In the German states, prior to 1734, university teaching was dominated by Catholic and Protestant proponents of Christian education. Since the purpose of religious education is to preserve a particular sect’s understanding of the world, little was done to encourage new learning. “Teaching methods were backward. The norm was the teaching of static truths, not new ideas; professors were not expected to produce new knowledge.” (Watson, p. 50).
The year 1734 is significant because that is the year that the University of Gottingen was founded with Gerlach Adolph von Munchhausen as its Kurator. “Munchhausen ensured that theology played a relatively quiet role. Gottingen became the first university to restrict the theological faculty’s traditional right of censorship…By this enlightened measure, Gottingen’s freedom to think, write and publish, became unparalleled in Germany.” (Watson, p. 51). In addition, Munchhausen encouraged the teaching of non-theological courses. The subjects of physics, politics, natural history, mathematics, history, geography, art and modern languages, flourished.
With a broader definition of education, which included topics that required research and the expansion of knowledge rather than the repeating of old dogma, Gottingen found it necessary to introduce a new structured environment to convey learning. In addition to the lecture, the traditional way a professor imparts established wisdom, Gottingen initiated the seminar. Revolutionary for its time, the seminar allowed a group of interested students, with a professor, to discuss their ideas and research. Seminars were conducted in smaller rooms to invite exchange, rather than in lecture halls. That the student was perceived to have individual thoughts and ideas for exploration, which might contribute to a general pool of knowledge, was itself an innovative idea.
An emphasis on original research began to evolve for both students and faculty. Students’ research evolved into the PhD dissertation. Likewise, faculty were not just freed, but expected, to perform and publish original research. The first German professional academic journals were developed at Gottingen for communicating the research of professors. Previously, the main way that a professor could contribute to the literature of knowledge was by adding glosses in the margins of traditionally accepted works.
Though Gottingen was the first German university to employ these techniques, their superiority over pre-existing static forms became apparent over time. The methods employed by Gottingen expanded to other universities. These universities created “a new stratum in German society” which “achieved a prominent position in Germany by means of its domination of the state bureaucracy, the church, the military, the professoriate, and the professions. The self-understanding of this new stratum, which more than any other group helped account for the revival of German culture, set it apart from the traditional, more commercial middle class…a German intelligentsia.” (Watson, p. 54).
What followed was a reading revolution and the notion that learning was a lifelong pursuit. This thirst for learning created a golden age of German science, technology, thought and arts, which persisted for almost two centuries. None of this would have been possible without the initial vision to restrict the religious domination of learning and emphasis on dogma. It is a lesson for all of us that when we remove the bonds of religious education, we make room for knowledge, innovation and the expansiveness of secular education.
Watson, Peter. The German Genius. New York: Harper Collins Publishers, 2010.