Popular Science Monthly/Volume 46/December 1894/The University as a Scientific Workshop

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THE peculiar character of the German university springs from its combining the two purposes of instruction and research. It is at once a high school and an academy, meaning by academy an institution for scientific investigation. The relation in which these two functions stand to one another corresponds with the form of the university in the different epochs of its development. The tendency now evidently prevails to give research the preference over instruction. In the estimates of the universities themselves, scientific work has the higher rating. The scientific purposes are most conspicuous in the public view; and the credit in which German universities are held abroad depends first upon their scientific achievements. The estimate is in agreement with the facts, and no wrong will be done to the German professors if we say that many among them work less in instruction than in scientific labor, that they are more academicians than teachers.

It was not always so; it has been so only for a short time. Instruction had the foremost place till in the eighteenth century, and the change that has taken place did not fairly begin till within the nineteenth century. I shall endeavor to trace this development and its causes in a short historical review.

The universities originated in the middle ages as schools. Especially were the universities in Germany, in their beginning, what their official name—studium generale—implies, places for general study. The professors were likewise at first called schoolmasters (magistri regentes, sc, scholas), and the students scholars (scholares). The artistical, now the philosophical faculty, which regularly comprised by far the largest proportion of the students, had wholly the character of a school. Its object was to give young men from fifteen to twenty years of age a general scientific training. It fulfilled this purpose by explaining, in what were called lectures, text-books containing the recognized material of knowledge, and practicing the students in recitations and exercises. This method still continues in English and American colleges.

No essential change from this method took place in the sixteenth century. The purpose of the philosophical faculty, as Melanchthon understood it, was quite the same, except that classical instruction was added to that in science and philosophy. Completion with a literary and philosophical course of the general scientific training, which began with the grammatical and rhetorical course in the lower schools, was the aim of the teaching which Melanchthon gave at Wittenberg for two and forty years. It was school teaching in scholastic form, so far as certain conditions permitted. So it was Melanchthon's custom to question his pupils in the lessons at the beginning of the hour. The declamations and disputations which he held were likewise pure school exercises. He boasted once in his old age of himself and his friend Camerarius, that they had spent their whole lives in the lowliness of the school, in the vita scholastica, in order to serve youth and fair knowledge. A change in the general constitution of the university began with a constant increase in the members of the "higher faculties"—the theological and juridical—for the completion of the university course was more and more held up as a qualification for priestly and secular office. The form, however, of the instruction was still not essentially changed from that of the philosophical faculty. It consisted in the transmission of a teaching of a still fixed substance, only that the hearers were of a greater average age. Connected with this was the dying out of the middle-age form of life; and from the scholar has been developed since the seventeenth century the student.

These conditions lasted without change into the eighteenth century. An instructive study of Kant's career as a teacher has recently appeared.[1] It resembled Melanchthon's in all essentials, and, like him, Kant also lectured as before him Christian Wolff lectured in Halle, upon all the philosophical sciences—on mathematics and physics, logic and metaphysics, ethics and natural law, besides anthropology and physical geography, and once on mineralogy. Like Melanchthon, Kant also had as hearers young persons, not who studied a little mathematics or physics as their special branch, but who sought chiefly at the university the completion of their general training, in order afterward to apply themselves to the special study of theology and jurisprudence. Like Melanchthon, Kant also taught single branches from textbooks, as was the strict custom, and held recitations and disputations in addition to his lectures. It was still a schoolmaster's teaching. Only the grammatical and rhetorical branches, with the lessons in the Greek and Roman authors, which formed the principal subjects of Melanchthon's lectures, had fallen away. They were no longer among the most important departments in the universities of the eighteenth century, partly because they had become superfluous through the greater amplitude of the preparatory course in the schools, and partly because classical instruction had declined in importance and esteem.

