it would produce a second class of men quite different from the first [the natural, “dim feeling” type]. Such knowledge, which embraces fundamental love itself, does not leave us cold and indifferent, as indeed other knowledge can, but its object is loved above everything, for that object is but the interpretation and translation of our original love itself…. [T]his knowledge embraces the knower himself and his love, and he loves it…. Now, that such clear knowledge shall be a direct incentive in life, and shall be capable of being relied on with certainty depends, as has been said, on this, that the real true love of man is to be interpreted by it, that this is to be immediately clear to him, and that along with the interpretation the feeling of that love is to be stimulated in him and experienced by him.[xxxiii] 

It is typical of German idealists to use adjectives such as “clear” to designate their most ornate ravings. Thus we have “clear knowledge,” which transcends the dim feelings of human nature as hitherto experienced by being a love that embraces the knower himself as a lover of the translation of the love that he loves. (I may have missed a step there, but you get the point.)

If anything coherent is to be derived from all that—apart from its obvious presaging of the modern Left’s cloying and disingenuous invocations of “Love, love, love”—it is the passing reference to the practical educational means to this “higher consciousness.” Clear knowledge “must be carefully fostered in the community.” That is, the reason it has not been achieved before, during man’s long, dark night of “dim feeling,” is that this combination of clear understanding and pure will can only result from carefully manipulated and strictly enforced social conditioning within a closely monitored “community”—a re-education camp cut off from practical reality.

That is the original and ultimate case for modern compulsory public schools, as set down by the most important thinker in the development of the project, and echoed in a thousand forms to the present day. But what exactly is the goal of this endeavor, the true religion itself? 

Clear knowledge instead of dim feeling being thus made the first and true foundation and starting-point of life, self-seeking [read human nature] is avoided altogether and cheated of its development. For it is dim feeling alone that represents to man his ego as in need of pleasure and afraid of pain. [For “pleasure,” read individual happiness; for “pain,” read the denial of individual happiness.] The clear idea does not represent it thus to him, but shows it rather as a member of a moral order.[xxxiv] 

That individuals living as independent men, seeking to improve their own lives through understanding, virtue, work, family, friendship, and citizenship constitutes the absence of a “moral order” is nowhere proved. It is merely asserted repeatedly. The only moral order Fichte acknowledges as possible is one that must be achieved exclusively through his strict education in self-destruction. On Fichte’s terms, then, the individual man and the moral order of “clear knowledge,” which is to say the natural human being and the progressive Truth, are incompatible. Here we return to a point I make frequently, but which cannot be stated forcefully enough: Progressivism begins with a literal denial of the metaphysical primacy of the individual human being. The collective, on this view, is not a voluntary union of men; rather, men are merely the illusory facets of the collective. The collective is logically, essentially, prior to the individual humans who comprise it. Fichte’s relentless attack on self-seeking, sensuous pleasure, and dim feeling, and his rallying cry to love, true religion, and clear knowledge—according to his peculiar definitions of all these terms—are intended to do no less than persuade you that you do not exist. This is neither a metaphor nor any other figure of speech. This has been the central, though frequently unstated, tenet of progressive philosophy from its founding moments in Germany at the beginning of the nineteenth century. You are an immoral illusion. “Society” (the state) is real and good.

What, then, is the big pay-off of this glorious promise of an education issuing in pure love of a clearly known moral order? In short, the hope is to transcend the kind of learning concerned with understanding the world as it is, in favor of a neo-mystical dream of never-ending collective creativity. In contrast to the learning path of human nature (“dim feeling”), Fichte’s new “clear knowledge” is 

concerned with a world that is to be, an a priori world that exists in the future and remains in the future. The divine life, therefore, that underlies all appearance reveals itself never as a fixed and known entity, but as something that is to be; and after it has become what it was to be, it will reveal itself again to all eternity as something that is to be.[xxxv] 

