Nietzsche and the scarecrow

7 07 2013


Nietzsche has been much on my mind this week, specifically his call for a revaluation of our values. The old system of good and evil, Nietzsche declares, is outdated and what we need is a new way forward so that we can rise to noble values, such as courage, feelings of fullness and ‘overflowing power.’

If Nietzsche were alive today he would be a leader in the new enterprise culture. His originality of thought, his provocation, his challenge never to accept the status quo, belong to the current age of uncertainty. In order to thrive in a world where there are no jobs for life, we need to be bold and we need to be innovative. We need to move beyond comparison and resentment of those of higher status and into a different sort of pride that allows us to be generous. In this new Nietzsche-inspired moral landscape, self-deprecation causes confusion. Instead of putting ourselves down, Nietzsche would argue, what we must do is to be honest and to share our best creative efforts.

Nietzsche’s aim for humanity was a form of ‘self-overcoming.’ According to his assessment, discrimination between the rulers and the ruled had created a master and slave mentality that in turn led to a morality based on resentment of the strong by those in subordinate positions. This unhealthy power structure still dominates many institutions today. I gave up taking breaks in staff room because of it. Griping is part of the curriculum in every school I’ve worked in.  If Nietzsche were still around to see what we have done with our magnificent education, I have no doubt that he would be appalled. So many brilliant minds creating so many meaningless work sheets and teacher tasks.

Of course, not all of what we have done to education is wrong. Many young people thrive under our current system, but few who work in education truly believe that we have the best-designed schools and programmes of learning. Anyone who has ever worked in a school could come up with at least one idea of how things might be done either more thoughtfully or imaginatively. Schools still tend to value efficiency over innovation. And sadly schools still tend to promote what Nietzsche called the ‘herd’ mentality. Speaking out, standing up for what you believe in, taking risks, is still seen in many educational establishments as, well, just too risky.

Nevertheless much of Nietzsche’s philosophy just does not work for me. His attacks on the philosophers who came before him, notably ‘old Kant,’ are juvenile and much of his writing is clever-showy and attention-seeking. If he had resisted his own resentments and his tendency to hurl grenades at previous moral thinking, he would be worth listening to. Much of what he says is a rant, interesting and exuberant, but still a rant. In style, Kant cannot be compared; he is no brilliant essayist, but in his series of critiques he does the hard spade work of thinking through morality and leaves us with far, far more than we need: an entire ethical system based on treating each other with respect.

This leads me to my photo of the scarecrow. This afternoon I stopped my car on a narrow lane to take the shot of my first encounter in years with a real scarecrow, by which I mean one put into a field to actually scare things rather than one featuring in a festival. Lifting my camera, a white van came storming up the lane straight into my view. I went over and politely explained that I wanted to take a photograph and I didn’t want the van in the shot.

The white van driver’s response was: ‘And I don’t want to stop.’

I had a choice. I could have switched off the camera and got back into my car. There was no passing space and so the white van driver would have had to wait for me to reverse all the way back up the lane. Nietzsche whispered in my ear: ‘Tell him he’s an arse.’

Kant stepped in to prevent me from getting punched: ‘Oh, that’s really not very generous of you. I only need five minutes to take the picture.’

The white van driver squinted down the lane: ‘Five minutes?’

‘Less, in fact I could probably do it in three minutes.’

The white van driver’s features softened. I saw that underneath his scowling impatience he was really quite pleasant and I smiled.

Two minutes later, I had my scarecrow shot and in true Kantian spirit to acknowledge the van driver’s respect, I decided to do my duty and reverse back up the lane. He waved and I waved and we both went on our way.

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