The difference between this and the present German university instruction is apparent on a comparison of the two. The present teaching has entirely abandoned the schoolmasterly character. It aims no more at a general training, but is special, scientific. Mathematics and science are no longer taught by philosophers to hearers of all these faculties, but by specialists to specialists. The ancient writers are not read—as three hundred years ago by Melanchthon and one hundred years ago by Heyne in Göttingen and Ernesti in Leipsic to the general hearers, for the sake of general training and cultivation, but to philological students for the purpose of inducting them into the technics of the scientific treatment of the text. The name of Fr. A. Wolf, who is given the credit of having raised ancient knowledge to an independent study, marks this revolution. The closest reminders of the old conditions are the lessons called philosophical and a few historical lectures, including the history of literature and art, at which hearers are gathered from the different faculties, and the completion and deepening of the general training is more prominently sought than induction into special studies. The tendency to a transformation is, however, visible here too plainly in History, in which the lectures and still more the accompanying exercises have already the character of professional, special instruction. Signs of the change are beginning to be visible, too, in the philosophical teaching. Psychology, especially, is tending to isolate itself as a special field of scientific investigation. It is further worthy of remark that the faculties have reversed their relation to this branch within the nineteenth century. While formerly the teaching in the philosophical faculty was mostly elementary and general, it is now divided into many branches, and is predominantly special and professional. While in the other faculties the first thing regarded is the preparation of practitioners for their calling as doctors, clergymen, and lawyers—a point that can never wholly be lost sight of the teaching in the philosophical faculty is various, as if the training of specialists or technicalists in scientific investigation were the single object. There is nothing to indicate that the students of these faculties expect to be called to practical teaching. The difference is plainest in the seminaries and in the exercises. In the higher faculties they aim at the preparation for practice; as in the clinic course of the medical schools, in the academical exercises in the juridical faculty, more strongly prominent of late, and in the theological drill. On the other hand, the seminaries have given the philosophical faculties the character of schools of scientific investigation—philological and historical, as well as scientific and mathematical; so that the dissertations come out even from them with a peculiar predominantly scientific character; while the scholastic exercises—the old declamations and disputations—have ceased.

When we ask for the causes of this change, the most decisive of them is found to be the great change which has come over the scientific self-consciousness of the modern world since the seventeenth century. The whole scientific course of the middle ages and down to the sixteenth century was the result of the presumption that knowledge was created in antiquity and was complete. Aristotle especially was regarded as the highest authority in matters of science; he was the philosopher; his writings were the canonical text-books which were transmitted to the universities, expounded and adopted by them. The authority of Aristotle was broken down and the new method founded by Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler, Descartes, Bacon, and Harvey. Science is not now supposed to be complete at hand, but must be created by our labor.

This new method began to penetrate university instruction in the eighteenth century. The young University of Halle first recognized the novel principle of the libertas philosophandi. The duty of the university teacher was not to transmit the familiar scholastic philosophy, but to exercise and cultivate independent thinking. The philosophy of Christian Wolff was the first free philosophy found in this school. The scholastic philosophy was supplanted by it in the German universities in the course of the eighteenth century. Its principle is independence in thought: nothing without sufficient reason. The Kantian philosophy began to dispute with it for the mastery at the end of the eighteenth century; but Kant stands, if possible, still more distinctly on the same ground—the ground of independent thought. The view now penetrates the whole of university life that knowledge is not a gift but a duty. The calling of a professor is, in the first place, to labor to produce it; and, second, to train the rising generation to the same work; the university becomes the workshop and nursery of scientific research. This is the view which has gradually gained prevalence in Germany since the last century; and the men who advance science and form schools constitute the fame of a university. The course in England and France was different from that which matters took in Germany and the countries under German influence. To be high schools for general training has continued till the present time to be the chief end of the English universities, and it was the same in France till the Revolution destroyed the old forms. This condition is connected in part with the fact that in those centralized countries the great scientific institutions in London and Paris answer for the new work of scientific research, while in divided Germany the scientific societies are still relatively unimportant, or have been from the first only annexes of universities, as they all are in fact; and partly with the differences in the internal constitution of the universities, the philosophical faculties having in the western countries almost vanished with the public lectures, and instruction having drawn back into the colleges and assumed within them a scholastic form. Under these infiuences the entrance of the new philosophy was obstructed. In Germany, on the other hand, the middle-age colleges died out and the philosophical faculties remained with their public instruction, to appear now as the organs with which the new scientific and philosophical life was taken up.

