‘What can German debates on university reform around 1800 teach us for the ‘future university’?’

This project aims to shed some new light on the current discussion about the future of Higher Education by re-assessing the debates on university reform in Germany around 1800. These debates are usually considered as the starting point of what was later described as the Humboldtian model of the German university, which, for more than a century, had successfully combined teaching with research in ‘solitude and freedom’ (Wilhelm v. Humboldt). As is well known this model had a considerable influence on nineteenth-century university reforms across Europe. Now that this model, eroded as the modern mass university developed, has been decisively abandoned through the recent reforms instituted by the Bologna Process it might be fruitful to take a fresh look at the origins of modern university. The aim is challenge some of the utilitarian orthodoxies of current university policies, such as (European) standardization, commercialisation, and international competitiveness, by recovering foundational reflections on the ends of learning with respect to human development which played a central role in designs for a new university around 1800. The project will mainly address two aspects of the debate: ideas about the role of the university in society; as well as concepts of the nature of man and human reason as the philosophical foundations of science and learning.

I will question  how these authors reflected on the tension between the well acknowledged division of labour as a feature of modernity on the one hand and the neo-classical ideal of integrated personality as the aim of Bildung on the other. How did they try to amalgamate the differentiation of disciplines with concepts of a unified knowledge as basis for university research and learning? What role did they attribute to the state in the management and sponsoring of the university and how did they try to limit its authority with respect to freedom of opinion? What solution can university education provide for the ills of modern civilization such as social inequality and the pursuit of luxury?


Professor Alexander Schmidt (Friedrich Schiller University) is Visiting Fellow at CRASSH, Easter 2011.


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