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The Humboldt Legacy: Reflections on the Past, Present, and Future of the European University

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  1. In this kind of discursive essay, the foot-notes do not have the character of extensive references to all the relevant primary sources. They should rather be seen as an introduction to further reading and acknowledgements of gratitude.

  2. The seminal Memorandum was not found until 1900 by the historian Bruno Gebhardt when he was writing a biography of Wilhelm von Humboldt (Gebhardt, 1903) and Gebhardt (Wilhelm von Humboldt als Staatsmann I–II. Stuttgart 1896–99).

  3. Geistreich’ I think, would be the proper German word!?

  4. The central question then is perhaps not Wilhelm von Humboldt's actual thoughts but rather why these ideas have come to play such an exceptional role during two centuries almost regardless of how far from his original thoughts the European university systems have moved. On the character and long-term implications of the ‘Humboldt Myth’, see the essays in Mitchell G. Ash (1999) and Clemens Menze (1957, 469).

  5. Rudolf Vierhaus Wilhelm von Humboldt Treue Gruender (1987, 63–76). For Humboldt's biography in general, see Siegfried A. Kaehler (1963) and Gebhardt (1896–1899).

  6. When Humboldt was summoned to join the Prussian government in 1809, it had fled Berlin and was residing in Königsberg in East Prussia. Furthermore, Prussia had also lost all its universities, including the ‘crown jewel’ of Halle, except Königsberg and Frankfurt. Between 1792 and 1818, 50% (22) of the universities in the German-speaking world were actually closed and missed by very few, see Jürgen Mittelstrass (1994, 40) and generally, Friedrich Paulsen (1896/1897;1919/1921). It is important to know that the Humboldtian university reform was part and parcel of one of the most exceptional administrative reform avtivities in Western histogriography — the vom Stein-Hardenberg reforms in Prussia during and after the Napoleonic wars.

  7. The participants in this intense and extensive debate between 1790 and 1820 included almost every notable German intellectual and academic of the day. A complete list would be almost identical to a comprehensive ‘Who is Who in German Wissenschaft’. The fundamental theoretical and ideological starting point for these reform discussions, which eventually would engage the entire German intelligentsia, was Immanuel Kant's critical essay from 1798 Streit der Fakultäten. For an overview of the central contributions, see Ernst Müller (1990) and Ludwing Fertig (1990).

  8. In this particular struggle Humboldt and Schleiermacher were in opposition to Johann Gottlieb Fichte who in his Deduzierter Plan einer zu Berlin zu einrichtenden höheren Lehranstalt…(1807/1817) had argued for an elite professional school — ‘Kader-Anstalt’ strictly controlled by the state and complemented by an autonomous academy devoted to the free pursuit of knowledge.

  9. Even though Humboldt, in principle, argued for a more or less unrestricted autonomy of the university, he, nevertheless, accepted and even recommended that the state should have a decisive influence through its exclusive right to appoint the professors (p. 282). Jürgen Mittelstrass has argued that von Humboldt, primarily for political reasons, abandoned his (Wolf's and Fichte's) original idea of a totally autonomous ‘scientific Hochschule’ and instead accepted Schleiermacheŕs ‘conservative compromise’ of a reformed university within and under the legal framework of the state (Schleiermacher, Gelegentliche Gedanken über Universitäten in deutschem Sinn. Nebst einem Anhang über eine neu zu errichtende (1808)), see Mittelstrass (1994, 21, 41).

  10. Vierhaus (1987, 70).

  11. See for instance, Alexander von Humboldt (1845–1862). For a brilliant condensed introduction to Alexander von Humboldt, see Wolf Lepenies (1999).

  12. Vierhaus (1987, 66) also Bernd Henningsen, Det politiska tomrummet. Om det humboldtska universitetet och politiken, in Anders Björnsson (1996, 192).

  13. In the words of Jürgen Mittelstrass: ‘What God was among the angels, the learned man should be among his fellow men’ (my trans.) (Mittelstrass, 1994, 83).

