University Education and the Demands of the Present Time
Originally printed in Magazin für Literatur 1898, 67. Jg., Nr. 19. From CW 31, Collected Essays on Culture and Current Events, 1887-1901
[This translation from the German by TO. The German title is “Der Universitätsunterricht und die Erfordernisse der Gegenwart,” p. 235ff in Gesammelte Aufsätze zur Kultur- und Zeitgeschichte, 1887-1901, Dornach 1989.]
We are now living in the time of reformation. The “people” want, from the bottom up, to bring about new conditions of governance from above down. Therefore, one should not be surprised when thoughts of reformation emerge from various quarters regarding the most conservative institutions of our public life: the universities. I am not speaking of such superfluous things as the so-called “Lex Arons.” [From Wikipedia: “Martin Leo Arons (1860-1919) was a German physicist and social democratic politician. He was the namesake of the Lex Arons, a law which disallowed members of the Social Democratic Party of Germany (German: Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands SPD) to teach at Prussian universities.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leo_Arons)] It will be a harmless law, if not abused. But what law does not give rise to abuse! If one abuses this law, then it will be harmful; if one does not abuse it, then it is unnecessary. But it is futile constantly to pose the question to the legislative assemblies: “Toward what end?” After all, one also had the wish to do something, to speak about something, and … to need to reform something. I would like to speak about something else, which appears to me important because it originates from a man who has experience in the relevant area, and whose occupation it is to generate improvement in one sphere to which he has devoted himself with all his powers. Ernst Bernheim has just published a pamphlet that deals with the theme of University Education and the Demands of the Present Time. [Universitätsunterricht und die Erfordernisse der Gegenwart, Verlag S. Calvary & Co., Berlin 1898.] The author knows how to uncover deeply-seated detrimental tendencies. Detrimental tendencies that are known. For he proceeds from the notion that “today” students skip class more often than was the case in any previous time, and that this, measured by the most modest of standards, is desirable. And — certainly in contrast to many of his colleagues — the author does not seek for the cause of this in the students themselves, but rather in the peculiarities of university education. He discovers that the lecture courses for the students have become too uninteresting. He finds the reason for this fact in the trend toward specialization in the sciences, which currently necessitates that the lecturers compose their so-called private lectures from narrow areas of study involving the elaboration of infinite details.
“Earlier, such a course would cover, for example, general world history, general history of ancient times, of the Middle Ages, and of more recent times; now hardly anyone undertakes to provide such courses of study; one lectures on the history of the Middle Ages, for example, in particular fragments, such as the history of the migrations of peoples, of the time of the German Caesar, from the Interregnum until the Reformation — indeed, in still shorter fragments; in addition, constitutional history, economic history, church and art history are studied in separate colleges. Now this is very well and good for one who wants to train as a researcher and — to stay with our example — has chosen to take something of the Middle Ages into his field of work; but one who intends to become a teacher and wants to take his state examination in history sees himself so overwhelmed with this kind of lecture course — in which he must get to know antiquity, the modern era, etc., in the same manner — that he does not know which way to turn. At first, he sets out with the confidence of a newcomer — boldly taking on five, six, seven private lectures; but soon his strength does not suffice to be attentive and taking notes for so many hours a day. In the best case, one will be so sensible as to abandon several of the courses completely and limit oneself to the regular attendance of only a few — and thereby hold as a top priority the commitment not to allow the task originally taken up to fall into such complete lawlessness that one ultimately ends up disgusted with the whole thing, discouraged and indifferent.”
Bernheim raises these conditions in relation to the question of whether it is at all justified to maintain the establishment of private lectures, considering the now sweeping specialization of the sciences. Today, if the teacher intends to bring forward all the details of his area of expertise, then he has to lose himself to such a great extent in the specific that he has no time left to offer the great, essential vantage-points according to his personal understanding. In addition to this is the fact that it is no longer even necessary to provide this sum of details in the lecture courses. For we currently possess compendiums of these details, which are excellent, and whose current level of comprehensiveness would earlier have been inconceivable to us. On the basis of these considerations, Bernheim comes to the conclusion that one should structure the private lectures differently. They should comprise much shorter periods of time. In them, one should renounce the enumeration and critical evaluation of the particular details, and instead set oneself the task of holding orientation lectures in which one develops an overall understanding of a certain subject, a general point of view. By contrast, [the author further proposes that] the practical exercises at the universities, the work in seminars, should see a greater expansion. Such work should not, as is currently the case, begin only in later semesters, but already at the beginning of university studies. Here the students should learn the methods of scientific investigation; here one should concretely train oneself to become a researcher.
I do not fail to see the benefits to be had from a college education established in the sense of these suggestions. In particular, it seems to me very advantageous to reformulate the private lectures in the sense envisioned by the author. For it cannot be denied that much of what is said today at the lectern is actually easier and more convenient to gain from the existing manuals. And most importantly, such a reform will better allow the personality of the university professor to emerge into the foreground. And nothing works on people more than precisely the personality. A receptive spirit will be more inspired by a peculiar, even if ever so subjectively colored perspective, than by a myriad of “objective” facts.
In contrast, I would not so readily agree with Bernheim's proposal concerning the practical exercises. It may be beneficial for the average student if, under the guidance of a professor, he or she were to learn the method of research, down into the details. But one should not always concern oneself with the average person. One could do so if it were true that the gifted spirit breaks through no matter what, even against all fettering hindrances. But that is not in fact true. The things one does to help the average person hinder the gifted spirit in the unfolding of his individuality. They cause his originality to atrophy. And if the institutional examinations require one to have proof — as is the case for the present writer — of having taken part in a certain number of practical exercises, then for the one who intends to go his own way, such a measure becomes a shackle. The focal point of university education must consist in the personal inspiration brought about through the professor. Thus we see the value of lectures on general themes that are furthermore delivered from a personally-won point of view. As for the exercises, let those partake in them who have the need. But at the time of examination, do not ask someone what he has pushed himself through during his time of study, but rather what he is now able to achieve. How he has attained his competence must be a matter of indifference. One can offer practical exercises for those who need them, but one should not make them into an obligation for those who are able to meet the requirements of the examination without them.