Education now became the prime concern and achievement of Germany, matching that interest in war which was excited by the uprising of mind and body against Napoleon. Fichte’s Addresses to the German Nation (1807),12 though heard by few, expressed the growing conviction of the age: only a reform of education at every level could lift Germany out of the quest for pleasure into a stern devotion to the needs of the state in these years when quick surrender and national humiliation had almost broken the German spirit. In 1809 Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835) was appointed Prussian education minister. He gave himself effectively to his task, and under his lead the German educational system began a renovation which soon made it the best in Europe. Students came from a dozen countries to study in the Universities of Göttingen, Heidelberg, Jena, and Berlin. Education was extended to all classes, and was broadened in subjects and aims; and though religion was emphasized as a prop of character, the law instructors made nationalism the new religion of German schools—quite as Napoleon had made it the new divinity in the schools of France.

The universities of Germany required and received a vigorous examination, for many of them were suffering from the neglect that usually befalls old age. Heidelberg’s had been founded in 1386, Cologne’s in 1388, Erfurt’s in 1379, Leipzig’s in 1409, Rostok’s in 1419, Mainz’s in 1476, Tübingen’s in 1477, Wittenberg’s in 1502. Now they were all in straits and need. The University of Künigsberg, begun in 1544, was flourishing with Immanuel Kant. The University of Jena, established in 1558, became the cultural capital of Germany, with Schiller, Fichte, Schelling, Hegel, the brothers Schlegel, and the poet Hölderlin; there the faculty almost rivaled the students in welcoming the French Revolution. The University of Halle (1604) was “the first modern university” in three senses: it vowed itself to freedom of thought and teaching, and required no pledge of religious orthodoxy from its faculty; it made room for science and modern philosophy; and it became a center of original scholarship and a workshop of scientific research.13 The University of Göttingen, founded so lately as 1736, had by 1800 become “the greatest school in Europe,”14 rivaled only by the University of Leiden in Holland. “All the north of Germany,” said Mme. de Staël, roaming there in 1804, “is filled with the most learned universities in Europe.”15

Wilhelm von Humboldt, the Francis Bacon of this revival of learning, was one of the great emancipated minds of the age. Though born in the nobility, he described it as “once a necessary and now an unnecessary evil.” He concluded from the study of history that almost every institution, however defective and obstructive it had become, had once been beneficent. “What kept freedom alive in the Middle Ages? The system of fiefs. What preserved the sciences in the centuries of the barbarians? Monasticism.”16 This was written at the age of twenty-four. A year later (1792) he judged with prophetic wisdom the new constitution enacted by France in 1791; it contained, he thought, many admirable proposals, but the French people, excitable and passionate, would be unable to live up to it, and would transform their country into chaos. A generation afterward, wandering with a fellow philologist over the battlefield of Leipzig, where Napoleon had met disaster in 1813, he remarked, “Kingdoms and empires, as we see here, perish; but a fine poem endures forever.”17 Perhaps he was thinking of Pindar, whose poems he had translated from their exceptionally difficult Greek.

He failed as a diplomat because he was too enthralled by the revolution of ideas to absorb himself in the ephemera of politics. Uncomfortable on the public stage, he retired to an almost solitary life of study. He was fascinated by philology, and followed the adventures of words as they traveled from one country to another. He had no faith in the use of government to solve the social problem, for better laws would be frustrated by the unchanged nature of man. He concluded that the best hope for man lay in the development of a minority whose social dedication might serve as a beacon for the young, even in a despondent generation.

So, at the age of forty-two he came out of his privacy to serve as minister of education; and in 1810 the government commissioned him to organize the University of Berlin. There he effected a change that influenced European and American universities till our own time: the professors were chosen not so much for their ability to teach as for their reputation or willingness for original research in science or scholarship. The Berlin Academy of Sciences (founded in 1711), the national observatory, botanical garden, museum, and library were incorporated into the new university. Hither came Fichte the philosopher, Schleiermacher the theologian, Savigny the jurist, and Friedrich August Wolf (1759–1824), the classical scholar whose Prolegomena ad Homerum (1795) had startled Hellenists with the illuminating suggestion that “Homer” had been not one poet but a succession of singers gradually putting together the Iliad and the Odyssey. In the University of Berlin Barthold Georg Niebuhr (1776–1831) gave the lectures that became his pathfinding History of Rome (Römische Geschichte, 1811–32). He surprised the scholastic world by rejecting Livy’s early chapters as not history but legend. —Henceforth in classical scholarship, in philology, in historiography, as well as in philosophy, Germany led the world. Its supremacy in science had still to come.

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