The operation of this change in the scientific world by which university teaching, and especially teaching in the philosophical faculty, was divested of its scholastic features and given a purely scientific character, was supplemented by secondary causes. First among these was the development of the old Latin school into the gymnasium. This change, begun in the second half of the eighteenth century, was completed in the first two decades of the nineteenth century. The present gymnasium differs from the old Latin school by its giving, besides the linguistic and literary course, a course of considerable extent in mathematics, science, history, and geography. Thereby the philosophical faculty departed in a measure from its old work; for the entering student who now comes to the university when about twenty years old, instead of about his eighteenth year, turns at once to the study of his professional branch, with the intention of concluding the necessary scientific training with his abiturient examination. Besides this class the lectures in history, philosophy, and the history of art were heard only by the attendants of the philosophical and theological faculties and occasional guests from the other faculties.

The result was that the philosophical faculty was able and had to change its course of instruction. General and elementary teaching in languages and science was no longer demanded as before. The teacher could presume more, because the pupils brought more with them. A new scientific calling has been formed in this century that of the gymnasial professoriate. Hitherto the teacher's office in the Latin schools had been filled entirely with theologians, and was a transition step to the priestly office. The new gymnasium demanded professionals. Its teachers are not candidates in theology with a general philosophical and philological training, but learned philologists, mathematicians, naturalists, and historians, with now professors of modern philology, geography, etc. The introduction of the examination pro facultate docendi in Prussia in June, 1870, marked the new demand. The special purpose of the philosophical faculty was from this time on to prepare specialists for teaching in the gymnasia. The philosophical faculty has now adapted its teaching to this new situation, and its purpose has been further so changed, in fact, that aside from the ultimate practical turning of its attendants into the teacher's office, it trains them to be merely learned scientific men. The instruction in the philological, historical, mathematical, and scientific branches is of a kind as if all who took part in it intended to devote themselves to scientific research as their only calling. Justification for this course has been sought in the consideration that recruits for scientific research are in fact found among the attendants; that gymnasium teachers have an important share in scientific work; and, finally, that the object of gymnasium teaching is really preparatory drill to scientific thought, and therefore a strict scientific training is the most important requisite of a German gymnasial teacher.

The priority, the historical course of which is sketched above, appertained to the philosophical faculty, but did not remain limited to it. The theological and juridical faculties had a part in it, and the medical faculty in particular, the course of which runs parallel with that of the philosophical, since it stands in close connection with it through the natural sciences, or as a science is strictly included in it. We are now no longer concerned with the transmission of an established doctrine, but with the search for natural or historical truth; and to approach a participation in this work is now regarded in all the faculties an essential part of the duty of an academical teacher.

When we regard the results of this development, there first appears an extraordinary prosperity of scientific investigation which proceeded in Germany chiefly from the universities. While our people in the seventeenth century stood away behind their western neighbors, they have gained, since the remodeling of the universities in the eighteenth century, a very eminent, in many instances the leading, place in all departments of scientific work. That this is due chiefly to the universities is attested by evidences both at home and abroad. Here scientific investigators have found favorable surroundings for quiet work, the necessary external means, and the no less necessary recognition of coworkers and youth. Here, again, are afforded in intercourse with academic youth, motive and opportunity to attract pupils to co-operation and to train successors in the work. The continuity in scientific labor, to which Germany owes a large part of its success in this field, certainly depends chiefly on this association of investigation and teaching at our universities.

How closely the history of science in Germany in the last century is connected with the history of the universities is made plain in the work of Lexis on the German universities, published in 1893, at the instance of the Minister of Worship. Every step forward in research and its permanent interweaving with the regular work is associated with the foundation of new chairs and new institutes at the universities. Most evident is the growth in the extension of the philosophical and medical faculties. Instead of the eight or ten chairs in the philosophical and the two or three in the medical faculty, which were regarded as sufficient in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, we have at the middle and smaller as well as at the larger universities three and four times as many, including the extraordinaries, and even six and eight times. The institutes of every kind nearly all date from the last century.

