How the University in Berlin revolutionised the world we live in

We stopped by a building in the heart of Berlin, “this used to be the library that Lenin studied in, that’s why nothing was changed after the Soviets entered.”

The guide then went on about the low school fees in the German education system (free for all) combined with high quality education, that was enough to get the crowd intrigued on applying to study there.

But there is a deeper more intriguing story to the building and the university we stopped by – it was here, that the modern university system and the geopolitics of today was set up. Still, there is presently a lot of debate about breaking out of the established norms of university education. Critics allege that it is an archaic and arcane system that needs to be consigned to the trashheap and replaced with more “market-relevant” training and models. A view that clearly is more resonant to the general populace.

But what exactly is this outdated model?

You’d think that the historical university system has roots that go back many centuries. I know I did until I came across the Humboldtian University in Berlin. It is the name Humboldt that will prove very relevant to this discussion because the university systems of today are not of Aristotalian or Oxbridge origin, rather they are based on a model developed by Alexander von Humboldt and his brother Wilhelm von Humboldt.

Wilhelm von Hunboldt was a Prussian politician and diplomat who served in the court of the Prussian king. It was he who revolutionised the Prussian hihger education system according to humanist ideals (that prizes human agency and individualism, their ability to think critically rather than follow blindly.

In a letter to the Prussian King, Wilhelm von Humboldt argued, “There are undeniably certain kinds of knowledge that must be of a general nature and, more importantly, a certain cultivation of the mind and character that nobody can afford to be without.” Humboldt was in effect arguing for a broad foundational base im education encompassing both the arts and sciences as a form of persinal cultivation. It was this ideological model which allowed Humboldt to start the University of Berlin. To quote wikipedia, “Humboldt believed that the university (and education in general, as in the Prussian education system) should enable students to become autonomous individuals and world citizens by developing their own reasoning powers in an environment of academic freedom. Humboldt envisaged an ideal of Bildung, education in a broad sense, which aimed not merely to provide professional skills through schooling along a fixed path but rather to allow students to build individual character by choosing their own way.”

Humboldt further believed that education should be guided by research and that it should be unbiased by ideological, economic, political or religious bents an idea that perhaps influenced another influential work, the Woodward Report in Yale Universitt of 1974,

“The history of intellectual growth and discovery clearly demonstrates the need for unfettered freedom, the right to think the unthinkable, discuss the unmentionable, and challenge the unchallengeable … whoever deprives another of the right to state unpopular views necessarily also deprives others of the right to listen to those views …”

Humboldts ideas soon spread, and American universities were all set up under this system.

Perhaps one of the greatest examples of the kind of scholarly individuals Wilhelm von Humboldts liberal education ideas desired to create was embodied in his owm brother Alexander.

Alexander von Humboldt is easiky the greatest scientist the world doesn’t know, someone who was considered one of the greatest by Thomas Jefferson and termed the true founder of South America by Simon Bolivar. He has been credited decribig curare, noting the importance of the bark which gives the anti-malarial quinine, discovering what is called the humboldt current and the generation of the worlds first isotherms. People like Charles Darwin were influenced by him.

Then there were those groomed in this fashion, at the very university Wilhelm set up that Alexander taught at who would be shaped in this fashion to revolutionise the way the world moves, do Karl Marx and Fredrich Engels ring any bells?

It was under this educational milieu that Marx and Engels were brought up in. Both students at the unuversity, these two men whose critics of capitalism are relevant today but their proposed solutions would be used by politicans to develop socialism and communism as we know today.

Viewing the criticisms of capitalism that Marx had (the video above is a good overview) it is apparent that the humanist ideas on which the university environment generated must have been influential on him.

The relevance of the ideas that this university set in motion still continue today, the increasing political polarisation between the political left and right is essentially a continuation of people fighting and defending capitalism from the same criticisms Marx made, higher education is being forced to choose a McKinsey model (preparing students for employment) compared to the Humboldtian model, and a research for money model versus a research for knowledge model.

Will the Humboldtian model’s legacy continue?

I’m betting it will.



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