It turns out that the clear knowledge which provides the object of love that inspires the pure will is merely the imagination itself, elevated to the level of a metaphysical principle. Specifically, what the race educated through Fichte’s system will finally realize is that God is the Future, or rather futurity as such—not just any random future, but a future of mankind as a whole which we shall will into existence through our “original creative activity,” but which at the same time can never be reached. This is a Zeno’s Paradox conception of religion, which is meant to do for the social realm what Aristotle’s Prime Mover does for the cosmos, namely sustain everlasting motion. The key difference and defining irrationality, however—and this is the essential divide between the heights of ancient thought and the depths of modern thought—is that the motion sustained by the Prime Mover is circular, whereas Fichte’s dream of the nation as embodiment of the divine order chases its elusive God, Futurity, in an unending straight line, i.e., forward. Hence the radical dismissal of the past; hence the easy rejection of old wisdom; hence the lack of traditional moral qualms about the dignity of the individual, and the injustice of unlimited government authority. The past has no lessons for us, other than negatively: It shows us all the primitive follies of men less evolved than ourselves. This is the deepest source and meaning of progressivism. And this is my answer to all those who object to my use of that word, and insist I ought to replace it with “socialism,” “communism,” or “fascism.” No; all those “isms” are huddled under one umbrella, the umbrella of History understood as the progress of man toward a collectively conscious self-erasing spirituality, otherwise known, among literal-minded non-adherents like me, as global totalitarianism.

But there is more. This imagined futurity—future in the abstract—though necessarily and perpetually unrealized “to all eternity,” can be revealed to us only through the “deliberate art of education,”[xxxvi] through which 

a totally new order of things and a new creation would begin. Now, in this new form, mankind would fashion itself by means of itself, for mankind considered as the present generation educates itself as the future generation; and mankind can do this only by means of knowledge, the one common true light and air of this world which can be freely imparted and which binds the spiritual world into a unity.[xxxvii] 

By the spiritual world, Fichte means the non-sensuous world, which is to say the world achieved through his education, in which the material individual as such has been effectively eliminated from life. That is to say, the spiritual world as realized on Earth via the imagination is nothing less than what he has elsewhere called the “community,” and at other times calls “the race,” “the nation,” or “Germany.” Punctuating this fact, and highlighting its implications for the newly improved race’s relationship to all previous humans, Fichte contends that prior to Germany’s idealist rebirth and his own new education program aimed at undermining human nature and free will, humanity itself was little more than a collection of chance occurrences, and thus without value. Hence, 

where mankind has developed most it has become nothing. If it is not to remain in nothingness, it must henceforward make itself all that it is yet to become. The real destiny of the human race on earth…is in freedom to make itself what it really is originally. Now, this making of itself deliberately, and according to rule, must have a beginning somewhere and at some moment in space and time. We are of opinion that…this is the very time, and that now the race is exactly midway between the two great epochs of its life on earth. But, in regard to space, we believe that it is first of all the Germans who are called upon to begin the new era as pioneers and models for the rest of mankind.[xxxviii]     

Now is the time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. Forward. And so on and on, to an imaginary infinity. This may be progressivism’s first explicit mission statement. In its fundamental fantasies, the movement has changed very little since Fichte defined it two centuries ago:

Collective man will create a new spiritual reality fundamentally different from and vastly superior to all previous eras. (This is Fichte’s “freedom.”)

The enemy of the great god Futurity (a.k.a. Progress) is the man who thinks apart, who thinks of his own well-being, who believes he exists independently of the state.

Ultimate truth is not separate and unchanging—and therefore beyond human creativity—but is rather the ever-evolving product of collective will; not immortal nature, but socially malleable artifice. (See cultural relativism, moral pragmatism, radical feminism, and “gender identity.”)

The realization of this new collective spiritual progress requires overcoming all previous moral principles and notions of freedom, including all strictures against compelling individual wills, against coercive universal indoctrination to annihilate old modes of thinking, and in general against any moral claims that individuals used to believe they could make against the state.

Underlying all of this is an impenetrable mysticism of the collective, which exploits man’s natural urge toward the spiritual as a means of destroying his connection to that very nature. Consider this rousing summary of intent from Fichte himself: “Formerly there lived in the majority naught but flesh, matter, and nature; through the new education spirit alone shall live in the majority, yea, very soon in all, and spur them on.”[xxxix]

At the end of this education program, the student-citizens will be “spirit alone,” without “flesh, matter, and nature.” Or rather, that is how they are meant to perceive themselves—as a collective consciousness sharing a creative dream, serving the whole, and leaving their natural individual existence, needs, and inclinations behind.

Of course, this dreamy perspective, appalling as it may be in its own right, is all the more so when one considers it from the point of view that Fichte, like all modern idealists, tries to pretend has no place in his theory, but which in fact is merely hidden in plain sight by the simple method of refusing to acknowledge its presence. That semi-obscured perspective is that of the brutal oppressor whose grand supersensuous promises ultimately, and by metaphysically inconvenient necessity, require a practical political manifestation, one inseparable from the world of mere “flesh, matter, and nature.”

