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The University: past, present, … and future?

By nearly all accounts, higher education has in recent years been lurching toward a period of creative destruction. Presumed job prospects and state budgetary battles pit the STEM disciplines against the humanities in much of our popular and political discourse. On many fronts, the future of the university, at least in its recognizable form as a veritable institution of knowledge, has been cast into doubt. Has the university, whose origins trace back to 12th and 13th century Paris, Bologna, Oxford, and Padua, now outlived its sell-by date? Sages of Silicon Valley, for starters, would offer a resounding yes.

But the anxieties of the present invite reflection on higher education’s past. If one digs deeper, a curious point emerges. In our current cultural moment, it may come as a surprise that the modern scientific research university, born in early 19th century Berlin in the context of war, revolution, and swelling national interest—circumstances not entirely unlike our own—was founded by … a theologian.

In the late 18th century, universities as institutions appeared on the brink of collapse. The Enlightenment, the French Revolution, and the Napoleonic era subjected universities—and theological faculties in particular—to an unrelenting onslaught of hostility. As the armies of the French Revolution spread across Europe, they seized university endowments for the state and suppressed theological and other faculties in favor of specialized professional and technical academies. In 1789, Europe counted 143 universities; by 1815 there were only 83. France had abolished its 24 universities; Spain lost 15 out of 25; and in Germany, 7 Protestant and 9 Catholic universities folded. From the 1820s to the 1840s, Swiss reformers proposed collapsing all of Switzerland’s universities into one remaining national institution.

It was in this context that the modern university system found its legs in Berlin in 1810, when Humboldt University, initially called simply the University of Berlin, first opened its doors. Its principal intellectual architect was Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768–1834), pioneer in religion, hermeneutics, and Plato scholarship, among other domains, and the soon-to-be dean of Berlin’s first theological faculty.

Schleiermacher’s intellectual blueprint, laid out in a few short, fascinating treatises, belonged to a remarkable Prussian political initiative in response to Prussia’s humiliating loss of the University of Halle to Napoleon in 1806. The initiative also attracted proposals from such illustrious names as Wilhelm von Humboldt, F. W. J. Schelling, and J. G. Fichte, each committed to the unity of knowledge understood in organic, idealist terms, and addressing the structure and ethos of a new university and the proper balance between the free pursuit of knowledge and the interests of the state. Never before in Western history—nor, arguably, since—has the founding of a university attracted such excitement, promise, and self-conscious reflection.

Though drawing from earlier Enlightenment precedents, especially at Halle and Göttingen, and reinterpreting practices traceable to the Renaissance and even Aristotle and the ancient world, Berlin marked, in the eyes of many, a new creation: an institution that embraced the ideal of academic freedom, prioritized cross-disciplinary teaching, exhibited a novel research imperative, nurtured ethical character formation, and above all promoted critical and rigorous scholarship—the latter summed up in the German word Wissenschaft. By the first decades of the 20th century, the so-called German model or Prussian model of the university would rise to become the global standard of higher education. Indeed, quipped G. W. F. Hegel, Germany’s star philosopher of the 19th century, “our universities and schools are our churches.” With missionary zeal, students and scholars alike spread the idealized institution’s fame across Europe and across the Atlantic to the New World, carrying the tools of professionalization and specialization. For them, universities functioned as communities that cultivate practices and virtues in which knowledge is a legitimate good. Knowledge or scholarship depended on the forging of a scientific character marked by rigor, a critical disposition, clear communication, and sustained exchange.

In an important, unexpected feature of Schleiermacher’s vision, professors of seemingly “practical” disciplines, such as law, medicine, or theology, who did not make an effort to contribute to “philosophy”—understood in the widest sense to include fields like history and philology alongside metaphysics and ethics—should not be excluded from the university. One could not do without the other. In short, the onset of “modernity” meant rethinking prior classifications of knowledge. The process of cross-fertilization, in fact, would characterize some of the greatest intellectual achievements of the age.

Seen in such a light, present polarizations appear myopic at best. We are once again in a time of chaos and turmoil—different in important respects, to be sure, though similarly full of perils and possibilities. As we contemplate the future of the university in our own time, there is much to gain by thinking carefully about its past. As Chad Wellmon notes, from the medieval university, epistemic humility and a respect for traditions stand out; the Enlightenment university offers a rich commitment to a broader social good; and the modern university, launched by Schleiermacher, exhibits the virtues of a research community, including open debate, demand for evidence, and attention to detail.

History may not repeat itself, but it certainly warrants pondering: the past should inform our prognostications about the future and chasten our assertions about disciplines scholarly and practical. Or, as Lorraine Daston recently put it, history is not psychoanalysis (for good reason), but it, too, can profoundly unsettle current academic and institutional assumptions that we take for granted, and do so for our benefit.

Featured image credit: University of Berlin, Germany, ca. 1900, from the Detroit Publishing Company, Detroit, Michigan. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Aileen

    Is there a typo in here? Shouldn’t it read, in paragraph 7, “should NOT be excluded from the university”?

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