Education and Society in Germany

By H. J. Hahn | Go to book overview
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The German Concept of Bildung

Introduction (Setting the Scene)

It has become customary to associate the name of Wilhelm von Humboldt ( 1767- 1835) with the emergence of a national German concept of education (figure 1). Humboldt is regarded as the founder of the German Gymnasium and, in addition, as one of the major contributors to the concept of the modern German university. This is all somewhat surprising if we consider that Humboldt's reforms were largely confined to a short period between April 1809 and June 1810, and were restricted to Prussia, where he served as Director of the section for Kultus und Unterricht (Culture and Education) and where, as an Imperial Knight, he suffered the disadvantage of being seen as a 'foreigner'. It is obviously a gross generalization to attribute an inordinate influence to one particular person and it can be demonstrated that Humboldt served to represent the reform movement as a whole, taking the opportunity to initiate reforms whenever the time appeared auspicious.

This study does not attempt to summarize, even briefly, the biographical and historical factors which transformed Humboldt into the symbol of Germany's educational renaissance, but certain factors are significant. As a nobleman, Humboldt had early access to the literary salons of the Berlin Enlightenment and was later to cultivate the friendship of Schiller and Goethe and enter the literary and philosophical circles of Weimar culture. He also enjoyed the company of Romantic philologist August Wilhelm Schlegel and of Friedrich Heinrich Jacobi, the prominent advocate of Spinoza's enlightened religious philosophy and an eminent precursor of religious individualism, particularly in its pietistic form. During his diplomatic service Humboldt met the great reformer Freiherr von und zum Stein, who incorporated the educational reforms into the grand liberal reform plan instituted by Stein in an attempt to modernize Prussia in the aftermath of her defeat by Napoleon ( 1806). Indeed, reforms in general and educational reforms in particular, fostering intellectual and cultural achievements, were to be Prussia's means of compensating for her territorial losses in the war with Napoleon' and of setting her on the road to becoming Germany's premier power.

In a wider sense, this reform movement was a response to the French Revolution. Supported by the majority of German men of letters, 2 it seemed, at least in its


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Education and Society in Germany


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