[This excerpt is from Chapter 4 of Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault]
Fichte on education as socialization
Johann Fichte was a disciple of Kant. Born in 1762, he studied theology and philosophy at Jena, Wittenberg, and Leipzig. In 1788 he read Kant’s Critique of Practical Reason, and that reading changed Fichte’s life. He traveled to Königsberg in order to meet Kant, then the ruling philosopher of Germany. But the great man was initially distant, so Fichte worked as a tutor at Königsberg while writing his moral treatise, Critique of All Revelation. When it was finished, Fichte dedicated it to Kant. Kant read it, admired it, and urged that it be published. It was published anonymously in 1792, and this made Fichte famous in intellectual circles: It was so Kantian in style and content that it was taken by many to have been written by Kant himself and to be his fourth Critique. Kant disclaimed authorship but praised the young author, thus launching Fichte’s academic career.
The major breakthrough, however—the event that launched Fichte permanently onto the German landscape as not only a leading philosopher but also as a cultural leader—came in 1807. A year after Napoleon’s defeat of the Prussians, Fichte stepped onto the public stage and delivered his ringing call to arms, his Addresses to the German Nation.
In the Addresses, Fichte spoke as a philosopher who had descended from abstractions to connect with practical affairs, in order to situate those practical affairs within the context of the most metaphysical. He addressed the defeated Germans, calling for a renewal of their spirit and character. The Germans had lost the physical battle, Fichte argued, but now more was at stake: the real battle now was a battle of character.
Why had Germany come under the dominion of Napoleon? Fichte granted that many factors were responsible, most of them having to do with the infiltration of softening, Enlightenment beliefs—“all the evils which have now brought us to ruin are of foreign origin”—and that many reforms were needed in the military, religion, and the administration of government.
But the fundamental problem was clear: the educational system had failed Germany. Only with a total revision of the method of educating children could Germany hope to become immune from the Napoleons of the future. “In a word, it is a total change of the existing system of education that I propose as the sole means of preserving the existence of the German nation.” In Fichte’s educational philosophy, themes from Rousseau, Hamann, Kant, and Schleiermacher are integrated into a package that would be influential for more than one hundred years.
In the Addresses, there is no question in Fichte’s mind about what abstract system is the right one. With Kant, “the problem has been completely solved among us, and philosophy has been perfected.” But Kant’s philosophy had not yet been applied systematically to the education of children.
Fichte started by looking back to see how Germany got into its current sorry state. Germany used to be great. In the Middle Ages, “the German burghers were the civilized people,” and “this period is the only one in German history in which this nation is famous and brilliant.” What was great about the burghers was their “spirit of piety, of honour, of modesty, and of the sense of community.” They were great because they were not individualistic. “Seldom does the name of an individual stand out or distinguish itself, for they were all of like mind and alike in sacrifice for the common weal.”
Fichte was, however, not a conservative apologist for the good old days. In the context of feudal Germany, Fichte was a reformer who believed that it was the corrupt upper classes that had ruined Germany: “its bloom [was] destroyed by the avarice and tyranny of princes.” The Germans had become further corrupted by the modern world, which led to their impotence in the face of Napoleon. What about the modern world, essentially, caused the corruption? Self-seeking: “self-seeking has destroyed itself by its own complete development,” and “[a] people can be completely corrupted, i.e., self-seeking—for self-seeking is the root of all other corruption.”
And this, echoing Rousseau, was because men became rational, under the guise of Enlightenment. This undermined religion and its moral force. “The enlightenment of the understanding, with its purely material calculations, was the force which destroyed the connection established by religion between some future life and the present.” Consequently, government became liberal and morally lax: “the weakness of governments” frequently allowed “neglect of duty to go unpunished.”
So now the German has sold his soul, lost his true self, his identity. “It follows, then, that the means of salvation which I promise to indicate consists in the fashioning 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.” Echoing Rousseau again: “By means of the new education we want to mould the Germans into a corporate body, which shall be stimulated and animated in all its individual members by the same interest.”
To start with, education must be egalitarian and universal, unlike previous education, which was feudal and elitist: “So there is nothing left for us but just to apply the new system to every German without exception, so that it is not the education of a single class, but the education of the nation.” Such education will aid in the creation of a classless society: “All distinctions of classes … will be completely removed and vanish. In this way there will grow up among us, not popular education, but real German national education.”
Real education must start by getting to the source of human nature. Education must exert “an influence penetrating to the roots of vital impulse and action.” Here was a great failing of traditional education, for it had relied upon and appealed to the student’s free will. “I should reply that that very recognition of, and reliance upon, free will in the pupil is the first mistake of the old system.” Compulsion, not freedom, is best for students:
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 upon with confidence and certainty.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to do this under contemporary living arrangements, in which children go to school and then return to corrupting influences in their homes and their neighborhoods at the end of the day. “It is essential,” Fichte then urged, “that from the very beginning the pupil should be continuously and completely under the influence of this education, and should be separated altogether from the community, and kept from all contact with it.”
