The Business of Learning

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German fraternity students, circa 1900

In the summer of 1740, Adam Smith transferred from the University of Glasgow to Oxford. Things did not work out there as he had hoped. It wasn’t just the class snobbism that got to Smith, a scholarship student. He saw his years at Oxford as a waste of time intellectually, so much so that the outrage he expressed more than two decades later reads like a response to a fresh wound. In The Wealth of Nations, Smith complained that the indolence of Oxford professors had reached the point where most “have…given up altogether even the pretense of teaching.” He added that institutions such as Oxford and Cambridge were, in effect, “sanctuaries in which exploded systems and obsolete prejudices found shelter and protection, after they had been hunted out of every other corner of the world.”

Smith was far from alone with his frustrations. In eighteenth-century Europe, distrust of universities ran high. They were often seen as sclerotic places where traditional privileges allowed for the kinds of abuses Smith listed. The situation was particularly fraught in the German territories, because a culture of student rowdiness had also earned German universities a reputation for corrupting young people. In 1787, Friedrich Schiller reported from Jena that university students would lounge in their windows and empty the contents of their chamber pots onto the busy streets below. “The students delighted in terrorizing honest citizens,” he wrote to a friend.

This made for good literary material; academic satire was one of the most popular genres of the era, with even Frederick the Great writing one. But the state of student life unsettled parents and thus exacerbated the problem of declining enrollments, which left a number of universities too poor to pay their faculties regularly, something that didn’t help them offer better instruction. Professors who spoke out against the excesses of student drinking and secret societies could face violent reprisals, as the philosopher J.G. Fichte did in 1794–1795. Students repeatedly bombarded his house with rocks, nearly killing his sick father-in-law on one occasion when a large paving stone came crashing through a window. With technical institutes—an Enlightenment favorite—and finishing academies proliferating, and with scientific academies functioning as centers of discovery, a question raised by learned and influential commentators grew louder and louder: Do we even need universities?

This moment of crisis led to an inspired reimagining of higher education (a reimagining whose other enabling conditions scholars have located in circumstances that range from the rise of German idealism to a desire for prestige on the part of an emerging professional class). What we now think of as liberal higher education took shape at this time. Fichte wrote that in their present form, German universities couldn’t really justify their existence. They would have to transmute themselves into institutions where, through open-ended, preferably humanistic study, young men…

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