Egoistische Sache

A collection of Prefaces, Introductions and Notes about Max Stirner (1806-1856) writings.

Location: Valencia, Comunidad Valenciana, Spain

Saturday, May 20, 2006


(James J. Martin, Palmer Lake, Colorado, April 29, 1967)
[Das Unwahre Princip Unserer Erziehung, Oder Der Humanismus Und Realismus]

"‘The False Principle of Our Education’ is the most
valuable and significant of Stirner’s shorter works."
— John Henry Mackay, Max Stirner's kleinere Schriften
(2nd. ed., Treptow bei Berlin:Bernhard Zack's Verlag, 1914), p. 235.

This marks the 125th anniversary of the publication of Max Stirner's trenchant essay "Das unwahre Prinzip unserer Erziehung," and its first appearance in English, thanks to the admirable translation by Robert H. Beebe. There has been a steadily increasing show of interest in this short work in this country during the last half dozen years, occasioned primarily by the use of bits and pieces of it in various instances, principally in radio broadcasts and public lectures. Stirner's incisive commentary on the purposes and goals of education was first published in the supplements to four numbers of the Rheinische Zeitung (1) between the 10th and l9th of April, 1842. It made a number of reappearances thereafter, but for over forty years it has appeared only once even in the German-speaking world (2).

The "False Principle" is a preview in part of Stirner's classic The Ego and His Own published two and a half years later. In it we discern his persistent pursuit of the goal of individual self-awareness and his insistence on the centering of everything around the individual personality. Stirner, a teacher, is one of the first of a long line of critics of the schools to dwell on the difference between education and training. At a time when a vast revolutionary development in formal schooling was underway, not only in Germany, but throughout the Western world, Stirner is seen insisting bluntly that education is the most important "social question" in the world, and that there is something vastly more important involved than just the years spent under classroom instruction; "The school-question is a life-question," Stirner insists. How modern this sounds today, when scores of variants of Stirner's declaration circle about us in the literature and pronouncements of a numerous contingent of schoolmen, students of educational psychology, and critics of modern educational systems alike. No workable, measurable principle of learning has ever been found, the mountainous labors of child psychologists, educational philosophers, professors of pedagogical procedure and a host of related industrious toilers notwithstanding. But such knowledge on the subject as seems to be emerging today, supported even by the latest experiments in computerized programming, (3) is emphasizing the uniqueness of the learner and the incredible diversities of individuals. A century and a quarter ago, to the month, Stirner was advancing precisely the same argument, even if it is dressed in what may seem to be rather abstract garb.

Stirner is cognizant that an upheaval has swept his world, and that the systems of the past which conferred vast power upon small educated minorities are finished, and that all are on the threshold of a new time in which the universalization of education is about to launch the axiom "everyone is his own master." Therefore it was of prime importance that the school did not stand in the way of achieving this "in the time of our plasticity."

Stirner is well aware of the usefulness of the school as an instrument of social control, and the road to power and authority in an earlier time through its arbitrary and limited employment. He even sees formidable residues of this ancient way in his own time. Now, however, the systems built around the classics, the Bible, the Church and Court academies, have been confronted by still another system, and Stirner is not entirely convinced that this one, professing to be concerned with the practical, cannot also be turned into an engine with great degenerative possibilities. "With education, its possessor became a master of the uneducated," he observed, in reflecting on the times which preceded the Nineteenth Century. Now the day had arrived when "all knowledge was to be life, knowledge being lived," and "bringing the material of life into the school succeeded in offering something useful to everyone." "School, indeed has to outline our reconciliation with everything life offers," "that none of the things with which we must some day concern ourselves will be completely alien to us and beyond our power to master."

Stirner with his April, 1842 commentaries entered a spirited controversy then going on within the educational ranks between the proponents of stressing the virtues of the past, and the moderns of the day, who were urging only that one "seize the present," identified by Professor Heinsius as the "humanists" and the "realists," terms which Stirner accepted for the purposes of discussion. Stirner tends to side with the latter, "For in education, all of the given material has value only in so far as children learn to do something with it, to use it." But he also sees the virtue of humanist stress on formal training. There are serious weaknesses in both approaches, however. Though the realists may disclose the "empty elegance" of the humanists, they in turn are most likely to substitute "tasteless materialists," and surely even realism should "finally recognize the formation of taste as the final goal" and put the act of forming it at the head of all other objectives.

But both the principal antagonists are concerned with the learner as an object, someone to be acted upon rather than one encouraged to move toward subjective self-realization and liberation; "a knowledge which only burdens me as a belonging and a possession, instead of having gone along with me completely so that the free-moving ego, not encumbered by any dragging possessions, passes through the world with a fresh spirit, such a knowledge then, which has not become personal, furnishes a poor preparation for life."