The German people have expended and are expending every year much on their universities. No other people proportionately devotes so large sums to the endowment of its high-school instruction. We may well say that it has not been a fruitless application of capital, and hope that it will not be in the future. The present repute of the German name among the nations of the earth has grown in no small degree out of its universities. It has sometimes been pointed out that the teaching work of the incumbents of some of the chairs—that of Oriental languages, for instance—has been very insignificant; the cost, per head, of the instruction given has been counted up and found to be high; and it has even been proposed to maintain chairs for such specialties only at two of the large universities. Such calculations are niggardly and not just. The existence of a large number of chairs is not of little importance to the permanence of the scientific achievements of the German people in these fields, even though we are not a wealthy people. The few thousand marks which are paid to the merit of men like Rückert and Bopp ought not to be regarded by any one as wasted, even though their work were substantially null. The university chair in Germany is at the same time a form of endowment for scientific labor. It is the external stimulus to strive for distinction in a kind of work which has at present no marketable value, and makes it possible to devote one's self to it permanently. If it produces work of inferior money value, in what field does not such work slip in?

When we inquire into the consequences of this situation to teaching, we begin to ask whether our universities have not declined as institutes for instruction; whether there is not danger, at least, that teaching will suffer from its combination with research; whether the professors are not disposed to neglect it in their zeal for investigation; and whether they are not too much inclined to draw their students to that side, with the result that the training for practical occupations is shortened. Are not our teachers and pastors, our jurists and officers, and even our doctors, too much devoted to theorizing and doctrine, and too little to life and reality; and do they not acquire this habit at the university? Are they not led by their teachers and by the customs into an exaggerated valuation of pure scientific work? And do not many come to regard practical work as something inferior, which they take up as a means of support only while the more distinguished career of the academy is for some cause inaccessible to them?

Fears of this kind, which are often expressed, are possibly not without ground; but I have another result to present of the association of research and teaching at our universities. I have already referred to it in an essay on the Nature of the German Universities, and content myself now with the repetition of two remarks made there: "According to the German idea the university professor is both a teacher and a scientific investigator, principally the latter, so that one may truly say that in Germany scientific investigators are at the same time the teachers of academic youth. This fixes the position of scientific men in the life of the German people. Our thinkers and investigators are known to us not merely from their writings, but face to face, as personal teachers. Men like Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, and Schleiermacher labored during their lives before the public as teachers. So Kant, Christian Wolff, Heyne, and F. A. Wolf, as personal teachers of our people, trained its leaders and teachers. . . . The relation is undoubtedly advantageous to both. The German youth, who at the university come into immediate contact with the intellectual leaders of the people, receive there the deepest and most enduring stimulus. On the other side, the relation is delightful to our scientific men. They continue young in contact with youth; the personal exchange of thought acquires something moving and vivifying through the silent but intelligent reaction of the students which is lacking to the solitary writer. And if knowledge stands nearer to the hearts of the public in Germany than with other people, that also is connected with the fact that here the great men of science have always been, too, the personal teachers of the young men."

I think there are advantages which may well compensate us for the few embarrassments and disadvantages that may arise from the combination of teaching and research. Should it occasionally really happen that an academical teacher interested in his scientific research should not pursue his teaching with due diligence, we should not therefore surrender a relation that has been developed among us by historical growth. We should not overlook the fact that in the long run the men most active in research are likewise the best teachers we can get. Exceptions may be adduced by which it may appear that some very eminent men of science have had no inclination or knack for teaching. But it is still true, on the whole, that the heart for research and the heart for teaching are intimately related, and therefore, as a rule, appear together. The testimony of history leaves no doubt that the strongest influences upon the training of youth have till now been exerted by those who have at the same time had leading positions in the scientific world. I call to mind at this moment Kant and Schleiermacher, to whose names a long list might be added from all the faculties, who would confirm the principle that scientific activity and the talent for teaching run parallel with one another.