  14. Wolf Lepenies has argued that this has been an intrinsic dimension in the history of Western science, generally, Lepenies (1992, 70). It is, nevertheless, possible to argue that in the German case this general development got a distinct national character. Fritz K. Ringer (1969) and the ensuing discussion. F.I. Habermass (1971, 239–251).

  15. Lepenies (1997, 47; 1989, 148–149). Also B. Henningsen, in Björnsson (1999, 192) and Michael Zöller (1975).

  16. For a condensed and elegant discussion, see Rüdiger vom Bruch (1999, 35).

  17. Peter Lundgreen (1999, 152).

  18. To illustrate the self-understanding and the almost unbounded self-confidence of the German professoriate already in 1869 one can quote from a speech ‘Über Universitätseinrichtungen’ by the Rector of the Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität, Emil Du Bois-Reymond: ‘It is reasonable to maintain that in the field of higher learning the German universities are superior to those of any other country. Indeed, given the fact that none of mańs works is perfect, the German universities have such an organizational strength that they could only have been created by an act of the most fundamental legislative wisdom’ (my trans.), in Bois-Reymond (1887, 337). As an illustration of the long-term international impact, one can quote Abraham Flexner's (1930/1963) ‘self evident’ introduction to the German chapter in his famous Universities American–English–German. From 1930(!): ‘Of the countries dealt with in this volume, Germany has in theory and practice come nearest to giving higher education its due position’ (p. 305).

  19. Talcott Parsons and Gerald Platt (1973, 304–345) and Steven Muller (1999, 199).

  20. Vierhaus (1987, 69).

  21. Mittelstrass (1994, 22, 43). Also Nachwort, in Müller (1990, 294, 306).

  22. Lundgreen (1999, 157).

  23. From 1810 all German Gymnasium teachers had to get their degree from the university (Lundgreen, 1999, 148). On the Gymnasium see also Vierhaus (1987, 63) and Mittelstrass (1994, 149–174).

  24. Nachwort in Müller (1990, 306).

  25. Henningsen in Björnsson (1999, 190–195). For an uncompromising and negative evaluation of the impact of the Humboldtian Bildung-Ideal, see Theodor Litt (1955).

  26. Thomas Mann (1918). See Lepenies (1989, 147–148), also Henningsen, in Björnsson (1999, 196).

  27. von Bruch (1999, 33).

  28. For the German case, see Konrad H. Jarausch (1999). Ein akademischer Sonderweg and Lundgren op. cit., both in Ash (1997). For the European development in general, see Guy Neave et al. (1996).

  29. For a critical discussion, Thorsten Nybom (2001, 4, 58–77) and Johan P. Olsen (2000:3).

  30. For an inspiring account of the ‘massification’ process in the US and esp. of the rightfully admired California system, see Clark Kerr (2001), The Gold and the Blue. A Personal Memoir of the University of California, 1949–1960. Vol. 1. Berkeley: UCP. Also John A. Douglass (2000), The California Idea and American Higher Education. 1950 to the 1960 Master Plan, Stanford: SUP, esp. pp. 265–325, and Roger L. Geiger (1993), Research and Relevant Knowledge, American Research Universities since World War II, Oxford: OUP.

  31. For a qualified discussion see von Bruch (1999, 29–52).

  32. von Bruch (1999, 46).

  33. Gen. Franz Schnabel (1965) and Charles McClelland (1980). For more precise discussion of the self understanding among academics and of the institutional development, see Marita Baumgarten (1997).

  34. To quote the famous economist Wilhelm Sombart ‘To me it is quite clear, that science in our times and in the future must be firmly in the hands of the state, otherwise it will succumb to the raw interests connected with capitalism’ (my trans.), in Agnes von Zahn-Harnack (1936), Adolf von Harnack, Berlin, p. 423.

  35. In his famous lecture from 1917, Science as a Vocation Max Weber (1992, 75) stated as a simple matter of fact: ‘Both regarding its content and as an institutional form, the university has become fictional’ (my trans.).

  36. When, for instance, Albert Einstein was called to Berlin in 1913 he had no teaching obligations, and he was not the only one, see Vierhaus (1987, 73).