Those whom Heinsius had dubbed the realists were already advancing what we might call today "education for citizenship," Stirner perceived, devoted to inculcation of convictions and entreaty "to adhere to the positive laws of morality." One needs to set aside scant time for contemplation upon what the modern national state everywhere has done with education to turn the individual to its purposes, fashioning what Stirner's pedagogical antagonists called "useful citizens," the gun-bearer, the taxpayer, the voter, and even the reverent and unquestioning consumer, urged to behave even economically as though it were a duty to the state. Stirner of course is in point- blank disagreement; "I rather say we need from now on a personal education, not the impressing of convictions." And as against the traditionalists and the modernists whom Heinsius wishes to bring into conciliation, Stirner proposes, as opposed to both, the proponents of his concem; "one may call them personalists," he suggests.

Stirner conceded that what he called the "personal" or "free" man might be found in the schools, but only despite the school, not because of it. The school sought to make "masters of things," and this largely "because education is sought only in its formal or material aspects"; "to understand things and conditions, there the matter is ended — to understand oneself does not seem to be every man's concern." And the pedagogues worked in such a way as to make sure that "freedom is not allowed to erupt"; "they want only submissiveness." Observes Stirner, "only scholars come out of the menagerie of the humanists, only 'useful citizens' out of those of the realists, both of whom are indeed nothing but submissive people." But what could one expect? "If one awakens in men the idea of freedom then the free men will incessantly go on to free themselves, but if one only educates them, they will at all times accommodate themselves to circumstances in the most highly educated and most elegant manner, and degenerate into subservient cringing souls."

And Stirner calls out,

Where then will a spirit of opposition be strengthened in place of the subservience which has been cultivated until now, where will a creative person be educated instead of a learning one, where does the teacher turn into a fellow worker, where does he recognize knowledge as turning into will, where does the free man count as a goal and not the merely educated one?

This is indeed powerful and electrifying stuff to come from a mid- Nineteenth Century German school teacher, strongly contradicting the stereotypes fed us by three generations of Germanophobes. After all, do we not still have the caricature of the stiff-backed German mas- ter, uttering sharp gutteral commands and reinforcing them with menacing gestures? But what nation ever had a monopoly on such types in the schoolroom? If critiques of repressive authoritarianism in the schools of England by the English are any reliable record, and the rigid lockstep of the French national school system a supporting evidence, then surely we are dealing with something not bound by either geography or culture. Comments on what goes on in the schools of Communist lands or those run by the average classroom tyrant in America would undoubtedly be supererogatory. "The true aim and purpose of the pedagogue, and especially the pedagogue who is also a bureaucrat, is never to awaken his victims to independent and logical thought, it is simply to force them into a mold," Henry L. Mencken asserted (in "What is going on in the World," American Mercury [February, 1933], p. 131); "In all ages pedagogues have been the bitterest enemies of all genuine intellectual enterprise."

Fully as instructive is Stirner's conception of the student-teacher relation and the whole business of authority and discipline. The qualities of obstinacy and intractability in the pupil have as much to commend them as his curiosity. The former are expressions of "the natural strength of the will, opposition." Crushing this prevents his learning "to feel himself," and thus it prevents the learning of "that which is fundamental." And there is no need for the teacher to defend himself against the willful child "by using the convenient rampart of authority"; "he is very weak who must call to authority for help and he does wrong if he thinks to improve the impudent as soon as he makes him fearful." Stirner declares that he counters "with the un- yieldingness of my own freedom," he neither conquers nor abdicates, he neither enslaves nor becomes a slave; "Whoever is a complete person does not need to be an authority."

And so Stirner goes on, execrating "will-less knowledge," "non-voluntary learning," the "idea-less and fettered 'practical men' " coming from the schools of those being called the "realists." "Most college students are living examples of this sad turn of events," he remarks; "Trained in the most excellent manner, they go on training; drilled, they continue drilling." Is it really very much different today, after the long span of time separating us from Stirner's time? Describing the situation a generation ago, the late Howard K. Beale, a lucid writer and courageous teacher, observed in a cutting comment, "If one instills unconventional views into children, that is 'indoctrination.' If one indoctrinates children, as most teachers do most of the time, with conventional attitudes, it is called 'teaching'." But, Beale remarked in extension, "history has often proved that it was the 'prejudice' of an extremist and not the orthodoxy of the multitude that posterity regarded as truth," and that "The only freedom that matters is the freedom that allows others to express views you know are dangerous or untrue." (4)

Unfortunately, what Stirner perceived as the dawn of a potentially great era for individualist realization turned out to be only a temporary crack in the ice floe of authority, which has congealed and solidified steadily in this century and a quarter of the industrialized State.

And is it too much in this time of the ever-so-strengthened State to expect a set of circumstances to evolve favorable to "the rise of the self-assured will which perfects itself in the glorious sunlight of the free person"? Even a large part of the educational experimentation and the alleged "revolutionary" concepts associated with avant-garde educational enterprises of the last forty or more years reflects their essentially ersatz nature when ranged against what Stirner is urging; in most cases they are simply seeking to impose the spooks of other controls than the ones against which they protest and seek to escape. It would seem, in view of what has happened, that the "false principle" is the school, for it is very close to being incompatible with the individual nearly everywhere. A short time ago even the eminent Jacques Barzun, now Dean of Faculties and Provost of famed Columbia University and usually a moderate commentator upon the educational establishment, was moved to abandon his characteristic restraint and declare, (5)

Children used to say, some of them, that they hated this or that teacher. Now they tend to despise all their teachers, and from time to time beat them up or knife them. These are still exceptional modes of rebellion, but most pupils, including the well-behaved, from the earliest years see through the pretense of schools and schooling. They know that life is outside, altogether real, and school, with its subterfuges, altogether unreal....

