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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 ...

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