The reason the early addresses emphasize the exaltation of imagination, clear knowledge, and the love that loves itself as the lover of the interpretation of its love, is that Fichte needs the good will engendered by this nationalistic paean to the spiritual superiority of the German people as a shield for the physical and psychological means he will need to use to implement this indoctrination program. As these means are in essence the same ones we use today in each advanced nation’s approximation of Fichte Fun Land, and as I have addressed some of them in Part One, they need not all be explained in detail here. I outline them to complete our picture of the idol before which the world’s public school vanguard—Cousin, Taylor, Mann, Ryerson, et al—were genuflecting when they began their respective propaganda campaigns for applying the Prussian school model back home.

(1) The schooling is to be uniform and universal, because there must be no dissenting voices or independent minds to question the social order, the love of which is, after all, the highest aim of this educational program.

(2) The precise, straightforward case for compulsory schooling is spelled out emphatically by Fichte, as surely as it is deliberately obscured by his heirs today: The private family is an intrinsically negative force in child-development, the influence of which must therefore be mitigated, or preferably eliminated altogether, “especially among the working classes.”[xl] 

The hardship, the daily anxiety about making ends meet, the petty meanness and avarice, which occur here, would inevitably infect the children, drag them down, and prevent them from making a free flight into the world of thought.[xli] 

That is, the basic practical purpose of government schools is to give the state the means of separating children from their parents by force. Parents are dismissed as a hindrance to the “free flight into the world of thought,” as the natural family community rivals the artificially designed and regulated social order which children must learn to love, as a precursor to that love for the national social order which must be their adult motivation in all they do. Little argument is given for the authority of the state to remove all children from their homes by force, aside from a purely government-centered pragmatism. Fichte’s presupposition that the state’s perspective is the only relevant one is apparent throughout the Addresses. Consider a few examples: 

If the new education we propose did not go further, it would at best train excellent men of learning, as in the past, of whom only a few are needed….[xlii] (Emphasis added.) 

The system of government [among the pupils in the school] must be arranged in such a way that the individual must not only abstain, but will also work and act, for the sake of the community.[xliii] 

Not until a generation has passed through the new education can the question be considered, as to what part of the national education shall be entrusted to the home.[xliv] [“Considered” by whom?] 

And against those statesmen who question the government’s authority to kidnap and indoctrinate children, Fichte simply posits that there will be others who “have educated themselves” in philosophy and science, and therefore see 

what is absolutely necessary for mankind at this time. If such men perceived…that education alone can save us from the barbarism and relapse into savagery that is otherwise bound to overwhelm us, if they had a vision of the new human race which would arise through this education, if they were themselves inwardly convinced of the infallibility and certainty of the proposed remedy, they might be expected to have realized at the same time that the State, as the supreme administrator of human affairs and the guardian of those who are its wards, responsible only to God and to its own conscience, has a perfect right even to compel the latter for their welfare.[xlv] (Emphasis added.) 

To paraphrase this point—the closest thing to a logical argument offered for compulsory state education: “If you knew that education was vital to human beings, and you knew the complete and absolute truth, as I do, it would be obvious to you that the state has every right to compel its citizens to do exactly as I say, on my authority. Period.” This is a particularly grand instantiation of the phenomenon I dubbed “experts without portfolio” earlier in this chapter.

(3) The primary adult contact in the daily life of the pupil is to be the teacher—that is, the government-trained-and-tested overseer—whose chief role is to see to it that children learn to regard the sacrifice of their interests, minds, and goals to the needs and priorities of the state as not only their highest moral obligation, but the only legitimate source of satisfaction. Teachers, the most carefully prepared and formally vetted of all government officers, are to replace parents as moral guides and sources of approval. It is not difficult to see how the motives of the two kinds of guides will differ, and who stands to gain from elevating the government officer over the parent as a force in the evolving character of the student. Indeed, as the moral element of the program is its ultimate aim, and as morality in this statist scheme means denying one’s own existence and natural desires, Fichte’s teacher must be trained to be the worst kind of psychological bully, using emotional attachment to push the child into relinquishing himself to the collective will.

