Educating with Agony: on Alexander Nehamus’s Stanford Lecture

Just got out of a lecture that I snuck into at Stanford by the author of one of my favorite books and the best recent commentary on Nietzsche (Nietzsche: Life as Literature), Alexander Nehamus. It was one of a series on education and his was centered around self-fashioning and teaching without commanding. Instead of coercing students into following their thought and copy their style, Nehamus emphasized the kind of teaching that inspires a student to fall in love with something or someone, creating differences that make a difference. The distinction he makes is one between teaching by training – by molding students through technique from the master – and teaching about Goodness and how to live well. This comes from the Plato-Protagoras debate where Plato famously charged Protagoras with, beyond teaching his students to be successful (i.e. wealthy and skilled at persuasion), lacking the ability to teach the virtue which makes one a good citizen. Do academies teach success or virtue? This debate rages on today in other forms (here in America most of my friends from the old hometown think of college as a stepping stone towards a higher paying job; this is practically endemic to the culture though, and the college student debt might bring the financial system down *again*), and Nehamus drew attention to the embarrassing fact that the academies do not really make people less corrupt but do widen the scale of their crimes to a massive scale. Think of the institutionalized economic tradition that legitimates the criminal practices of financial institutions by claiming itself as a science when it is closer to moral philosophy… more on that later.

The Plato-goodness-virtue vs. Protagoras-success-corruption opposition is far too simplistic though since Plato himself set forth a program with the vision of a perfect Republic. He believed himself to be teaching his students to become good citizens in a good republic, the concepts of which he found by using the character of Socrates to discover them by reason. Socrates’ persistent questioning forms the base for reason which in turn provides the base for an objective and always-everywhere the same concept of Goodness. This gives him the authority to instruct his students at the Academy on how to be a good citizen where Protagoras cannot since he does not *know* the good. The knowledge of the good that Socrates-Plato demand in order to be good allows them to inspire curious students but it also tricks them into pursuing way of life set forth by Plato-Socrates while claiming they are after something greater in the eternal Form. Plato is merely replacing Protagoras as the educator while claiming that his program does more than either of them could: to know what goodness is.

The rote training by drill vs. education through an understanding of what is right cannot be a hard and fast distinction because one always has their own, or societies have their own, concept of what good is and claiming to teach. The good could easily wined up a more complete method of persuasion and attraction. Nehamus will reject both of these options and shift the role of the teacher into cultivating a uniqueness that is exceptional and different than what is thought by the teacher. His version of a good education will be one in which the teacher indirectly cultivates an interest of the student which goes beyond the thought of the teacher, sending the materials and tools one is provided with in unforeseen directions. There is a pluralism here of increasing styles and encouraging variety. Indeed I caught a quote of his while taking notes as saying that there is “an inherent value in multiplying styles”.

But being different itself is not enough to provide value on his account as he goes on to talk about “differences that make a difference” or differences that we notice and latch onto. Good teaching is not simply a matter of provoking one to be different for its own sake, but of challenging that difference to be distinct, admirable, and continue the provocation of thought. He made reference to the Greek word agon which means competition so as to emphasize the elevation brought about when contrasting forces come together and struggle with each other. The agonistic relationship contrasts with the commanding relationship of the authoritative teacher and the subservient student, the former supposedly drawing out the propensity to excel in both actors instead of keeping them in a fixed place. The hierarchy which results from the attachment to titles and labels keeps the bright-eyed incoming student on the path of their instructor and restricts their capacity for increasing differences, whereas a more horizontal relationship between supposed equals will inevitably lead to contestation – an increase in difference.

Perhaps it is the pre-existing differences inherent in the actors which are allowed to become luminous in a non-hierarchical relation. The competition that follows would then be the result a leveling off of peoples by removing institutionalized barriers that stabilize their identities. The pre-institutional, pre-individual fluctuations of different forces are allowed to be played out and played off of each other when the social influences of prestige and title are removed. Such an ideal situation of social equality and fair competition smells awfully close to the claims of meritocracy though, and this dream of relationships without hierarchy can turn easily into a trick like the one Plato used to convince his students they are all within the grasp of the Good, Truth, Beauty, etc. by following his program. Not to say Plato was willfully deceiving his students or anything, but the differences that Nehamus and I both wish to invoke – the ones that charge people up into exciting alternatives that are exceptional to the disastrous status quo – can be claimed when in effect the difference makes no difference, it does not *matter*. Obviously, the difference that Plato made was immense and way up there on any list of the most influential factors in Euro-Occidental-Western (ugh) culture, but we also might have reached a time when the difference is not producing a great enough effect.

It is all too easy for a revolutionary idea to be subsumed and repeated ad nauseum while the motion meant to stir things up sends us around in circles, leaving the center firmly in place. When a teacher sets out to inspire their students instead of command them, the traps of irony can snap the whole situation back into the inconsequential “difference without a difference” scenario. Just consider the isolation of the academy, the expenses leaving graduates in debt-topia, and the corporatization of the universities. What substantial effect could a non-authoritarian teacher have on the the landscape when it is enclosed by the academies which function on a business logic? It often feels futile to operate on the Platonic model when everywhere around you Protagoras’s treat higher education as a job factory, and its hard to blame individuals when the world demands you make money or get kicked out on the street like so much disposable waste.

Nehamus did not ascribe to either model: he used it to highlight the vast gap between the two that we find in the world of education today and how the same problems keep repeating themselves throughout history. The work he’s done on self-stylization and making one’s life into a work of art that drew me to his talk can be captured by marketers urging us to be “rebel consumers” if we don’t also do the tough work inter-subjectively, namely, arguing and contesting each other’s thoughts and beliefs. In order to avoid the trivializing of our differences there has to be an element of competition and not just a respect for the obvious differences between each other that make us all unique. Yes we are all unique, so what? Without the agonistic work of defending, attacking, and critiquing, those differences become indistinguishable after just one step back in perspective.

Nietzsche left academia in disgust to pursue his individualist journey (after making a name for himself within it) and this allowed for a fruitful life of writing. The self-stylization characterizing great works with a great impact might not find their audience and make the connection to the outside world(s) if mired in academic enclave. It is wonderful to find a good professor which pushes you into new and empowering directions. But great works require great problems too no? The escalation of skill in the agonistic relationship must start with actors on a similar footing, the same stage if you will. But it must also be allowed to spill over into other avenues of life or else risk obscurity.

It is with these thoughts that I contemplate grad school. Will it inspire and connect me to a greater network or comfort me in seclusion? Not to mention burying me in crushing amounts of work and debt. Help. Mutual agonizing anyone?

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