Rick Sanchez as Educator

Rick Sanchez as Educator

By Justin Kitchen

Rick and Morty is a sci-fi animated series shown during Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim programming block. In it, Rick Sanchez frequently pulls his grandson, Morty, out of school to accompany him on intergalactic and interdimensional adventures. Though his father, Jerry, often protests Morty’s being taken out of class for dangerous and seemingly noneducational exploits, Rick makes his opinion about conventional academic education known in the very first episode of the series [“Pilot” (S01E01)]:

Rick: [School is] a waste of time – a bunch of people running around, bumping into each other. Guy up front says, “two plus two.” The people in the back say, “four.” Then the bell rings, and they give you a carton of milk and a piece of paper that says you can go take a dump or something. I mean, it’s not a place for smart people, Jerry, and I know that’s not a popular opinion, but it’s my two cents on the issue.

We can infer, since he claims school is a waste of time, that Rick thinks he is educating Morty better than any academic institution or instructor could. What I want to try to answer in this paper is the question “How and in what is Rick educating Morty?” In doing so, I’ll be drawing from a well-known philosopher who has expressed similar anti-academic sentiments: Friedrich Nietzsche.

An Educator must ‘Disturb’

In his essay “Schopenhauer as Educator,” Friedrich Nietzsche reflects on the qualities of a true ‘educator’ – one who is sincere and effective in the project of making her students truly creative independent thinkers. Although there are many quotable passages that one could isolate in the text (that’s what makes Nietzsche so fun to read, but so susceptible to misuse!), I think the following passage best summarizes his thoughts on conventional academic education (and although I won’t dwell on it, it’s important to know that Nietzsche assumes that the ‘true educator’ is synonymous with the ‘true philosopher’):

[It] is of course clear why our academic thinkers are not dangerous; for their thoughts grow as peacefully out of tradition as any tree ever bore its apples; they cause no alarm; they remove nothing from its hinges; and of all their art and aims there could be said what Diogenes said when someone praised a philosopher in his presence: ‘How can he be considered great, since he has been a philosopher for so long and has never disturbed anyone?’ That, indeed, ought to be the epitaph of university philosophy: ‘It has disturbed nobody.’ [“Schopenhauer as Educator,” trans. R. J. Hollingdale in Untimely Meditations (Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 193-4]

So, the essential part of a proper education seems to be this act of ‘disturbing’ the student. This demands some clarification: In what sense must our educators be ‘dangerous’? Why must they ‘disturb’ their poor students?

Earlier in the essay, Nietzsche describes being ‘disturbed’ (betrübt) as being “ashamed of oneself without any accompanying feeling of distress, that one comes to hate one’s own narrowness and shriveled nature” (p. 163). The language sounds harsh… but that’s partially because of Nietzsche and partially because the connotations of some German words are hard to convey in translation. The feeling of being ‘disturbed’ that Nietzsche thinks is important in a student does not accompany any “distress” (Verdrossenheit) in the sense that the student is not bitter or hung up with anxiety – such feeling would not be conducive to active learning. Instead, the student is “ashamed of herself” (Selbst-beschämung) in the sense that she is embarrassed or deeply unsatisfied with her current level of intellectual or moral development. This is what makes the student receptive to education: the educator makes his student want to learn for the sake of growing and bettering herself.

Is Rick succeeding in disturbing Morty? Certainly, he is in the usual sense of the word! In the episode “Morty’s Mind Blowers” (S03E08), we see a montage of countless past circumstances in which Rick seriously disturbs Morty – to the point where the latter’s memory needs to be erased (and stored for the viewing pleasure of Rick). But this is not the sense of ‘disturbed’ that Nietzsche considers valuable for education – again, anxiety and trauma are not conducive to active learning! Most other episodes in the series show Rick succeeding in ‘disturbing’ Morty in the sense that we want – in not only pushing Morty outside of his comfort zone, but providing him with opportunities for growth. In the pilot episode (S01E01), Rick explicitly states that this is his wish as a potential outcome of all their adventures:

Morty: Oh, man, Rick. I’m looking around this place, and I’m starting to work up some anxiety about this whole thing.
Rick: All right, all right, calm down. Listen to me, Morty. I know that new situations can be intimidating. You’re looking around, and it’s all scary and different, but, you know, meeting them head on, charging right into them like a bull that’s how we grow as people. I’m no stranger to scary situations. I deal with them all the time. Now, if you just stick with me, Morty, we’re gonna be—

Despite his inspiring speech being cut off by a giant alien monster barreling towards them, I think Rick’s message is still important to keep in mind as the series unfolds. Morty might feel anxiety at times when his worldview is uprooted, but when he does not dwell on this anxiety, time and time again Morty displays admirable assertiveness and bravery in the face of danger.

A good indication that Morty has been properly educated is found in episodes like “Vindicators 3: The Return of Worldender” (S03E04). In this particular episode, Morty displays confidence, assertiveness, and creative problem-solving in the face of a crisis: he solves devious games (like in that movie Saw) and disarms neutrino bombs. Morty begins the episode wanting to just emulate his favorite superheroes – the Vindicators – that seem to conform to standards of conventional morality. In the end, Morty had to step up and be his own hero, so to speak. Rick arranged this series of events by actually engineering these games and using them to expose Morty’s heroes as undeserving of his admiration. In short, Rick was successful as a true educator by properly ‘disturbing’ Morty and his preconceptions, allowing the latter to learn and grow as a person.

