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Thomas Albert Howard

Learning to be Modern

Notes on the German university

"Our universities … are our churches."

In Germany "we saw the giants, the sons of Anak," an American scholar tellingly reported in the 1830s, "and we were in our own sight as grasshoppers, and so we were in their sight." Such awestruck regard brought over nine thousand American students and scholars to German universities between 1815 and 1914. In Berlin, Göttingen, Tübingen, and other far-off locales Americans learned the latest German scholarly skills in a variety of fields. The ideas and impressions they brought home forever changed the landscape of American higher education. As George Marsden has recently affirmed, the German system possessed "overwhelming symbolic importance" for the modernization of American universities in the 19th century.

But by no means was the influence of Germany limited to the United States. In his much-discussed The Postmodern Condition (1979), Jean-François Lyotard singled out the German university system, particularly after the founding of the University of Berlin in 1810, as the "motor" behind "contemporary knowledge." "[M]any countries in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries," Lyotard wrote, "adopted this university's organization as a model for the foundation or reform of their own system of higher education." Scholarly consensus largely bears out Lyotard's assertion.

Sweeping claims always invite curiosity. How and when did the redoubtable "German university" arise? Why has it proven so consequential in shaping academic norms—including, importantly, norms for the study of theology and religion? And how today should thinking Christians begin to size up its pervasive and persistent legacy? It is not at all obvious, we must remember, that an institution born in the Middle Ages and modeled after the cloister should find itself today a dynamic global phenomenon aggressively pursuing critical, progressive, and often secular forms of inquiry.

Although the roots of German universities reach back to the 14th century, perhaps the most important event giving rise to the distinctly modern German university happened near the city of Jena, Saxony on the 10th of October 1806. This pivotal event was neither the publication of an important scholarly treatise nor a new educational decree by the state, but a military conflict in which the once-mighty Prussian army suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of Napoleon's France. On October 27th the upstart general himself marched with his troops triumphantly through Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, a privilege traditionally reserved for the Prussian monarchs alone. At first intent on liquidating Prussia as a political entity, Napoleon relented and, in 1807 at the Peace of Tilsit signed with the Russian czar, allowed a Prussian state to continue, albeit one greatly reduced in size and saddled with wartime reparations. Prussian historians would later call these Germany's darkest days, the great national humiliation.

During this time, however, potent new historical forces arose. The philosopher J. G. Fichte gave his famous "Addresses to the German Nation," a milestone in the development of pan-German nationalism and nationhood. The defeat of 1806 also led to what historians call the Prussian Reform Era, a decade of profound social and political changes, during which liberal statesmen, under Napoleon's watchful eye, sought to adapt Prussia (often selectively) to the principles of the Enlightenment and French Revolution. A significant component of these reforms focused on revamping higher education, and in this area they gave birth to something remarkable and of world-historical importance: the founding in 1810 of the University of Berlin, which quickly became Prussia's and—after political unification in 1871—Germany's flagship university, and among the leading models for all modern research universities.

Never before in European history had the founding of a university generated such widespread excitement and self-conscious reflection on the nature and purpose of universities. The event that served as the immediate catalyst was a decision by Napoleon, worried about student agitation, to shut down in 1807 the former Prussian University of Halle. Founded in 1694, Halle had been Prussia's leading university in the 18th century and, along with the University of Göttingen, an influential seat of the German Enlightenment. Shorn of Halle, Prussia thus experienced an intellectual humiliation to aggravate the political humiliation of the Peace of Tilsit.

But soon efforts were underway, spearheaded by the enlightened statesman F. K. Beyme, to found a new national seat of learning in Berlin, which oddly did not yet possess a university. Rumors of these efforts spread quickly throughout Germany. Many jobless professors from Halle, including the rising renowned theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher, soon migrated to Berlin in hope of securing a new position. Simultaneously, a delegation of dispossessed Halle professors directly approached the Prussian king, Friedrich Wilhelm III, and suggested that the faculty and resources of Halle simply be relocated to Berlin. Persuaded, the king allegedly responded, in words that have since assumed mythic status in German university history: "Let us make up in intellectual strength what we have lost in physical strength."

From this point on, efforts kicked into high gear, not to establish just another university, but to found what the philosopher Fichte called "a new creation," an innovative departure in higher education. Revealingly, few of the new institution's founders at first actually felt comfortable with the term "university" because of its negative connotation to progressive ears. In the late 18th century, most universities throughout Europe had a reputation for pedantry and confessional rigidity. Many observers in fact reasoned that the traditional universitas litterarum was a holdover from the Middle Ages and, with priests and aristocrats, would soon wind up on history's ash heap. But eventually, less from conviction than convenience, the term university with many of its age-old conventions was kept; new wine was effectively poured into old wineskins.