  37. Luckily enough, in his rediscovered Denkschrift Humboldt had indicated that a complete science organization should have three major institutional components: beside the free Academy and the university, there should also be ‘Hilfs-Institute’. However, with these ‘leblose (life-less) Institute’ Humboldt had hardly meant the powerful centres of excellence that were now established, see Vierhaus (1987, 72). On Althoff, see Bernhard vom Brocke (1987, 195–214).

  38. Lepenies (1989, 149).

  39. Jarausch (1999, 61).

  40. It is significant that Jasper's most important contribution to this discussion, Die Idee der Universität, from 1945, was a revised version of an essay he had written already in 1923, (i.e. after the previous catastrophe) see von Bruch (1999, 32). Wolf Lepenies has also pointed to the fact that Jaspers has virtually no direct references to or explicit reflections on the eventual consequences of the Nazi rule for German higher education and research (Lepenies, 1989, 140).

  41. It was also in 1949 that the old Friedrich-Wilhelms-Universität was renamed the ‘Humboldt-Universität’, see John Connelly (1999, 80–100).

  42. Jarausch (1999, 63–70) and Mittelstrass (1994, s. 48).

  43. Jarausch (1999, 70).

  44. In the German setting, the sociologist Helmuth Schelsky (1963/1971) among others made an almost heroic attempt to rejuvenate the German Humboldt university, see his Einsamkeit und Freitheit. Idee und Gestalt der deutschen Universität und ihren Reformen. See also Mittelstrass (1994, 180). On the unsuccessful attempts by Werner Heisenberg and others to modernize and ‘Westernize’ German science policy and funding after WWII, see Cathryn Carson and Michael Gubser (2002).

  45. For interesting insights on this popular topic, see Mittelstrass (1994, 47–62) and Lundgreen (1999, 145–167). For a critical discussion, see Nybom (2001, 58–77) also Olsen (2000).

  46. Sheldon Rothblatt (1997, chapter 1, 177, 302).

  47. For a thoughtful overview and interesting discussion, see Clark Kerr (1991), The Great Transition in Higher Education, 1960–1980, New York: SUNY Press and Kerr (1994). Troubled Times for American Higher Education. The 1990s and beyond. New York: SUNY Press. Also, Martin Trow (1991) in Martin Trow and Thorsten Nybom (eds.) (1991, 156–172) and Morton and Phyllis Keller, Making Harvard Modern: The Rise of America's University, OUP, Oxford 2002.

  48. Jürgen Habermas (1987, 41).

  49. (Leaving the past Humboldtian ideals in the past — has a future, My trans.).

  50. Vierhaus (1987, 67, 76).

  51. Lepenies (1999, 8).

  52. Like his friend and ‘adviser’ Friedrich August Wolf — and like Fichte — Humboldt even wanted to get rid of the name university, but kept it for purely political reasons, see Mittelstrass (1994, 21, 79). One should perhaps point out that the second half of the 18th century was a period of general decline among European universities — with Scotland as the shining exception, gen. see Lawrence Stone (1974/1975).

  53. Lepenies (1994, 1997, 39).

  54. To quote Jürgen Mittelstrass' diagnosis: ‘It is, in a way, symptomatic for our generation and for present-day Europe that we are not only looking for the future of our universities somewhere in between a Europe long since passed and a future Europe whose administration we know, but whose formative idea and mission we have not yet found’ (My trans.) (Mittelstrass, 1994, 64; see also Nybom, 2001).

  55. Even if the present problems, dysfunctions, and ‘remedies’ in British higher education have their own distinct historical roots, chronology and features they, nevertheless, are in many ways of a similar character and graveness to those in continental Europe. For a stinging criticism, see Martin Trow (1997). See also A.H. Halsey (1992) and Maurice Kogan and Stephen Hanney (2000).

  56. The so-called ‘Lisbon Declaration’, March 2000.

  57. Stig Strömholm (1996, 283).


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Nybom, T. The Humboldt Legacy: Reflections on the Past, Present, and Future of the European University. High Educ Policy 16, 141–159 (2003).

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  • higher education
  • history
  • humboldt
  • universities in europe
  • european union