Studies that serve life

The 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche wrote an essay “On the Uses and Disadvantages of History for Life” in his work Untimely Meditations (1873-1876). What he says below articulates my own philosophy of education. If our studies do not augment or invigorate life, they are vain.

‘In any case, I hate everything that merely instructs me without augmenting or directly invigorating my activity.’ These words are from Goethe, and they may stand as a sincere ceterum censeo* at the beginning of our meditation on the value of history. For its intention is to show why instruction without invigoration, why knowledge not attended by action, why history as a costly superfluity and luxury, must, to use Goethe’s word, be seriously hated by us – hated because we still lack even the things we need and the superfluous is the enemy of the necessary. We need history, certainly, but we need it for reasons different from those for which the idler in the garden of knowledge needs it, even though he may look nobly down on our rough and charmless needs and requirements. We need it, that is to say, for the sake of life and action, not so as to turn comfortably away from life and action, let alone for the purpose of extenuating the self-seeking life and the base and cowardly action. We want to serve history only to the extent that history serves life: for it is possible to value the study of history to such a degree that life becomes stunted and degenerate.

Substitute any academic discipline for history when Nietzsche says, “We want to serve history only to the extent that history serves life.” Too often, the educator is an “idler in the garden of knowledge,” turning students away from life rather than toward it. Educators need to show how literature, history, philosophy, theology, mathematics, and science all serve life. I regard my vocation as lying at the intersection of great books and human lives. Great books on their own are mummies; they need to be resurrected in a community of flesh-and-blood readers who make those books existentially urgent. 

*ceterum censeo: but I’m of the opinion


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