Once the children are separated, educators can turn their attention to internal matters. In his essay on education, Kant had of course argued that “above all things, obedience is an essential feature in the character of a child, especially of a school boy or girl.” However, Fichte pointed out, children are children and as such they do not naturally impose duties upon themselves. So the school’s authorities must firmly impose the duties upon them:
“[T]he legislation should consequently maintain a high standard of severity, and should prohibit the doing of many things. Such prohibitions, which simply must exist and on which the existence of the community depends, are to be enforced in case of necessity by fear of immediate punishment, and this penal law must be administered absolutely without indulgence or exception.”
One of the duties to be inculcated is the obligation of the student who is more able to help the more needy students. Yet “he is to expect neither reward for it, for under this system of government all are quite equal in regard to work and pleasure, nor even praise, for the attitude of mind prevailing in the community is that it is just everyone’s duty to act thus.” Anticipating Marx, Fichte believed that the school should be a microcosm of what the ideal society would be like: “Under this system of government, therefore, the acquirement of greater skill and the effort spent therein will result only in fresh effort and work, and it will be the very pupil who is abler than the rest who must often watch while the others sleep, and reflect while others play.”
More broadly, the new education will eliminate all self interest and inculcate the pure love of duty for its own sake that Rousseau and Kant had prized:
“[I]n place of that love of self, with which nothing for our good can be connected any longer, we must set up and establish in the hearts of all those whom we wish to reckon among our nation that other kind of love, which is concerned directly with the good, simply as such and for its own sake.”
If the system is successful, its fruit will be as follows: “Its pupil goes forth at the proper time as a fixed and unchangeable machine.”
But this moral education is not enough. Drawing upon Hamann and Schleiermacher, Fichte next turned to religion.
“The pupil of this education is not merely a member of human society here on this earth and for the short span of life which is permitted to him. He is also, and is undoubtedly acknowledged by education to be, a link in the eternal chain of spiritual life in a higher social order. A training which has undertaken to include the whole of his being should undoubtedly lead him to a knowledge of this higher order also.”
Despite being seen as soft on religion by the Lutheran orthodoxy, Fichte argued that education must also be intensely religious. “Under proper guidance,” the student will “find at the end that nothing really exists but life, the spiritual life which lives in thought, and that everything else does not really exist, but only appears to exist.” He will find that “Only in immediate contact with God and the direct emanation of his life from him will he find life, light, and happiness, but in any separation from that immediate contact, death, darkness, and misery.” “Education to true religion is, therefore, the final task of the new education.”
So far Fichte’s program of education includes the communal separation of children, severe authoritarian top-down training, strict moral duty and selflessness, and total religious immersion. Not quite the Enlightenment model of liberal education.
But Fichte’s program did not end there. For now we add the importance of ethnicity. Only the German is capable of true education. The German is the best that the world has to offer and is the hope for the future progress of mankind. The German “alone, above all other European nations, [has] the capacity of responding to such an education.” But as goes Germany, so goes the rest of Europe and, ultimately, all of humankind. Either the Germans will respond to Fichte’s call and reform themselves—or they will sink into oblivion. “But, as Germany sinks, the rest of Europe is seen to sink with it.”
Thus Fichte, with his passionate style and force of personality, spurred the Germans to action. The Germans listened admiringly and with approval. In 1810, three years after the delivery of his Addresses, Fichte was appointed dean of the philosophy faculty at the newly-founded University of Berlin. (Schleiermacher was appointed head of the faculty of theology.) In the following year Fichte became rector of the whole university, and so was in a position to put his educational program into practice.
Nor was Fichte a flash in the pan. One spark appears over a century later in 1919, in Friedrich Ebert’s speech at the opening of the National Assembly at Weimar. Germany had once again been defeated by foreign powers, and the nation was demoralized, resentful, and starting over. Elected first president of the German Republic in 1919, Ebert made a point in his opening address of stressing the relevance of Fichte to Germany’s situation:
“In this way we will set to work, our great aim before us: to maintain the right of the German nation, to lay the foundation in Germany for a strong democracy, and to bring it to achievement with the true social spirit and in the socialistic way. Thus shall we realize that which Fichte has given to the German nation as its task.”
 Fichte once said to Madame de Staël: “Grasp my metaphysics, Madame; you will then understand my ethics.”
 Fichte 1807, 84.
 Fichte 1807, 13.
 Fichte 1807, 101.
 Fichte 1807, 104-105.
 Fichte 1807, pp. 104-5.
 Fichte 1807, 8-9.
 Fichte 1807, 11.
 Fichte 1807, 12-13, 15.
 Fichte 1807, 15.
 Fichte 1807, 14, 20.
 Fichte 1807, 31.
 Kant 1960, 84.
 Fichte 1807, 33.
 Fichte 1807, 34-5.
 Fichte 1807, 23.
 Fichte 1807, 36.
 Fichte 1807, 37.
 Fichte 1807, 37, 38.
 Fichte 1807, 52.
 Fichte 1807, 105.
 In Fichte 1807, xxii.
[This is an excerpt from Stephen Hicks’s Explaining Postmodernism: Skepticism and Socialism from Rousseau to Foucault (Scholargy Publishing, 2004, 2011). The full book is available in hardcover or e-book at Amazon.com. See also the Explaining Postmodernism page.]