No more, on the other hand, should we fear that an excess of scientific training is of itself dangerous to students—that is, that it will interfere with their practical career. It is rather true as to this point in general that the more fundamental the scientific training, and the greater the interest in science which any one acquires at the university, the better is he prepared for practical life. It may, indeed, happen that interest will be weakened in a profession neglected on account of engagement in scientific work. This may not rarely occur with the attendants of the philosophical faculty, and the young teacher who has been led to historical, philological, mathematical, or scientific research at the university, and has become interested in them, may feel as if he were not in his right place when he is put over a class of boys to give them elementary instruction, and the work may seem at first insignificant and beneath him. But if he is the right man he will put himself right at once, and his scientific interest will not make his school work a whit harder. On the other hand, if he has time and strength left after his school work (and he must, unless his position imposes an unreasonable burden upon him), he will soon learn how great a treasure he has in a field of occupation which lies outside of his daily routine—like a garden of flowers and herbs outside of the cornfield of his school—in which he can recruit himself after the toil and heat of the day. There is no better protection against falling into listless routine and absorption in the minute interests of the day than continuous participation in scientific work coming back into the upper story, as a friend of mine who thus varied his daily life was accustomed to describe it. The school will likewise learn how well it is served by teachers of this sort. This is especially true of the gymnasium. The deepest and most lasting effects, as history illustrated in biographies, attests, do not proceed from teachers most eminent in drill and persistence, but from those who lead an inner, intellectual life continuously refreshed and renewed by scientific work. The pupils have a fine appreciation of their teacher and his method. Thorough scholarship and earnest participation in scientific research have assured and always will assure the teacher particular respect in the eyes of his pupils; and many a student has first been inoculated with the taste for the intellectual, inconspicuous though it may have seemed to him, by the view of such a life. It is further true in other learned professions that nothing more firmly fortifies one against the depressing moments that are strange to no calling than a steady interest in science. More than anything else, engagement with concerns of theory operates against the falling into the purely business way of viewing things which apparently threatens to degrade such professions as those of medicine and law.

Thus, we can not see harm of any kind in the direction of university instruction toward scientific research; on the contrary, the purer and deeper the theoretical interest which our students carry into life from the university the better for them and for the business they engage in.

If, however, there is danger—and I believe the fear is not without some foundation—of the power of our universities as teaching institutions declining, we may look for the cause in accompanying conditions. Among these is one existing in direct connection with scientific research—the ever-increasing division of labor and specializing. This is in itself unavoidable. Specializing is here and everywhere a condition of stimulated productiveness. We can not go back to the universality of studies which was possible in antiquity and the middle ages and down into the eighteenth century. With specializing is associated a danger. The splitting up of work into scattering, minute, and often petty study of details weakens the general human interest in science. The immediate interest in knowledge is directed to the whole, to philosophy, from which connected knowledge on all subjects, divine and human, is expected. The long labor of the mind through thousands of years, of which our research is supposed to be the continuation, began with the seeking of the Greeks for a theory of the universe. In the eighteenth century, in the age of Leibnitz, Kant, and Wolff, it was still the object; all scientific work was for a "world-wisdom"—for a view of the nature and meaning of the world and life. Many have now forgotten this, and in the pursuit of little single details have lost sight of the end. Indeed, some are proud of knowing nothing of this; they deliberately and willfully confine themselves to their special branch, boasting of their independence, and boldly despising what lies beyond their borders. Their scorn is especially expressed toward philosophy; not merely against this or that philosophy, but against philosophy itself, against the seeking for universal knowledge—knowledge of the whole.

This spirit of specialism is the danger. It tends to impede the pursuit of theory; for it is still true that science originally looked not to this or that particular, but to the whole, its nature and its significance. When science ceases to give an answer to these questions, general interest will be turned away from it. Men will then regard research with similar feelings to those with which they look at a sport, in which great exertions are made for a purpose of no value in itself. Is not this feeling sometimes manifested now, even though it is not expressed in words? What means the dissatisfaction with the present shape of our intellectual life, especially with our science, which can not achieve a whole, but wearies itself to exhaustion in endless collection and endless analysis—the indignation against the haughtiness with which the specialist rejects the assistance and even the sympathy and inquiry of the layman, the dilettante? In fact, narrowness readily goes with limitation, and conceit with narrowness—that special conceit which thinks itself superior to all because it can see no one in its field besides itself.

