A Superfluous Man

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If one does not find himself essential or integral, then he must conclude he is superfluous. In Memoirs of a Superfluous Man (1943, Chapter Five, pages 85-95), AJN appraises the system of public education in America. Within this appraisal he makes the distinction between an educable person and a trainable, but fundamentally ignorant, person. He posits that he may, indeed, be non-essential.


My life has afforded me few diversions more engaging than that of watching the progress of our educational revolution. I have viewed it from the outside for a great many years, and also from the inside for the year or two in which I made a notorious failure at going through the motions of teaching undergraduate collegians.  The revolution began with a drastic purge, a thorough guillotining of the classical curriculum, wherever found.  Such Greek and Latin as escaped the Reign of Terror was left to die of inanition in dens and caves of the earth, such as the school and college I attended.  The elective system came in as a substitute, proposing instruction in omni re scibili as its final consummation.  During a visit to Germany, the president of Harvard, Mr. Eliot, had taken note that the elective system was working well in German universities, and he saw no reason why it should not work as well in an undergraduate college like Harvard, so he introduced it there.  The country promptly carried his logic to its full length.  If the thing was good for the university, good for the college, why not for the secondary school, why not for the primary school?  Why not try a tentative dab at its being good for the kindergarten? — surely in a free democracy the free exercise of self-expression and the development of an untrammelled personality can hardly begin too young.

So the old régime’s notion that education is in its nature selective, the peculium of a well-sifted élite, was swept away and replaced by the popular notion that everybody should go to school, college, university, and should have every facility afforded for studying anything that any one might choose.  Our institutions grew to enormous size; the country’s student population exceeded anything ever known…

The theory of the revolution was based on a flagrant popular perversion of the doctrines of equality and democracy.  Above all things the mass-mind is most bitterly resentful of superiority.  It will not tolerate the thought of an élite; and under a political system of universal suffrage, the mass-mind is enabled to make its antipathies prevail by sheer force of numbers…  In the prevalent popular view, therefore, — the view insisted upon and as far as possible enforced by the mass-men whom the masses instinctively cleave to and choose as leaders, — in this view the prime postulate of equality is that in the realm of the spirit as well as of the flesh, everybody is able to enjoy anything that anybody can enjoy; and the prime postulate of democracy is that there shall be nothing for anybody to enjoy that is not open for everybody to enjoy.  An equalitarian and democratic régime must by consequence assume, tacitly or avowedly, that everybody is educable…

The worst result of this was a complete effacement of the line which sets off education from training, and the line which sets off formative knowledge from instrumental knowledge.  This obliteration was done deliberately to meet the popular perversions of equality and democracy.  The régime perceived that while very few can be educated, everyone who is not actually imbecile or idiotic can be trained in one way or another, as soldiers are trained in military routine, or as monkeys are trained to pick fruit.  Very well then, it said in effect, let us agree to call training education, convert our schools, colleges, universities into training-schools as far as need be, but continue to call them educational institutions and to call our general system an educational system…

I do not find this altogether lamentable, however, because I am by no means sure that a return to the classics, even if it were practicable, would be desirable.  I am not sure that the post-revolutionary frame of mind is so awry, not sure that any more should be done with education, properly so called, than is being done; or that the final end and aim of education, — the ability to see things as they are, — should any longer be taken into account.  The question at issue obviously, is whether the educable person can any longer be regarded as a social asset; or, indeed, whether in time past his value as a social asset has not been overestimated.  As I came to understand much later, the final answer must be referable to the previous question, What is man?  On one theory of man’s place in nature, the final answer would be yes, and on another, no.  The immediate answer, however, I should say would be in the negative.  In a society essentially neolithic, as ours unquestionably is at the moment,  — whatever one may hold its evolutionary possibilities to be, — there can be no place found for an educable person but such as a trainable person could fill quite as well or even better; he becomes a superfluous man; and the more thoroughly his ability to see things as they are is cultivated, the more his superfluity is enhanced.  As the process of general barbarisation goes on, as its speed accelerates, as its calamitous consequences recur with ever-increasing frequency and violence, the educable person can only take shelter against his insensate fellow-beings, as Plato said, like a man crouching behind a wall against a whirlwind.

In Chapter One of these Memoirs, AJN remarks:

The net profit of my first few years of life appears to have been a fairly explicit understanding of the fact that ignorance exists…  This understanding came about so easily and naturally that for many years I took it as a commonplace, assuming that everyone had it.  My subsequent contacts with the world at large, however, showed me that everyone does not have it, indeed that those who have it are extremely few.  They seemed particularly and pitifully few when one contemplated the colossal pretensions which, in its modesty, the human race puts forth about itself… a society by and large “too ignorant to know that there is such a thing as ignorance”!

…As time went on, I became convinced that Calvin’s idea of invincible ignorance had a validity… But why should ignorance have persisted as a fixed quantity throughout human history, as apparently it has done; and why should the direct effort at enlightening ignorance remain as inveterately impracticable and inadvisable today as it was in the days of Socrates, Jesus, Confucius, Im-hotep, or it must have been found to be by the wiseacres of the Neolitic period, if any such there were?


Against this bulwark of ignorance, Albert Jay Nock felt himself superfluous. -DAW

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