Some German guy.

Our frequent correspondent Occasional Correspondent replied to our long essay on William Torrey Harris with this observation and question:

Michael Flynn, who used to post to your site as Ye Olde Statistician, offered this quote, similar in tone, and presumably translated from German:

“Education should aim at destroying free will so that after pupils are thus schooled they will be incapable throughout the rest of their lives of thinking or acting otherwise than as their school masters would have wished.”

— Johann Gottlieb Fichte (1762–1814) Addresses to the German Nation.

Flynn added: (The inspiration of Horace Mann and other modern educators.)

Wondered whether you had any familiarity or interest in Fichte’s thinking especially as it relates to educational thinking/practice here; and whether the quote offered above is/not in context with Fichte’s overall thinking.

Dr. Boli has not read Fichte, for the very simple reason that Dr. Boli had a long and increasingly difficult relationship with German philosophy that finally ended in divorce.

First Dr. Boli read Hume. Hume was a delight: he expressed very complex ideas in clear and perfect English. Even if you did not agree with his ideas, you knew that you were disagreeing, and you could have a profitable discussion.

Then Dr. Boli read Kant. Kant swam in the same waters as Hume, but muddied them so completely that nothing could be seen through the murk. Furthermore, Kant exhibited the full range of symptoms of what Dr. Boli learned to recognize as German Philosopher Syndrome: an immovable faith in the inevitability of his own conclusions, and a fascination with the shape and movement of the argument itself, so that the subject often got lost in page after page of explanation of why Chapter Seventeen must inevitably follow Chapter Sixteen.

Then came Hegel, and the less said about Hegel the better.(1)

Then Marx proposed to turn Hegel on his head. Well, thought Dr. Boli, he’ll make as much sense that way as any other, so let’s see what Marx has to say. Marx displayed German Philosopher Syndrome in its fully developed state. Not only was he sure of the inevitability of his conclusions, to the point of calling people who refused to assent to them stupid weenies, but he also was so fascinated by the argument itself that he saw all of history and all activity in the universe as a form of argument, or dialectic.

This ought to have been enough to make Dr. Boli part ways with German philosophy. But then came Freud, and people said such nice things about him, so Dr. Boli read Freud—quite a bit of him, anyway, although Freud’s fans would say nowhere near enough. It seemed to Dr. Boli that Freud had refined German philosophy by removing the argument, leaving only the assertion and the absolute faith in its inevitable correctness.

After Freud, whenever anyone mentioned to Dr. Boli that there was a German philosopher he really ought to read, Dr. Boli pretended to be going deaf.

Nevertheless, it was not hard to find a version of the passage quoted. Nor was it hard to see that, as Dr. Boli had expected, it was quoted out of context, probably by people who wanted to say, “See? That’s what Germans are like!”

Here is how it is translated by Jones and Turnbull in a 1922 edition of Addresses to the German Nation:

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. Such a will can henceforth be relied on with confidence and certainty.

This sounds dreadfully totalitarian. But the whole thing hinges on the context, of course. In reading a quotation like this with a verb in the passive voice, we readers ought to ask ourselves, “Who is the agent?” You might think, without context, that the agent, the one who can do the relying, is the government. But in context we see that the agent is the possessor of the will. The person whose will conforms to strict necessity can rely on that will.

What does Fichte mean by the will being “free”? He means that the will still hesitates between good and evil. The purpose of education is to form a will so strong that it cannot choose the wrong course.

He who must still exhort himself, and be exhorted, to will the good, has as yet no firm and ever-ready will, but wills a will anew every time he needs it. But he who has such a stable will, wills what he wills for ever, and cannot under any circumstances will otherwise than he always wills. For him freedom of the will is destroyed and swallowed up in necessity.

The purpose of education is to form such an immovable will for good. Just as the best violinist has simply lost the capacity to play the wrong notes, and the best speller is no longer capable of misspelling “Massachusetts,” so the student whose will is well trained will lose the ability to choose the evil. In a very limited sense the bad speller is more free, because he can spell “Massachusetts” any number of ways; but most literate people would be happy to be relieved of that freedom. In the same way, the person whose freedom of will is swallowed up in necessity has fewer options open to him, but no longer has to worry about temptation. He can rely on his will to will the good, and nothing can move his will out of that course—not even a direct order from some bellowing cretin with a swastika armband. In that sense, his will is not free, but it is precisely because it is not free that it cannot be controlled by a tyrannical government.

That, according to Fichte, is the aim of education: to develop an immovable will for good in the student.

If you want to influence him at all, you must do more than merely talk to him; you must fashion him, and fashion him in such a way that he simply cannot will otherwise than you wish him to will. It is idle to say: Fly—for he has no wings, and for all your exhortations will never rise two steps above the ground. But develop, if you can, his spiritual wings; let him exercise them and make them strong, and without any exhortation from you he will want, and will be able, to do nothing but fly.

It seems to Dr. Boli that Germany in the twentieth century could have used a good bit more of this kind of education.