Saturday, 19 March 2016

The myth of Humoldt and education (UKPSF: A5,V4)

In the PGCAP literature I quite often see references to Humboldtian model of higher education . For example in the book:

Enhancing Learning And Teaching In Higher Education: Engaging With The Dimensions Of Practice edited by John Lea, there is a discussion piece by Mike Neary.


Mike is very much against teaching as the transmission of knowledge. He is impressed by foundation and guiding principles of the University of Berlin in 1812, by Humboldt and others.  He wants the students to essentially just do independent research projects.

He is also worried by the separation of research and teaching.

People like this type of Education model for Universities, because it
involves research with undergraduate students and stresses liberal
arts values.

It is never clear how accurate the scholarship is of Humboldtian educational values are.  I have read the paper: Bachelor of What, Master of Whom? The Humboldt Myth and Historical Transformations of Higher Education in German-Speaking Europe and the US by Mitchel Ash.  This paper looks as the author has a better grasp of the material than many people in the PGCAP community.

Mitchel claims that the principles below are the basic ideas of the Humboldtian educational values.
  • Freedom of teaching and learning. Students had as much right to choose their instructors and subjects as professors had to decide what and how they taught.
  • The unity of teaching and research.  He thought that learning is a collaborative enterprise, in which ‘the professors are not there for the students, but rather both are there for science. 
  • The unity of science and scholarship. 
  • The primacy of ‘pure’ science over specialized professional training.
    In his article Mitchel notes that Humboldt's writings on education were unpublished, so were not very influential for a long time, because no one knew about them.  His writings were only rediscovered at the end of the 19th century and were used as motivation to reform a system, he had helped to found. The article claims that PhDs were only started to be awarded at the end of the 19th century. Also, it should be remembered that this educational system loosely based on Humboldt's idea, was run, when only 1% of the population attended University, rather than the mass education system we have now.
In the USA, there are small liberal arts colleges, where students have to take a few science courses when they take humanity courses. Similarly, science students have to take some humanity classes. It looks as though these colleges were influenced bu Humboldt, but since his writings were unknown, Mitchel thinks that this is unlikely. The undergraduate degree seems to have been invented in the USA, so undergraduate degrees did not exist in Germany in the 19th Century.

The paper ends with a discussion of the Bologna process on trying to create a common standard of University education across Europe.

Given that Humboldt's ideas, if they existed at all, only worked for a University with only 1% of the population, in a system where there were no undergraduate degrees.