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Wilhelm von Humboldt's Treatise "On the Internal and External Organization of the Higher Scientific Institutions in Berlin" (1810)

Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835), a renowned philosopher, scholar, and linguist, and the minister responsible for educational reform in Prussia, oversaw the planning and opening of the innovative University of Berlin in 1810. This text reflects the spirit that animated Humboldt’s conception of knowledge [Wissenschaft] and its pursuit in the scholarly community of the university. Though also essential to the state and the nation, knowledge was now conceived of as an end in itself. The idea now known as “academic freedom” finds expression in this piece, though Humboldt accorded the state a major role in professorial and other university appointments.

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“On the Internal and External Organization of the Higher Scientific Institutions in Berlin”

Wilhelm von Humboldt

The notion of the higher scientific institutions, as the pinnacle where everything that happens directly for the moral culture of the nation comes together, is based on the idea that they are destined to work on science in the deepest and broadest sense of the word, and hand it over as subject matter to be used by intellectual and moral education, suitably prepared for this purpose, not intentionally so but by itself.

Their essence thus lies in internally connecting objective science with subjective education, and externally connecting the completed school education with the beginning university studies under one’s own guidance; or rather, to bring about the transition from one to the other. Still, the chief factor remains science. [ . . . ] For when the latter stands pure, it is correctly perceived in and of itself and in its totality, even if there are individual deviations. Since these institutions can thus achieve their purpose only if each one, as much as possible, faces the pure idea of science, solitariness and freedom are the predominant principles in their circle. But since the intellectual work within humanity flourishes only as cooperation, namely not merely in that one fills in what another lacks, but in that the successful work of one inspires the others, and that the general, original power that shines forth in the individual person only singly or deflected becomes visible to all, the internal organization of these institutions must bring forth and sustain a collaboration that is uninterrupted, constantly self-renewing, but unforced and without specific purpose.

Moreover, it is a peculiarity of the higher scientific institutions that they always treat science as a problem that has still not been fully resolved and therefore remain constantly engaged in research, whereas the school deals with and teaches only finished and agreed-upon bits of knowledge. The relationship between teacher and students will therefore become quite different from what it was before. The former does not exist for the latter, both exist for science. [ . . . ]

What one therefore calls higher scientific institutions is, disconnected in every way from the state, nothing other than the intellectual life of the people whom external leisure or inner desire leads to science and research. Even without them one person would study and collect on his own, another join with men of the same age, a third gather a circle of disciples around him. The state, too, must remain faithful to this image if its wants to bring together in a more solid form the inherently undetermined and in a sense accidental activities. It must make sure to

1. always preserve the activity in its most lively and robust vitality;

2. not allow it to decline, to maintain pure and firm the separation of the higher institutions from the school (not only from the general theoretical, but also, and especially, from the variety of practical ones).

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