There is no doubt that there is student unrest in these days which is unprecedented. That in the lower schools which has drawn the comment of Dean Barzun is matched by a similar one in the colleges and universities, and the existence of a large number of those who have become disgusted with the current state of affairs in Academe and turned their energies to other things has been the subject of a prodigious literature in recent years. Of additional significance is that this profound disturbance is observable on a broad international level. Though a portion of this alienation can be credited to the ageless clash between the young and the old, the resistance of students to the "smug watchdogs of the intellect" (as a rebellious student group at the University of Strasbourg has characterized their faculty), there is without a doubt a new element in these times, the suffocating arm of the fully evolved modern national Warfare State, and its mobilization of organized education, contributing to rejection and withdrawal.

One of our famous social critics, Harry Elmer Barnes, observed nearly four decades ago that we had established a lower school system with the outlook and policy of prisons: "Let nobody escape at whatever cost." In view of world-wide tendencies in "democracies" of all persuasions to drift toward a policy of compulsory voting, it should be interesting to note in the years ahead whether even longer periods of forced school attendance than at present also become mandatory; both of these coercions harmonize well with obligatory military service.

The war of wills between the individual and the collectivity will undoubtedly go on as long as the race of men persists, and the schoolroom will continue to be one of its ubiquitous battlegrounds (6). As the school training machinery of the State grows ever more pervasive and inescapable, and no less so even in most of the privately organized institutions, it may be that, for some time to come, such as one may number among Stirner's "free men" are most likely to come into existence and endure in an auto-didact (7) underground.


1. A paper founded in 1842 by Karl Marx and others in Koln (Cologne) and suppressed by state censorship authorities on March 31, 1843. The basic incompatibility of many of its contributors has been the subject of copious notation in subsequent years; that of Marx and Stirner is probably the outstanding example. (See also this writer's introduction to the 1963 edition of Stirner's The Ego and His Own (New York: Libertarian Book Club) and commentary on the jacket flaps of the hardbound printing. )
2. Barring the facsimile edition in 1966 of the 1914 Mackay collection of Stirner's minor writings, which contains the "False Principle," the essay appeared in 1956 for the only time since the deluxe printing which was published in Switzerland in 1926-27. The starting point for any extended study of Stirner is the prodigious ninety page bibliography of writings by or about the author of Der Einzige compiled by Hans G. Helms, an achievement of immense industry and persistence, appended to his book Die Ideologie der anonymen Gesellschaft (Koln: Verlag M. DuMont Schauberg, 1966), pp. 510-6OO; the thesis of this book is extremely vulnerable, however.
3. See in particular "Formulas for Learning," Science News (April 29, 1967), pp. 406-407.
4. Beale, "Forces That Control Our Schools." Harper's Magazine (October, 1934), p. 615
5. In an address in Washington, D. C. on October 21, 1966, and subsequently published in The Sciences and the Humanities in the Schools After a Decade of Reform: Present and Future Needs (Occasional Paper No. 13, Washington, D. C.: Council for Basic Education, 1967), pp. 21-30.
6. Said Professor Beale in 1934, "Educators do not even know what they mean by 'education'—whether it means indoctrination with community prejudices indoctrination with what left-wing educators want children to believe, drilling children in textbook learning, or, finally creating a new generation themselves capable of intellectual integrity and independent thinking." There is, of course, immense lip service tendered to this latter objective by schoolmen at their periodic in-gatherings, but it must be obvious that this goal is alien to the school, within which such enterprise by students is punished in various subtle ways and the parroting of the received opinions of the teachers invariably rewarded, and handsomely. Another trenchant critic of that era, Albert Jay Nock, concluded, "Education is an affair of the spirit, and as such only is it communicable; and in our devotion to our two master preoccupations [money and organization] we have merely succeeded in organizing and subsidizing it pretty well off the face of the earth." "What Every Woman Ought to Know," Atlantic Monthly (March 1932), p. 282.
7. The declaration by the famed Charies W. Eliot (1834-1926), president of Harvard from 1869 to 1909, that an education consists of "that which remains when all has been forgotten," is especially pertinent here, in view of the tendency of formal educational experience, except in technical training, to consist heavily of propaganda, that is, systematic exposure to carefully stacked facts deliberately presented to produce a specific reaction and long-term attitude toward a stipulated but generally undisclosed objective, and far outlasting the memory of the one-sided presentation. The self-taught stand a reasonable chance of diffusing or neutralizing the residues of such brain-laundry, even though incurring the malice of the herd-trained is the price one may expect to pay for persisting in such independence.


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