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The American university and the world

In the 19th century, Americans who wanted to master an academic subject went to Germany. American professors taught what they had learned in college. German professors did research and made discoveries. American professors held recitation classes where they tried to catch the slackers who hadn’t prepared. German professors held seminars where they taught students how to analyze texts, ran laboratories where students learned how to study nature and offered lectures that attracted students from many fields.

American professors were frosty figures in shabby frock coats. German professors could be heroes. Streetcar conductors in Berlin pointed out the great Roman historian Theodor Mommsen, who read as he stood at his stop: “That is Professor Mommsen. He doesn’t waste time.” When Mark Twain attended a banquet at the University of Berlin in 1892, bugle calls and a student honor guard with raised swords greeted the professors as they entered. When Mommsen came in, “There was an excited whisper at our table — ‘MOMMSEN!’ — and the whole house rose. Rose and shouted and stamped and clapped and banged the beer mugs. Just simply a storm!”


In America’s Victorian age, strenuous effort was practically a synonym for virtue. Americans who really wanted to learn — including the Princetonians Basil Lanneau Gildersleeve, Class of 1849, and James Morgan Hart, Class of 1860 — sought out Germany’s industrious heroes of “Wissenschaft.” Gildersleeve took his doctorate at Gottingen, turned down an inadequate job offer from Princeton and founded the classics department at Johns Hopkins, America’s first real graduate school. Hart published a solid book on German universities in 1874 and taught English at Cornell. About 10,000 Americans studied in Germany. And when the old colleges like Princeton retooled as graduate schools and the new universities like Chicago and Cornell created doctoral programs along with undergraduate ones, the returned Ph.D. holders started their own seminars, designed their own labs and began building up libraries and other resources.

Professors even came to seem a little bit heroic. When the University of Chicago succeeded in attracting a major German historian, Hermann von Holst, the students celebrated with a torchlight procession. In the Thirties, finally, as one American administrator put it, Hitler shook the tree, and American universities caught the apples: the most brilliant and independent German scholars, many of whom were spectacular teachers. Transformed by their presence, the American universities set a new, cosmopolitan standard — as the German ones had in their time — for universities around the world.

Yet American universities didn’t simply imitate the Germans. German universities offered only graduate courses. American universities also taught, and emphasized, courses for undergraduates. The German universities were financed by their states, which allowed students to move freely from university to university, taking credits with them (they were also free to take the courses that interested them), and provided the funds to compete for top professors. Some American universities were public and some private, though pretty much all of them treated students as children and marched them through required courses.

American universities adopted the German lecture as a new and inspiring form of undergraduate, more than graduate, teaching. They also developed undergraduate seminars and senior theses, which enabled thousands who did not plan to become scientists or scholars or teachers, as German students mostly did, to spice their survey courses in the liberal arts with a splash of original research and the intellectual adventures it provides. And they found their own sources for funding, everywhere from state appropriations to foundation grants to gifts from donors.

For half a century, the synthesis has worked remarkably well. American higher education has produced great scientists and scholars, as well as thousands of professionals and business people who know the values and methods of scholarship and science at first hand. It has also proved resilient. At times, trustees, politicians and administrators have tried to limit free inquiry. They have harmed individuals and institutions, but the system’s complexity and variety has preserved it from ruin. When private colleges and universities sagged in the 1970s, public institutions grew and improved. When government support for research slowed, private support expanded. Eventually, even Europeans — even Germans — began to talk about imitating our model.

So far so good, as the man said when he fell past the 50th floor. But what comes next? In recent years, universities and research centers from Berlin to Beijing have caught up or passed us in many fields. The states have decided that higher education isn’t a public good, which they should support, but a private one, which students and their families should pay for. Lots of critics, finally, claim that research — once a key to innovation at all levels — has become a sterile routine of intellectual busywork. They charge that it impoverishes, rather than enriches, universities, since it pulls professors out of the classroom. The challenges are certainly serious, and many universities are struggling. What versions of the American university will dominate the world of learning next, and where will they be?


Anthony Grafton is the Henry Putnam University Professor of History. He can be reached at

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