But should we give Rick this much credit? An important point I omitted is that Rick was in a drunken stupor when he engineered these Saw-like games and that he blacked-out promptly afterwards, forgetting how to disarm them. Actually, Rick is drunk during many of their adventures. Surely an educator can’t educate on accident like this – without any awareness that education might be taking place, right? Here’s a similar example taken from the opening scene of the first episode that might give us some insight. Again, Rick is in a drunken stupor and, again, he threatens to detonate a neutrino bomb and destroy all humanity. Instead of succumbing to an anxiety-induced paralysis, Morty steps up:

Morty: I’m taking charge of this situation, buddy! (starts kicking Rick’s face while grabbing the wheel) . . . I’m not gonna stand around like some sort of dumb… dumb person and just le-let you ruin the whole world!
Rick: Come on! What’s gotten into you? If you love Earth so much why don’t you marry it? What are you, crazy? Alright, alright, Morty. (pushes Morty off of him)
Rick: Alright. I’ll-I’ll land. I’ll land. I’ll land. I’ll land the thing. I’ll land the thing. Big tough guy all of a sudden.
Rick: We’ll park it right here, Morty. Right here on the side of the ree… road here.
Morty: Oh, thank god.
Rick: You know what? That was all a test, Morty. Just an elaborate test to make you more assertive.
Morty: It was?
Rick: Sure. Why not? I don’t, I don’t know. Y-you know what, Mo— (passes out)

Indeed, why not? Why can’t these unintentional homicidal blackouts educate Morty? In fact, it seems Nietzsche does not require the true educator to be aware of her students. The person he viewed as his own educator, Arthur Schopenhauer, was in fact dead for five years before Nietzsche came upon his work as a student at Leipzig. Despite Schopenhauer have no awareness of Nietzsche, the former educated the latter.

So, an educator may educate ‘by accident.’ But there are still criteria besides being able to ‘disturb’ that Nietzsche enumerates in his essay.

An Educator must be ‘Free’

What allows the educator do her job well – to inspire and motivate the student? To do her job properly, Nietzsche says the true educator must possess – among other things – a high quality of character; insight into human nature; a lack of dogmatism and nationalism; no dependence on academic or state institutions; and no vested interests in anything other than the truth – as Nietzsche puts it, “in short, freedom and again freedom” (p. 182).

Rick certainly has freedom from physical and societal constraints. He can travel across interdimensional space at will using his ‘portal gun’. This allows him to break from convention (or even break the law) without repercussions. He is certainly not dogmatic nor nationalistic – to the point where he has no qualms pummeling the president of the United States [in the episode “The Rickchurian Mortydate” (S03E10)]. Due to his morally questionable sources of income, he is not dependent on any institution – academic or otherwise.

But, again, we should be careful with the language. Nietzsche certainly demands that educators enjoy the kinds of external freedom described above (unlimited funds and a portal gun would certainly free me from the daily concerns that sometimes interfere with my educating students!). But there is an element of inward freedom that seems more important. An educator herself cannot have psychological hang-ups or anxiety; unresolved issues that inhibit the educator from freely expressing her thoughts and making informed rational decisions about how to behave. She must be an exemplar as Nietzsche puts it: “how can your life, the individual life, receive the highest value, the deepest significance? How can it be least squandered? Certainly only by your living for the good of the rarest and most valuable exemplars” (p. 162).

Unfortunately, Rick has a lot of issues. For every admirable quality, he has just as many character flaws that manifest into rather self-destructive behavior (e.g., neutrino bombs). But it’s likely that Rick will slowly come into his own as a true educator as the series continues. A theme has developed in which Rick confronts his inner demons and comes to terms with his psychological issues with varying degrees of success [e.g., “Auto Erotic Assimilation” (S02E03), “Big Trouble in Little Sanchez” (S02E07), “Pickle Rick” (S03E03), “Rest and Ricklaxation” (S03E06)]. Of course, this can’t be addressed in the space of a blog article. The point still stands that Rick is more proficient at educating Morty than conventional academic education solely because of his ability to ‘disturb’ Morty in the sense Nietzsche finds important.

Concluding Thoughts

Nietzsche insists that conventional academic educators do not have the freedom to really ‘disturb’ or unsettle their students. And students in these academic classrooms themselves are perhaps too anxiety-ridden and self-conscious to interpret ‘disturbance’ as an opportunity for learning and growth. A conventional academic education can tell you how to respond to “two plus two;” it can teach you who is in charge, when you’re allowed to have your milk, and when you can take a dump; but it can’t truly educate unless the educator is properly free and the students are not afraid to be ‘disturbed.’

We must look elsewhere for our true educators – to educators like Rick. Rick educates Morty insofar as he enjoys outward and inward freedom; when he serves as an admirable exemplar; and when he properly ‘disturbs’ Morty… without traumatizing him too much. Rick is obviously not educating Morty in facts or how to toe the line, but in how to be a thinker – to be a fearless independent thinker. This is education in the true sense of the word. 

Justin Kitchen is a lecturer in the Philosophy Department at San Francisco State University.


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