Around 1807, the statesman Beyme began to request proposals and ideas from some of Germany's leading intellectuals. In response, the philologist F. A. Wolf, the natural philosopher Heinrich Steffens, the theologian Schleiermacher, and the philosopher Fichte, among others, drafted lengthy treatises on the nature and purpose of university education. Meanwhile, Beyme was succeeded by the new Prussian Minister of Culture, Wilhelm von Humboldt, perhaps best known in the Anglo-American world as one of the influences behind John Stuart Mill's On Liberty (1859). Writing his own short treatise, Humboldt cast his lot with the aforementioned figures, contributing to a remarkable theoretical literature on university organization and education written between 1807 and the beginning of classes in 1810.1

Varied in judgment and temperament but bound by certain shared assumptions, these men—principally Humboldt, Fichte, and Schleiermacher—helped lay the intellectual groundwork for the modern university. In particular, three things shaped their outlooks. First, each had been influenced by Kantian idealist philosophy, especially insofar as Kant had espoused human freedom, autonomous reason, and the untenability of traditional, creedal Christianity. Second, to varying degrees, each had imbibed the spirit of "neohumanism," a complex set of assumptions which found its center of gravity in the belief that the study of antiquity had a soul-ennobling power, captured in the German word Bildung or "self-cultivation." Third, each had experienced firsthand the shock waves emanating from the 1789 Revolution in Paris, which had shaken the foundations of a world based on privilege and religious conformity. Indeed, the experience of living in unprecedentedly "modern" times, perhaps more than anything else, lent unity to the ideas of the university's founders; the grip of the past appeared mysteriously loosened and the future open to human innovation. "It is surely not difficult to see," the philosopher Hegel wrote in 1807, "that our time is a time of birth and transition to a new period." The university's founders would have felt this sentiment in their bones.

In this springtime of modernity, many influential ideas were set forth in the proposals of 1807-1810. While some reflected traditional assumptions, most were entirely novel or creative amalgams of the new and the old. Perhaps four of these ideas, whose saliency is still felt in universities today, can be isolated for illustrative purposes.

First, and perhaps most fundamentally, the university's founders articulated a dynamic conception of knowledge, expressed in the near untranslatable German word Wissenschaft ("science," "knowledge," or "inquiry" depending on the context). Unlike the premodern university, which assumed as its task the faithful transmission of static bodies of knowledge, the new university was to foster a perpetual search for newer and better forms of knowledge. Humboldt argued, for example, in words emblazoned on the university's walls to this day, that a university rests on "the principle that Wissenschaft … be regarded as something not wholly discovered and never wholly discoverable, but as something ever to be searched out." Such a notion contained in embryo the modern "research imperative," which in the course of the 19th century, and in conjunction with the rise of positivist thought, would redefine the nature of professorial scholarship, expanding the role of specialized research at the expense of more general, speculative forms of inquiry.

Second, drawing from earlier precedents, especially at Halle and Göttingen, Berlin's founders supported an influential conception of academic freedom, expressed in the German words Lehrfreiheit and Lernfreiheit, "teaching freedom" and "learning freedom." Eschewing a rigidly proscribed curriculum, theorists felt that professors should be free to follow their own interests and desires; students, in selecting their courses, should be able to do the same. More important, perhaps, founders sought to enhance freedom by curtailing the powers of external forces like the church and the state over university instruction. On this count, they were much more successful in eliminating "parochial coercion" (Schleiermacher's term) than in keeping the state at bay. Indeed, one of the great ironies of the German university—perhaps applicable to much of modern higher education—was that the rhetoric of academic freedom developed in step with the expanded supervisory and regulatory powers of the state over educational affairs, a development that would later prove fateful after the Nazis' rise to power.

Nonetheless, throughout the 19th century the German ideal of academic freedom appeared conspicuous to foreign visitors. In 1815, George Ticknor, among the first Americans to study in Germany, wrote to Thomas Jefferson, soon to found the University of Virginia, explaining that "no matter what a man thinks, he may teach and print it [in Germany]. … If truth is to be obtained by freedom of inquiry, as I doubt not it is, the German professors and literati are certainly in the high road." Such freedom, whether real or imagined, permeated university discourse, and was similarly commented upon by hundreds of Americans who followed Ticknor's path. Significantly, eight of the thirteen signers of the influential 1915 "Report on Academic Freedom" of the American Association of University Professors had once studied in Germany—in fact, the actual German terms, Lehrfreiheit and Lernfreiheit, were referred to in the final draft of this document.2

Third, the founders of the University of Berlin were unanimous in their opinion that the philosophical faculty should be the centerpiece of the new institution. In the parlance of European universities, the term "philosophical" here is quite broad, corresponding roughly to our phrase "arts and sciences." Traditionally, this faculty had been considered the "lower" or propaedeutic area of study, which merely prepared students for one of the three "higher" or vocational faculties: medicine, law, and theology, the customary "queen of the sciences." The university founders, expressing the progressive thought of the period, took aim at this "medieval" division of the faculties, and sought to raise the fortunes of the philosophical faculty to self-standing respectability.