Read the following account of the positive role Fichte foresees for his certified government teacher in the school’s mock community, relate it to a hundred examples from your own or your children’s public school experience, and then try to prevent your head from exploding: 

Secondly [after learning to obey the school’s moral laws], there is that subordination of the individual to the community which cannot be demanded but can only be given voluntarily, viz., the raising and advancing of the well-being of the community by self-sacrifice. In order to impress correctly upon the pupils from youth upwards the mutual relationship of mere legality and this higher virtue, it will be appropriate to allow him only, against whom for a certain period there has been no complaint in regard to legality, to make these voluntary sacrifices as the reward, so to speak, of legality, but to refuse this permission to him who is not yet quite sure of himself in regard to regularity and order.[xlvi] 

That is, the child must be manipulated into sacrificing his interests, privacy, or property, by being made to feel (a) that he must sacrifice these things to gain adult approval, but (b) that he will not be permitted to sacrifice them until he has proved himself perfectly obedient. This is how you train a dog to drown itself.

To continue: 

Let this kind of sacrifice receive active approbation and real recognition of its merits, not in public in the form of praise, which might corrupt the heart, make it vain, and turn it from its independence [independence = sense of duty], but in secret and with the pupil alone.… Where there are several male and female teachers…let each child choose freely, and as his feelings and confidence move him, one of them as a special friend and, as it were, adviser in matters of conscience. Let him seek advice whenever it is difficult for him to do right. Let the teacher help him by friendly exhortation; let him be the confidant of the voluntary acts which he undertakes; and, finally, let him be the person who crowns excellence with his approval.[xlvii] 

The psychological insight of this prescription shows Fichte to have been a brilliant man. The consciencelessness of his application of that insight shows him to have been a purveyor of genuine evil. The fact that his description sums up much of the socialization method used by the world’s state-trained teachers to the present day is as profound an indictment of the history of public education as can be produced.

“Let the teacher help him by friendly exhortation.” I would like to shortlist this command for Greatest Euphemism of All Time. Fichte is proposing to remove children from their families by force and deliver them into the hands of men and women who, having exploited the children’s natural need for adult guidance to create an emotional attachment, will then use this intimacy to coax the children into committing spiritual suicide, stifling their own desire for personal well-being and the joys of human nature in favor of enslaving themselves to the interests of the state. This is the primary moral function of public school teaching as conceived by its single most intellectually serious and sincere advocate.

(4) The public school environment and its rules and obligations both depend on and foster the weakening of the population’s sense of “mine and thine.” Sacrificing oneself to the community becomes less complicated as one loses any clear perception of one’s “self,” which is to say of one’s personal claim on the time and energy one is giving to the world. The child should learn to cede his own independence and self-sufficiency in all ways, right down to relinquishing any claim to “his own property.” In ultimate effect, “everyone should know that he is indebted absolutely to the community, and should eat or starve along with the community.”[xlviii]

You do not own your body, your work, or your thoughts. What you produce belongs to, and indeed is attributable to, the community. What you get can only come to you through the beneficence of the community. Without the community, you are, and have, nothing. “You didn’t build that,” as Barack Obama says. In a society reared on such principles, however subtly they may be conveyed, each succeeding generation will relinquish more of its sense of private property, private life, and private thought, in exchange for more entitlements, security, and moral dependency. Raised from earliest childhood in such an environment, there will simply be no moral or intellectual resources left with which the majority of men might resist this encroaching enslavement. Or rather, there will be no rational principle to ground the vague, natural feeling, which one has been taught is “selfish,” that there must be some important arena in which self-reliance is permissible, in which personal self-sufficiency is admirable.

(5) Public education’s main political function, the complement to its moral aim of inculcating unthinking devotion to the collective, is to sort everyone into ranks and roles determined and controlled by a permanent ruling class—the unnamed “we” in all those abstract statements about what “we” need. (Recall Rockefeller’s “Occasional Letter Number One.”)