Just this spirit of specialism is now dangerous to university teaching, paralyzing the teacher's work and the interest of the learner. At the bottom it is the philosophical in every science that inspires to instructive participation. Man has an innate disposition to propagate his convictions, his view of the world, and his faith. That is the Eros which inspired Socrates to seek intercourse with his pupils. The Eros is wanting to the specialist, along with the philosophical disposition and the love of teaching. To impose a duty of teaching upon him seems to him like a robbery of his precious time. This feeling is responded to by a decline in interest on the part of his hearer. The attraction that draws him is again the philosophical, the humanly significant I)art of the teaching. Detail and virtuosity and exactness can not take the place of this.

Further, the more the teaching is specialized the less does it give the student what he most needs—a comprehensive survey of the whole of a field of knowledge. Take history: Instead of a lecture on universal history, or the history of the German people, five or ten lectures upon as many fragments or single sides of the subject. Excellent and thorough as they may be in themselves, they afford the beginner less than the others. He most needs the leading direction-lines for the comprehension of the whole, and these, even if the teacher can and does give them, are less plainly set forth among the mass of details and by being scattered through the hours. Or take natural science and archaeology: A hundred years ago a teacher went over the whole subject in a reasonable number of lectures. Now it takes several teachers to do the work, each of whom devotes a course of lectures to a special field. It is evident that this method will make it much harder for the student to get a simple comprehension of the whole. It may easily come to pass that he is bewildered and distracted by the mass of detail, and amid the diversity of views and methods of different teachers gropes unintelligently hither and thither, and does not reach a clear understanding and free view of the whole till after many terms have been wasted. Or, if he seeks to escape this evil by attaching himself to a single teacher, he encounters the other danger of confining himself in that special field, giving himself up to the working out of a single problem, and of soon burying himself in it so deeply that he can see nothing else in heaven and earth, and of ultimately leaving the university a one-sided specialist. Another evil result that occurs to me is, that the increasing division of labor is attended with a loosening of the relation of the university teacher to practical work. This is especially evident in the juridical and theological faculties. The law professors formerly, as members of the bar, regularly took part in the administration of justice. Now they are quite outside of legal practice, and by a reflex action their teaching has become more abstract and dogmatic. The theological professors were formerly engaged also in preaching and pastoral work, and in church and school direction. In the beginning the relation was often such that the pastoral office was regarded as the chief object, and the theological professorship as a secondary work; and the instruction given to the students was a direct introduction to the duties on which they were about to enter.

It should not be forgotten that very earnest and successful efforts have been put forth during the present century to make scientific instruction more fruitful. Among the results of these are the exercises and experiments in seminaries and institutes of various kinds, of which students enjoy the advantages; the increase of means of instruction, such as the more extensive use of demonstrations with which the lectures are accompanied, and the great increase and freer use of libraries, are not to be despised.

After considering all these facts, we conclude that the association of scientific research and scientific teaching, as it has been developed in the history of the German universities, may be regarded as a happy joining, which we should by all means maintain in the future. The universities have so far devoted themselves legitimately to both purposes, and on the whole with good effect. It is true that the number of students who miss the right way or do not reach the goal is lamentably great. But there is security against this. If any one speaks of it as if it was the fault of the university, and asks it to prevent such failures by discipline, tests of diligence, and more frequent examinations, he makes an unreasonable accusation and presents a demand that can not be complied with. The university is not a school, and will not and can not be one. It is an institution for adults, who live there on their own responsibility. That all its members do not know how to make the best use of their privileges proves nothing against the institution.

Hence we find nothing of an essential character to disturb in the general organization of the university as a teaching institution. We can only endeavor to make its endowments more fruitful and to ward off the harmful tendencies as far as possible. It would indeed be a pity if the institutions which have accomplished so much, and have so illustrious names on their rolls of teachers, should, in these days of minute subdivision of labor, allow their energies to be dissipated in excessive specialization. This is not likely to happen; we may even say it will not happen. There are indications that a reaction is at hand from this tendency. If we mistake not, the one-sided exaltation of the specialist's work has passed its zenith. Long-neglected philosophy is again obtaining a footing even in the domain of scientific research—an evidence that the idea of the unity of knowledge is still vital. What philosophy gains, the university gains as a teaching institution, as the high school of general education.—A translation, for The Popular Science Monthly, from an article in the Deutsche Rundschau.

  1. Arnoldt, Königsberg. Altpreussische Monatsschrift, vol. xxx, pp. 7, 8.