Von Humboldt’s Gift

With apologies to Saul Bellow

In 1896, a biographer of Prussian linguist, philosopher, and government official Wilhelm von Humboldt discovered a fragmentary text by his subject and included it as an appendix to his biography. It was eighty-six years old and was instantly championed as foundational to the modern university as developed in Germany–in part by von Humboldt himself at the University of Berlin–which itself provided the model for the American research university. It was called “On the Internal Structure of the University in Berlin and Its Relationship to Other Organizations.” While scholars who study the history of the university argue about its importance or even the idea that Humboldtsches Bildungsideal or the Humboldtian model for the university is a unified and applicable thing, the story of its importance is itself important for how it has been used (as Louis Menand, Paul Reitter, and Chad Wellmon tell us in their introduction to The Rise of the Research University). Still, that discovered fragment and von Humboldt’s educational reforms have given us a way to frame what universities can and should be. At the center of this vision is Akademische Freiheit or academic freedom–composed of lehrfreiheit, freedom to teach, and lernfreiheit, freedom to learn. These freedoms, von Humboldt argued, must not be interfered with, writing, “the state must understand that intellectual work will go on infinitely better without it.”

As Menand, Reitter, and Wellmon also remind us, it was not that von Humboldt believed the state and the university must have nothing to do with each other; he was, after all, a government official when he created the University of Berlin. What he believed was that universities would be of most use to the state if the state respected the principles of academic freedom, allowing them to make and pass on Wissenschaft, the pure knowledge that could be used to shape the future.

A similar principle exists in the US, especially in its public universities, not only through the strong influence of the German university on those founded here but also through the influence of the first federal aid to higher education, the Morrill Acts, which granted land and the proceeds of sold land to public universities with the idea that these land grant institutions would serve the people of their state.

The contemporary public university is a complicated institution. With the turn to private foundations, to the federal government during the Cold War, and to corporations with public-private partnerships, what Clark Kerr called the “multiversity” exists in a web of financial arrangements that can threaten academic freedom. Add to this the now decades-long shrinking of federal and state funding for higher education and a political climate in which one party scores points off of its disdain for intellectuals and campus politics, and you’ve got a recipe for multiple disasters.

With apologies to the public good that is higher education

A pair of potential disasters now loom at my university, one more obviously a threat to academic freedom, the other less obviously one but not less threatening, and both similar to developments threatening universities across the country. The first is yet another attack on what opponents to the teaching of the history of race in the US insist on calling CRT and identifying with the 1619 Project. A state senator has pre-filed a bill that if passed would forbid any educational institution receiving state funding from employing “any curriculum implementing critical race theory” at penalty of the withholding of ten percent of the funding due to it. Critical race theory is a comically big umbrella in this bill, covering a variety of sins no competent educator would ever commit, a catalog of caricatures of teaching the history of slavery and discrimination. Like many extreme bills filed by my state’s legislators, it shouldn’t and probably won’t pass. Unless it does.

The second looming threat to academic freedom at my university is a change to the university’s Collected Rules and Regulations rushed through at a meeting of the governing board last week. They amended a recent rule change made to reflect the decision in favor of a lawsuit brought by a professor at the law school that said employees must be allowed to leave firearms in their parked cars. Removing all language pertaining to this rule, the amendment is intended to allow anyone, including students and visitors, to do the same. There is no language about the guns being secured or the cars being locked. The only language left about firearms forbids them being concealed- or open-carried on campus. A protest by the university president that campus police leadership was against this change, for obvious reasons including the increased chance of guns being stolen from remotely parked cars, was ignored, and the proposal, brought by the newly appointed former head of the state Republican party, passed.

With apologies to Florida

Without academic freedom, universities become arms of the state or service providers to private industry. We’ve seen this threat in the recent attempt by the University of Florida to muzzle members of its faculty who tried to testify against a voting initiative of the governor, saying their testimony represented a “conflict of interest to the executive branch of the state of Florida.” We see it in attempts to curtail the freedom of faculty to teach US history in ways that make some politicians uneasy. We will see it on campuses that allow guns closer and closer to classrooms and offices, chilling the ability of scholars, students, and teachers to speak truth to power or to anyone with a temper.

Contrary to an increasingly influential narrative, universities are not hotbeds of radicalism, safe spaces for coddled children to learn how to hate their country. They are crucial to democracy. If we let these people chuck the whole experiment of Akademische Freiheit and just watch whatever independence remains at public universities wither away, if we let them do this without a fight, we will get what we deserve and we will lose our democracy. And those who throw it away will lose the right to ever again talk about freedom, academic or otherwise.

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