Fichte devotes some time to explaining this sorting system, or rather to speaking presumptively of social outcomes that depend on such a system, and especially on the state overseers who will do the sorting. In his Tenth Address, he outlines the bifurcation process at the end of the general education system, at which point a select few will move on to scholarly training in a university. First, regarding the practical labor element of the universal part of the curriculum, he notes: 

One reason [for this requirement] is that all who get through only the universal national education are intended for the working class, and training to be good workmen is undoubtedly part of their education.[xlix] 

“Intended” by whom? On what basis? The answers, given the overall nature of the system, are obvious. The state is looking for champions of creative tyranny to serve as the intellectual infrastructure of the progressive regime. The rest of the population will be assigned to (“intended for”) subservient positions as selfless worker bees within the industrial and agricultural collective.[l] There will be no outliers, no wandering poets and dreamers, no public gadflies or “culture critics” creating doubt or suspicion about the ultimate legitimacy of the social order. You will work for the state—no demands for property or privacy, no selfish inclinations to happiness or self-development, no claims to authority over your own children (who of course must be submitted to the same compulsory absorption into the collective). You will do your “duty,” and duty will always have but one, unquestioned, beneficiary.

Regarding the scholar class, who pass beyond the universal education, their role is equally clear and determined. Those judged promising by the national system will be permitted by the state to pursue the scholar’s profession, “without exception and without regard to so-called difference of birth. For a man is not a scholar for his own convenience; every talent of that kind is a precious possession of the nation, and may not be taken from it.”[li] (Emphasis added.)

As for the hint of meritocracy in this proposal, granting “permission” to every boy “without regard to so-called difference of birth,” we must remember that these differences are precisely what the general education has been designed to eliminate—not merely differences of family wealth, but also of natural inclination, personal enthusiasm, and character. Fichte’s seeming liberality regarding class distinctions is only applicable within the world as reconfigured on his progressive authoritarian principles. This is the same man who wrote that he could only conceive of granting full civil rights to Jews if one could “cut off all their heads in one night and replace them with others in which there is not a single Jewish idea.”[lii] That, broadly speaking, is exactly what he was proposing to do to the entire German nation, and ideally the entire human race, through government-controlled education. A newly configured class system will be created and adhered to, but these classes will be based on something other than traditional family position.

By declaring all intellectual life the “possession of the nation,” Fichte is justifying strict government controls to eliminate the possibility of dissenting ideas, or at least to cut off the access of such ideas to the nourishing environment that would allow them to grow to full power, so as to challenge the state’s authority as the one and only instantiation of divine Truth.

Today, even where the universities have not quite been nationalized to this extreme, the public schools have effectively established Fichte’s nationalization of the intellect tacitly. And anyone who has seen the modern, global university culture from the inside knows that it has evolved very much along Fichte’s lines. The deliberate retarding process of primary and secondary school makes university the social threshold one must cross to be “permitted” to think, if one still can; and then the entire apparatus of standardized grading, graduate school, peer-reviewed journals, and the like is designed to ensure that no one becomes a legitimate, respectable intellectual without first having placed his shoes, his watch, and the contents of his brain onto the conveyor belt for security scanning.

The process is just public school socialization taken to another level: You may not develop an idea without taking into account everything every climbing career scholar of the past thirty years has published about the subject, and placing yourself humbly within one of the professionally sanctioned “schools of thought” on the issue, thus effectively stymieing any germ of non-establishment thinking that might appear. Consider the popular current example of climate change, a cottage industry that has become a sub-specialty of every branch of the university, from engineering and the sciences through to most of the social sciences, and even the literature and history departments, not to mention the la-la land of women’s studies, LGBT studies, and such. The standard rejoinders offered by the purveyors of this global progressive propaganda campaign, any time you question their data or their methods, are that their work is peer-reviewed, whereas your critique is not, and furthermore that reason requires you to bow before the professional consensus. This is the “nyah, nyah” school of intellectual life, and of course comes straight out of public school socialization. (“Suzie doesn’t seem to get along easily with the other children—there must be something wrong with her.”)

And how is Fichte’s bifurcation of the population through state schooling reflected in the communal life? 

The person who is not a scholar is destined to maintain the human race at the stage of culture it has reached, the scholar to advance it further according to a clear conception and deliberate art. The scholar with his conception must always be in advance of the present age, must understand the future, and be able to implant it in the present for its future development.… All this necessitates mental self-activity, without guidance from others…from the moment his profession is decided; it does not mean, as in the case of the person who is not a scholar, merely thinking under the eye of an ever-present teacher; it necessitates a great amount of subsidiary knowledge, which is quite useless in his vocation to the person who is not a scholar.[liii]

Those permitted to think—those judged safe and useful for this activity by the state—will be remunerated by the state, and therefore exempt from other work.[liv] The majority, who are not permitted to pursue knowledge beyond the standardized universal indoctrination, will, ideally, never have been allowed to think at all except “under the eye of an ever-present teacher.” Wider knowledge is “useless” in their case—that is, useless (read dangerous) to the state—and they will therefore be prevented from seeking it.