In this effort, they betrayed the substantial influence of Kant, who in one of his last works, The Conflict of the Faculties, defended the autonomy of the philosophical faculty—the only faculty, he wrote, "free to evaluate everything, and concern itself with the interests of science, that is, with truth." The "higher" faculties, in Kant's view, served mere vocational functions, something he regarded as incompatible with the true spirit of science. This was especially the case with theology, which served state and society by preparing young men for the clergy. Kant, therefore, attacked its traditional queenly role in the work's longest section, "The Conflict of the Philosophy Faculty with the Theology Faculty."

Finally, the position of the theological faculty itself preoccupied many of Berlin's founders, as it had Kant before them. Although the founders were less united on this point, two dominant positions emerged, one articulated by Fichte, the other by Schleiermacher. Fichte argued for what might be called a proto-religious-studies approach. If theology aspired to retain a place in a modern, scientific university, Fichte argued, it would have to "cast off its former nature entirely," forfeiting its traditional allegiance to biblical revelation and church tradition. What is more, it should no longer exclusively concern itself with Christianity, but assume a "more comprehensive" scope, devoting attention to "the religious ideas of the so-called heathen" as well. At the time, Fichte's ideas gained few immediate followers, but they were harbingers of a later, more successful movement to establish an independent "science of religion" (Religionswissenschaft) divorced from theological assumptions and ecclesiastical ties.

The undisputed father of modern liberal Protestantism and the first dean of Berlin's theological faculty, Schleiermacher laid out a more immediately influential conception of theological study. Skeptical of Fichte's radical scheme, Schleiermacher nonetheless recognized that within the new university, dominated as it were by Wissenschaft and the primacy of the philosophical faculty (features he wholeheartedly embraced), theology required a new kind of legitimation. He broached this task in several fascinating memoranda and in two of his lesser known works, Occasional Thoughts on Universities in the German Sense (1808) and Brief Outline of the Study of Theology (1811).

Simply stated, Schleiermacher sought to provide theology with a dual function. On the one hand, he accepted its customary vocational function of educating future clergymen. Yet he also gave unprecedented attention to the putatively "scientific" character of theology. "A professor of theology," he wrote, "surely deserves to be derided and excluded from the university who would feel no desire to accomplish something of one's own in the sphere of science, and with distinction." The true theologian should thus gracefully combine ecclesial and scientific interests; the individual who achieves this balance deserves the highest praise as well as emulation by others. "If one should imagine," Schleiermacher famously wrote, "both a religious interest and a scientific spirit united in the highest degree and with the finest balance for the purpose of theoretical and practical activity alike, that would be the idea of a 'prince of the Church,'" i.e. a truly able leader. As is well known, this quest to harmonize the imperatives of science and faith, while often drifting toward the former, became the heart of liberal Protestant theological education in the nineteenth century, dominant until it met an avalanche of criticism from Karl Barth and his "neo-orthodox" associates.3

Since the translation of ideas into realities is never a simple and straightforward process, one might fairly object that the post-1810 German university system never expressed the ideas of its founders in their original purity, any more than the United States of the 21st century directly mirrors the ideas of Jefferson, Madison, and Hamilton. Indeed, throughout the 19th century, new developments—industrialization, growing liberalism and nationalism, political unification, forces of bureaucratization and professionalization, and, not least, the explosive growth of the natural and medical sciences—modified the spirit and structure of German universities. Yet it is equally true that the founders' ideas proved remarkably resilient in the face of change, and were reverently invoked throughout the century at ceremonial and commemorative occasions.

Foreign students were more often smitten by the rhetorical ideals than the reality of German universities. But the reality was not uninspiring. In the decades after the heady period of Humboldt, Schleiermacher, and Fichte, the University of Berlin, always a favorite among foreign students, quickly established itself as arguably the most dynamic and influential intellectual center in Europe, boasting among its professors and students the philosophers Hegel and Schelling, the historians Leopold von Ranke and Theodor Mommsen, the biblical critic D. F. Strauss, the future revolutionary Karl Marx, the chemist Hermann von Helmholz, the pathologist Rudolf Virchow, and the church historian Adolf von Harnack, among many others. Andrew Dickson White, the founder of Cornell University, called the University of Berlin, which he visited in the 1850s, "my ideal of a university not only realized—but extended and glorified." Similar judgments by other visitors abounded. As Charles McClelland has noted, the spreading of the Berlin model to other German universities contributed to the ascent of the German system as a whole to "the pinnacle of world esteem." How the medieval universitas, deemed an antiquated relic in the "Age of Reason," managed to pull off this feat and become, by the late 19th century, one of the leading organs of intellectual modernity is among the most fascinating and consequential stories of modern history.

