Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 10. Nr. Juni 2001  

Information, Knowledge, Education

Anette Horn (Cape Town/Berlin)


Everyone seems to agree that information is vital in the postindustrial age which relies more and more on knowledge as capital, but what exactly constitutes good information and useful knowledge (useful for whom and what?) and do we still need that somewhat oldfashioned concept of education or its German equivalent, Bildung, which denotes both the formation of our physical nature and education in the more abstract intellectual and cultural sense. Reflecting the urgent nature of this debate once again, the German news magazine, Der Spiegel, recently devoted its lead article (Der Spiegel 14/2001, "Start-up ins Leben") to the question of Bildung, posing such impertinent questions as whether the education German children receive at school served any function at all, since Germany has to import its IT specialists from such outlandish places as India!

I wish to show the historical roots of this debate in the Enlightenment by looking at Herder´s and Jean Paul´s ideas on this issue and then to show how Nietzsche problematised these notions in order to sketch a few possibilities for the future. I have to apologise for the subjective nature of the selection of sources used in this paper which are limited by my research interests, but I hope that they will complement some of the other perspectives offered at this conference.

Jean Paul complains about his age, that there is "more learnedness than scholars, as there is more virtue than there are virtuous" and explains this as follows:

This entire present age : - as one that is pregnant with many ages, with children and of fathers - enthuses; every enthusiasm (religious, political, poetic, philosophical) flees or lacks as onesidedness that which is multifaceted, that is specific knowledge [Kenntnisse]. Onesidedness takes itself for allsidedness far more readily than manysidedness; because the former has the unity which the latter does not know itself capable of.(1)

Furthermore, Jean Paul bemoans a certain tendency of his contemporaries towards arbitrary quotation from intellectual and cultural history, without paying attention to the genealogy of the thus quoted system of ideas. This seems to be what distinguishes superficial knowledge from real knowledge in his opinion.

What he had in mind was an alternative to the humanistic education that was being taught at German high schools or gymnasia at his time, i.e. the study of classical languages and literature, starting from learning grammatical rules off by heart and proceeding to the canonical texts, which had to be translated into the pupil´s mother tongue, an approach to learning that was continued at university in the discipline of philology. In what seems like an anticipation of Nietzsche´s polemic against the sedentary scholarly type, Jean Paul criticises this form of education as an attempt to break the young person´s spirit or Eigensinn, by making her sit on her haunches and learn meaningless knowledge off by heart. Drawing on the insights of, amongst others, educationist, Pestalozzi, for his own theory of education in his later work, Levana, he contrasts this with a more empirical approach to education, starting from the immediate surroundings of the child, encouraging her to describe things in the order in which they appear and to make connections of her own. This way of discovering the world by means of one´s own senses and expressing this through language would be supplemented by more conventional teaching in various subjects, such as geography, mathematics, physics and biology so as to broaden the knowledge base of the child. At the same time, the child´s wits would be sharpened by drawing similarities or analogies between the various areas of science. The reader of Jean Paul will of course recognise the relation to his own way of seeing the world, and indeed, his method has been criticised for wanting to make writers of young children, but perhaps a scientist or economist could adapt his approach for her own purposes.

From a different historical perspective on education, Herder uses the metaphor of the ages of a man (childhood, youth, manhood, old age) in order to sketch the cultural development of the orient and occident from the Aegyptians and Phonicians, via the Greeks and Romans up to the present age in his work, Another philosophy towards the education of humanity.(2) Here he paints the oriental childhood of humanity (neither matriarchy nor the indigenous cultures of Africa and America figure in this schema) as an idyll, in which childlike obedience, religion and authority prevailed. Only in the community of the village and town a woman was regarded as a person (one shudders to imagine what her former status was).

Apart from the discursive silence about gender this organic metaphor has the advantage of allowing a conceptualisation of education on many levels simultaneously. Thus one might reflect on the education of a feminine and masculine individual, via the education of a culturally specific community at a particular historical moment up to the education of an entire humanity, whereby each respectively lower level is sublated by the next higher level without relinquishing its integrity, however. Education is thus regarded as a living organism, in which each part has its clearly defined function which stands in a dialectical relationship to the functioning of the whole. This should occur in such a way that the powers of the individual are optimised in relation to the whole.

Against such an organic concept of education and culture one might argue that it obscures the discontinuities in the development of individuals and humanity in favour of harmony and totality. In this way the rewriting of nature by culture as an irreversible process would have to be considered just as much as the havoc caused by manmade catastrophes such as class, sex and environmental wars which leave their scars not only in the human psyche.

