It’s hard to read the old-fashioned way, slowly and deliberately. Few of us have the patience, the concentration, or the time. When we do read, we skim, trying to get a quick “take” on the topics of the day, often conveniently served up as prepackaged excerpts by our modern media machine. We flit from one thing to the next, never pausing to think about what we’ve just read, because in our media-saturated, technology-obsessed age we just don’t have time. Worse, our bad reading habits are symptomatic of a deeper malaise. Real learning, real knowledge, and real culture have been supplanted by the shallow, utilitarian instrumentalism of modern life. The evidence is mounting. Humanities departments are losing students to the sciences and other more useful majors, where they are stuffed with facts and outfitted with skills, better to serve the state as productive citizens; our cultural models are the average heroes of a popular culture. Our culture is in decline. And we read only the headlines.
That may sound like the latest jeremiad in The New Criterion or The New Republic, but it’s actually a paraphrase of Friedrich Nietzsche’s preface to a series of lectures he delivered in the winter of 1872, seven years before he left his job as a philologist at the University of Basel and became the self-proclaimed prophet of modernity. In five lectures collectively titled On the Future of Our Educational Institutions, Nietzsche diagnosed the decline of German culture before a public audience at Basel’s city museum. Alternating notes of anxious pessimism and apocalyptic prophecy, he warned that schools, universities, and modern newspapers were forming drones for a state in need of docile citizens. They were cultivating an individuality that wasn’t, a modern man bereft of character and substance. [Read more from the Hedgehog Review Wellmon_Nietzsche Transformed]