It is a story with several claims upon the attention of Christians in particular. First, Christians of all people should have an interest in understanding what sociologists call "plausibility structures," the complex tapestry of ideas and institutions operative in society that shape worldviews and give credence to "official" definitions of reality. At the risk of generalization, I think it fair to say that the contribution of universities, especially German-influenced research universities, to modern "plausibility structures" has been incalculable, and regrettably often inhospitable to traditional Christian assumptions about the world and human nature.

This in fact was the upshot of Max Weber's famous 1917 address, "Science as a Vocation," in which Weber attributed "the disenchantment of the world," i.e. modern secularity, to the university-driven practice of Wissenschaft. "That science (Wissenschaft) today," he wrote, "is irreligious no one will doubt in his innermost being. … Redemption from the rationalism and intellectualism of Wissenschaft is the fundamental presupposition of living in union with the divine." Weber's view has been subsequently echoed by numerous others, notably by the sociologist Peter Berger, who, although recently skeptical of the global relevance of Weberian notions of "secularization," contends nonetheless that Western universities have few rivals among contemporary institutions more suited to render plausible irreligious worldviews.4

On a related note, the modus operandi of German universities in the 19th century, especially after the founding of the University of Berlin, placed a premium on theological education and criticism detached from the church and Christian tradition, and joined to the methodological obligations of Wissenschaft. In 1908 Ernst Troeltsch was thus able to observe a "frightful gulf" between university theology and the actual practical needs of the church.5 Admittedly, only a churlish traditionalist would gainsay the enormous critical achievements of 19th-century German theology, from Schleiermacher to Adolf von Harnack. Nonetheless, it is fair to wonder whether the mistrust of ecclesial tradition and the overwrought historicism that often accompanied this brand of university theology did not at times give rise to extraordinary imbalances. The theologian Franz Overbeck, Friedrich Nietzsche's onetime housemate, went so far as to conclude that his profession was a contradiction in terms—he and his peers were "traitors to the cause they are to defend."6

However, rethinking the critical imperatives and theological track record of German universities need not lead a Christian disquieted by modernity to disengagement from the academy, pitting the university against the church, Athens against Jerusalem. One is ill-advised, in other words, to adopt the line of John Wycliffe, who once argued that universities were "products of vain heathenism … [,] as much good to the Church as the devil is."

One might, more productively, engage the university sympathetically even while questioning whether Wissenschaft, as it came to be defined and practiced in the 19th century and as its legacy persists in our putatively postmodern times, evoked the full compass of human reason. After all, our reason, as Alasdair MacIntyre has impressively argued, need not be construed reductively as necessarily antithetical to the accumulated wisdom of tradition.7

If MacIntyre is right, if the fullness of truth demands more than the modern imperative toward critical novelty, then that which is symbolized by the University of Berlin should not have the final word. Indeed, beyond its long shadows in the modern academy, other, more venerable lessons beckon us still; although surely today, these lessons are rendered more meaningful by understanding—and appreciating—the reasons for the shadows in the first place.

Thomas Albert Howard is associate professor of history at Gordon College. The author of Religion and the Rise of Historicism (Cambridge Univ. Press) and Protestant Theology and the Making of the Modern German University (Oxford Univ. Press, forthcoming), he is currently serving as a research fellow in the Erasmus Institute at the University of Notre Dame.

1. Ernst Anrich, ed., Die Idee der deutschen Universität: Die fünf Grundschriften aus der Zeit ihrer Neubegründung durch klassischen Idealismus und romantischen Realismus (Darmstadt: Gentner, 1956).

2. Richard Hofstadter and Walter P. Metzger, The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States (Columbia Univ. Press, 1955), p. 396.

3. See especially Karl Barth, Evangelical Theology: An Introduction, trans. Grover Foley (Anchor Books, 1963), pp. 15ff.

4. See Berger, "The Desecularization of the World: A Global Overview," in Berger, ed., The Desecularization of the World: Resurgent Religion and World Politics (Eerdmans, 1999), p. 10.

5. Ernst Troeltsch, "Rückblick auf ein halbes Jahrhundert der theologischen Wissenschaft," Zeitschrift für wissenschaftliche Theologie, Vol. 51 (1908), pp. 73ff.

6. Franz Overbeck, Christentum und Kultur: Gedanken und Anmerkungen zur modernen Theologie von Franz Overbeck, ed. C. A. Bernoulli (Basel: Schabe Verlag, 1919), pp. 13ff.

7. Alasdair MacIntyre, Three Rival Traditions of Moral Enquiry (Univ. of Notre Dame Press, 1990).

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