Jean Paul was aware of the inadequacy of such an analogical thinking which transfers natural processes onto cultural ones, because the latter are determined by their own laws. He explains this as follows:

Because no image of the body - trapped in its eternally revolving circle - can prefigure the straight and briskly moving spirit of the nation. Thus the image of the rise and decline of nations is not complete; because each nation today is bedecked simultaneously with blossoms, fruit and buds and dying leaves, and is full again tomorrow, except with others. According to which physical hierarchy do autumn and spring and winter and summer mix in France for a new act on the worldstage?(SW I, 5, 926)

Jean Paul continues to list examples from French and German history and asks into which phase of the organic schema they fit. He makes a further distinction between states which may experience stages of bloom and decay and nations which rise from the ruins of previous ages and concludes that each nation needs above all time in order to develop its full potential.

A nation may not pride itself on its geniuses alone, as Jean Paul notes in his Peace sermon to Germany, but on the level of education of its masses. He writes:

A nation can only be proud of the mass, not of the geniuses, i.e. the exceptions; a diligent town which rises steadily with arms and eyes has, even if it cannot boast one single star, more claim to fame than any other, into which the wind of fortune has blown the pollen or the phoenix ashes of some genius about to be born. One can be born anywhere, e.g. in Bethlehem, but not nurtured everywhere; the maintenance of a genius is, as in theology, the second creation; and thus the aesthetic renaissance town of Weimar has the honour of being the cradle of four great poets, just as Jena has the honour of being the place of parturition of many philosophers.(SW I, 5, 887)

Thus the task of education would not only be to serve the fame and fortune of the nation, but to create a culture above and beyond that in which such geniuses as the classicists in Weimar or the romantics in Jena could flourish. Culture in this sense could be described as the second creation which is analogous to the natural act of birth. That requires favourable circumstances, such as support in material as well as in intellectual terms by means of patrons and mentors, apart from institutions of learning and culture, such as schools and universities, galleries, libraries and museums as well as the free exchange of ideas through a free press and book market. Together they constitute a living public culture that combines traditions and innovations.

On the question what the preconditions of science and art might be, Jean Paul remains cautious by admitting that the seeds of culture may develop under almost any conditions except those of slavery. He thereby assumes a minimum measure of material and intellectual freedom as a prerequisite for culture, which in turn is best ensured under peaceful circumstances, even under the leadership of a strong personality, without subscribing to a social and political determinism. Thus he asks:

Where did the unmatched brotherly community of glorious minds under Queen Anne in England come from? - And why does a similar one under Napoleon I. fail to occur? - If one wants to explain the latter, one should not only state: that deeds stifle words or poems, cornsheafs flowers, and that victoriousactive nations, drugged by the present do not gain the necessary distance and coolness for mild artistic creation, and that hence a present full of thunder and lightning only fans the fires of rhetoric but not poetry. One should not only say this, true as it may be, but one should figure more circumstances into the equation; e.g. the egotistical relationship of the capital to the entire empire; because it is certain that the best poem will one day not come from Paris but from the provinces; and as regards the visual arts, they only lack peace to the extent that some of what Ammanianus Marcellinus (XXIV.6.) claimed about the Persians can be applied to them, that they remained backward in the visual arts because they only produced battleplays.(SW I, 5, 1100f.)

The allusion to the relationship between capital and province, as to the battleplays that are produced during wars, suggests that a culture needs above all three things in order to develop fully: time, tranquility and peace. One might ask, however, whether the seeds which are required for the pollination of blossoms, are not distributed by the chaos and confusion of war as well. Jean Paul seems to subsume this possibility under the unpredicatable winds that broadcast the pollen.

This brings me to the next point: Education is always directed towards something, e.g. to a higher goal which has a different quality to the parts that constitute it. Thus one could define education from the point of view of the history of an individual as the education towards a free individual who organises the interplay of its powers in an optimal way, or from the perspective of the history of the human race as the education towards a free body politic in which the parts interact optimally. Thus Jean Paul argues for an education towards peace, in which the only war that is waged is against human weaknesses, such as stupidity or venality:

Since, however, such a palladium on a throne (Pignus imperii) seldom falls from the sky, the nation must be educated towards the idea, which brings victory, and this occurs solely so that it is governed and educated towards more ethical ends than those of finance, conquest or glamour.(SW I, 5, 884)

