Wilhelm von Humboldt and Education

You might not have heard of Wilhelm von Humboldt, and you might not care. But his ideas about the governance of higher education have been on the topical agenda on and off for more than 200 years. von Humboldt was something of a renaissance man. A linguist by trade, but otherwise a ubiquitous figure in Prussian government administration and embassies around Europe. In 1809 he was given the assignment by the king to reform German education, and the resulting principles and virtues are still debated and praised as well as criticized.

Among these ideas was, fundamentally, the idea of bildung
– that education has a value in its own right, and that education shouldn’t just be seen as getting ready for the job market. Worth thinking of days like these, when most of us see education as get- ting access to a toolbox (or worse, a mere diploma). To von Humboldt this was true too, but he rather suggested education should mean a chance to be absorbed into the wider society and the history of the nation. von Humboldt also strongly emphasized the connection between research and education. A professor
should be able to do both. This also results in what
some of us connect
most strongly with
von Humboldt: that research and education programmes typically have to be
 organized in matrixes
 and therefore requires extensive coordination across subject areas. Being a Humboldt university, therefore, is difficult, simple as that. Nonetheless, von Humboldt also suggested students and professors alike should have a great degree of freedom to de- sign their studies and their work. So-called lehr- und lehrn-freiheit. A student could design his or her studies as they wished, and the teacher didn’t have to abide by strict rules formulated by government. The logical extension of this was “the difficult to get in, difficult to get out” principle. The university wasn’t for everybody but if you got in you had significant leeway to structure your studies and your work.

”Lund University is a good representation of an operational Humboldt university”

Humboldt university. You name
a subject, and we have a department for it. We’re comprehensive all right. When we follow the principles for processes of student admission and professorial recruitment, we’re humboldtian (we don’t always hire that way, sad to say. And studies nowadays is not so much a matter of a need of educated people but a way to treat unemployment among the youth). Although our education programmes nowadays are quite strictly pre- designed, one cannot complain about the freedom of professors – even if the reforms over the last two decades have taken from basic and given to applied research.

However, another thing that has become emblematic of humboldtian universities over the last half century or so is that they rarely operate in political and financial contexts where cutting edge research can take place – they do spawn critical, reflective and enlightened citizens, primarily, when they function. And hence the number of Nobel Prizes awarded to humboldtian universities is declining – and sad to say, that’s another feature that we at Lund University share.

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