In sum, self-development or solitary investigation of any kind will be carefully curtailed in every child. Those—“of whom only a few are needed”—who prove naturally intelligent and show a satisfactory level of intellectual and moral submission to the state, will be permitted to develop their love for the collective into practical dreams regarding new ways of promoting human progress toward the Future, i.e., of advancing the state’s power. Those who have failed to show this proper combination of useful intelligence and moral submission will be indoctrinated to embrace a life of working to support their betters, and in general the state’s material needs—and through this work will be diverted and discouraged from having any further thoughts about anything important, so that the ruling class will have effectively neutered them as potential threats to its power.

Sound familiar? If not, then please stop reading now; you are wasting valuable time that you ought to be spending in front of the TV, checking your stock portfolio, or getting your children to bed so they will be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed when the school bus arrives tomorrow. Which leads us to…

(6) The teaching of literacy is to be stalled as long as possible. The artificial community in which the prisoners of the government education system are to be raised is to function and develop as an oral, pre-literate culture.

Here is Fichte’s rationalization of his proposal forcibly to prevent children from learning how to read and write: 

Now, assuming that the pupil is to remain until education is finished, reading and writing can be of no use in the purely national [pre-university] 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 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….[lv] 

Consider what this deprivation of literacy until the end of public school means in practice. The student has no access to any ideas or observations of reality other than those generated by his own imagination, or imparted to him orally by government teachers and equally illiterate classmates. And this limitation will be far more significant for a child confined to a social setting in which society’s natural rich variety of oral input—parents and grandparents, well-read uncles, travelling aunts, along with neighborhood storytellers, craftsmen, clerks, and business owners—has been systematically cut off from him.

The message is clear. In a proper national education establishment, the children must be raised under the moral and intellectual influence of the government-designed curriculum and social order—and under only that influence. The practical means of learning about the past, and more importantly learning from the past (or from an alternative view of the present), must be withheld until the child is so thoroughly immersed in the state’s indoctrination to self-immolation that no outside influence could touch him any longer, or cause him to wonder.

(There is an alternative way to achieve this same result, so essential to progressive education: Teach children to read, in the sense of recognizing written words, but only in conjunction with a program of mental stultification that renders all but the driest practical information, and certainly any genuine alternative ideas, indecipherable to the young mind, or comprehensible only according to predetermined intellectual and moral categories which effectively nullify the true value of all literature that is not reducible to pre-established ideas, namely its educational value.)

This principle is consistent not only with the desire for uniformity and complete psychological control, but also with the progressive understanding of the past. Remember Fichte’s depiction of humanity prior to Germany’s moment of fundamental transformation: “where mankind has developed most it has become nothing.” The past is nothing, failure, selfishness, dead ends. Its lessons are worthless. All that matters for the majority is the Now; all that matters for the scholar is the creation of a more powerful and all-encompassing state in the Future.

A nation that sees itself and mankind’s past this way—that has effectively lost access to its own traditions and past wisdom—has little defense against tyranny, irrationalism, and moral manipulation. A civilization that sees itself and its past this way—well, anyone can easily observe what that means, if he still has eyes to see.


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[i] Friedrich Nietzsche, Twilight of the Idols, Translated by R.J. Hollingdale (New York: Penguin Books, 1968), “Expeditions” 29. (Hereafter TI.)

[ii] “Wilhelm von Humboldt” (UNESCO: International Bureau of Education, 2000), 5, hereafter Humboldt. Available online at

[iii] Ibid., 6.

[iv] Ibid., 7.

[v] Cf. H.W. Koch, A History of Prussia (first published by Allison Wesley Longman Limited, 1978, sixth impression New York: Routledge, 1996), 163ff.

[vi] Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Addresses to the German Nation, translated by R.F. Jones & G.H. Turnbull (Chicago and London: The Open Court Publishing Company, 1922), hereafter Addresses; citations from individual addresses will be cited as Address, accompanied by a specific address number. Full text available online at

[vii] Address 1.7, 12.

[viii] Address 1.7, 13.

[ix] Address 1.7, 12.