Jean Paul suggests the cultivation of a pride of one´s grandchildren as opposed to the conventional ancestorpride in the sense that one should be more concerned with starting a new intellectual genealogical line than following in the beaten paths. This may entail a certain lack of understanding by one´s contemporaries, as he makes clear through the following comparison:

That´s why the singular isolated scholar, living more in the distant future than in the here and now, wins over the statesman who is incarcerated in the confines of his age and throne, in political prophecies, a Tiresias as it were, who was made blind by the gods to his immediate surroundings, but was compensated by a true prophesy of what lay in the distant future.(SW I, 5, 1142)

Writing about half a century later when the ideals of the Enlightenment had already lost some of their lustre due to the forces of the market and the German Empire under Bismarck, Nietzsche has become sceptical about the possibilities of an education of the masses under peaceful conditions. He complains about the increasing tendency of universities towards becoming a career school where true scholarly inquiry has succumbed to a quick and easy means of making money in the state machine or the free market. This is reflected in the pressure of students to complete their degrees as quickly as possible. As an alternative, he suggested an university for those with the ability and the interest to deepen their knowledge and eventually to produce new knowledge, aided by the best scholars in their respective fields. He knew, of course, that these elite institutions would find it difficult to justify their existence in a democratic society, since it would be difficult to explain the use of its research in immediate effects. On the other hand, the decisive discovery which could save us from lifethreatening disease could come precisely such seemingly useless research.

Another area where Nietzsche disagrees with the Enlightenment idea of Bildung is that of humanism, according to which human beings would be able to reach their full potential, if only they used they innate ability to reason as stipulated in Kant´s treatise What is Enlightenment? He problematises this assumption through his interrelated theorems of will-to-power, perspectivism and value systems. To simplify a complex theory this means that each individual, society, state, culture is made up of competing wills-to-power or powercentres and that it has the ability to organise them in such a way that the weak or the strong powercentre becomes dominant and that it will interact with individuals with a similar organisation of power. On the cultural level this may manifest itself in a weak or strong valuesystem. Now when one talks about a humanistic culture, e.g., one would have to ask from which perspective it appears thus and whether it favours strong or weak individuals and whether it affirms or denies life.

Maybe Nietzsche was just sceptical about a weak, decadent culture that disguised itself in the mantle of Greek and Roman humanism, but his ideas could be further developed today in the sense that different class, gender and cultural perspectives could be combined to form different dynamic hybrid cultures that interact, compete but never destroy each other in the quest for a heightened sense of life.

At the risk of sketching a future perspective for an educational concept that could prove to be outdated again tomorrow, I would plead for an education for more individuality and responsibility to oneself and others which would, however, not exclude the linking of competencies to form a network of free individuals. Arno Schmidt imagined this utopia: "I regard ´intellectual´ as a title of honour: after all it is the distinguishing mark of human beings! If everyone were one, at least the fights would only be carried out with the pen, or with the mouth. Would be a lot better!"(3) But in order for that to become reality, more initiatives need to be taken to make learning seem worthwhile to a wider section of the population.

That there is not only one way towards this goal is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that many successful people, especially innovators, were school dropouts. This suggests that they became successful in spite of their education or because they had something to fight against. Perhaps this is a hint to educators that even the best educational system has flaws and to instil in them a healthy measure of humility about their best intentions. In the end, we probably all are our own best educators, but society also has to allow the reentry of such individuals at all levels.

© Anette Horn (Cape Town/Berlin)

TRANS        table of contents: No.10


My research work on Jean Paul has been supported by a research grant of the Alexander-von-Humboldt-Stiftung.


(1) The quotes are from Jean Paul. Sämtliche Werke. Abteilung I, Band 5: Vorschule der Ästhetik, Levana, Politische Schriften. Edited by Norbert Miller. Munich: Carl Hanser Verlag 1963 (2. Auflage 1996, Zweitausendeins), p. 404f. and will be marked as (SW I, 5) followed by the page number henceforth. The translations are my own.

(2) Johann Gottfried Herder, "Auch eine Philosophie der Geschichte zur Bildung der Menschheit". In: Sturm und Drang. Weltanschauliche und ästhetische Schriften. Herausgegeben von Peter Müller, Bd. 1-2, Berlin und Weimar: Aufbau, 1978. Bd.1.

(3) Arno Schmidt, Brands Haide. Frankfurt a.M.: Fischer 1974 (1951), p. 29.

For quotation purposes:
Anette Horn: Information, Knowledge, Education. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 10/2001. WWW:

TRANS     Webmeister: Peter R. Horn     last change: 10.02.2002