[x] G.H. Turnbull, Addresses, Introduction xxi: “Nor is it possible here to do justice to [the Addresses’] tremendous effect on the development of education in Germany. Stein…became an ardent advocate of the reforms urged by Fichte, as the education schemes of his ministry testify.”

[xi] Humboldt, 5.

[xii] G.H. Turnbull, Addresses, Introduction, xxi: “More important [than Fichte’s influence on Stein] is the fact that the Addresses influenced Wilhelm von Humboldt, whose ideas and plans for German education were carried into effect in 1809 and 1810, and who selected Fichte to be Professor of Philosophy in the new University of Berlin in 1810.”

[xiii] Address 2, 13-14. [In all subsequent notes to this work, the first number represents the particular Address, and the next number(s) the paragraph(s) as numbered in this work.]

[xiv] Address 2, 13-14.

[xv] Cf. Frederick Copleston, S.J., A History of Philosophy IV: Descartes to Leibniz (London: Burns, Oates and Washbourne, 1958), 13-14.

[xvi] Cf. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, translated by Lewis White Beck (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949), v, 43, pp. 153-4.

[xvii] Cf. Kant, Critique of Judgment, translated by James Creed Meredith (London: Oxford University Press, 1952), section 5:49.

[xviii] Cf. Allen Wood, “Kant vs. Eudaimonism” in Predrag Cicovacki (ed.), Kant’s Legacy: Essays Dedicated to Lewis White Beck (Rochester: University of Rochester Press, 2000), for an excellent summary of the quagmire, and a sympathetic attempt to negotiate it. Essay available online in pre-publication form at

[xix] Address 2, 16.

[xx] Ibid.

[xxi] Address 2, 17.

[xxii] Address 2, 17.

[xxiii] Address 2, 22.

[xxiv] Address 2, 23.

[xxv] Address 2, 23.

[xxvi] Address 3, 29.

[xxvii] Address 3, 29.

[xxviii] Address 3, 29.

[xxix] Address 3, 30.

[xxx] Address 3, 31.

[xxxi] Address 3, 32.

[xxxii] Address 3, 33.

[xxxiii] Address 3, 33.

[xxxiv] Address 3, 34.

[xxxv] Address 3, 35.

[xxxvi] Address 3, 36.

[xxxvii] Address 3, 36.

[xxxviii] Address 3, 36.

[xxxix] Address 9, 130.

[xl] Address 9, 138.

[xli] Address 9, 138.

[xlii] Address 2, 24.

[xliii] Address 2, 26.

[xliv] Address 9, 138.

[xlv] Address 11, 170.

[xlvi] Address 10, 151.

[xlvii] Address 10, 151.

[xlviii] Address 10, 160.

[xlix] Address 10, 157.

[l] The earliest importers of Prussian schooling, such as Cousin and Taylor, along with the second and third generation Prussophiles, from Mann and Ryerson to Rockefeller and Dewey, shared this impulse to assign people to their proper roles. Consider the opening paragraph of Taylor’s The Farmer’s School Book, in which he explains his aim:

The King of Sparta being asked, “What things he thought most proper for boys to learn,” answered, “Those things which they expect to do when they are men.” The young farmer has not taken this advice. He has learned nothing of his profession, while receiving his education. The study of Agriculture has not even been pursued in the District Schools! (Albany: Common School Depository, 1837, 1.)

The use of Sparta as a model is telling. Child-rearing should be aimed at preparing citizens for their appointed duties, i.e., for specialized roles—exactly the contrary of liberal education as that was understood from classical Athens to whenever modern man stopped caring about freedom and nature. When Taylor complains that “the young farmer” “has learned nothing of his profession,” you must remember that he is talking about a child, who strictly speaking has no profession as yet. Rather than educate him to open his mind to the universe of possibilities, the hope is to raise him to see only one possibility—“to do in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way,” as Rockefeller’s G.E.B. phrases the goal in Occasional Letter Number One. Early reformers such as Taylor may well have believed that this Spartan/Prussian educational concept could somehow be applied independently of the authoritarian governmental structure. In fact, this form of training in mass submission or resignation germinates as the seed of tyranny, no matter how rich in liberty the host soil may have been.

[li] Address 10, 161.

[lii] LaVopa, Anthony J., Fichte: The Self and the Calling of Philosophy, 1762-1799 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 132.

[liii] Address 10, 162.

[liv] Address 10, 162.

[lv] Address 10, 136.

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