Alexander von Humboldt
Alexander von Humboldt was born 1769 in Berlin. His father was an officer of the Prussian army, a man pledged to the state and the king. Alexander and his brother were educated by several different tutors. The standard of the teaching was high; their parents spent a lot of money on the education of their children in order to enable them to serve the state. Alexander seemed to be less engaged and intelligent than his dominant brother Wilhelm. But the teachers noticed that he collected stones and other objects during his walks through the garden- obviously Alexander was interested in nature. He became known by his teachers as the ‘little apothecary’. Nature became the dominant subject of his life; he was one of the founders of geography as a science. In 1779 his father died, but his mother continued to engage the best teachers of Prussia to educate the two brothers. When Alexander was old enough he went to Frankfurt/Oder to study fiscal accounting and become an official of the Prussian state. After half a year he gave up because he didn’t feel challenged enough, and went on his first expedition to England and France in 1789-90.
He was inspired by the ideals of the French revolution, of fraternité, egalité, and liberté. He went on to study political science in Göttingen. After further education at the mining academy of Freiberg (which he completed in 8 months instead of the usual three years!) he worked as an assessor of the Prussian mines. During this time he invented the first gas mask for the miners and opened an evening school for them, which he financed with his own money. He seldom slept more than four hours a night and people who knew him at that time reported that they never saw him without a pencil and paper to write down ideas that darted through his mind. Until the end of his life, learning and observing were his main principles, always dominating physical needs.
In 1769 his mother died and he inherited a considerable amount of money. He used the money to organise an expedition to South-America. Until 1804 he observed plants and animals, geology and the climate of the continent in order to write a voluminous work about nature itself, collecting all know facts of all natural sciences. During the expedition he overcame his mountain sickness as well as volcanic eruptions; he even climbed on a mountain during an earthquake to see what an earthquake would be like. After returning to Prussian in 1807 he became a Chamberlain of the Prussian king and was sent to Paris to represent him.
In 1827 he started to give lectures in Natural Science at the University of Berlin, and at the age of sixty he undertook one more expedition to Russia and Siberia, where he reached the Chinese border. He eventually became the center of a European scientific network, promoting young scientists. Because of his influence over the Prussian king some called him the European Minister for Education. He died in 1859, three years after becoming an honorary citizen of Berlin.
Alexander von Humboldt is an example of the new educated servant of the state, following the theoretical approach of his older brother. He seems to have been a kind of first exemplar of his brother’s ideas. He followed his personal interests to become as good as he could become. He took science as a worthy thing in itself and as an expression of human curiosity, and he was a humble servant of his state, nation and king. Alexander von Humboldt was educated by teachers his parents paid for. By far the majority of the Prussian citizens of the time did not have enough money to educate their children- education was a private and elite affair. This was to be changed dramatically by Alexander’s brother, Wilhelm von Humboldt, the most important reformer of the German educationalist system.
Wilhelm von Humboldt
Wilhelm von Humboldt was born 1767 in Potsdam. He enjoyed the same education as his brother but complained as an adult about the boring time spent- he was far too intelligent to be entertained by education only, even if the teachers were amongst the best scientists of the time. Like his brother Alexander, he went to Paris from 1789-90. He then completed his studies in law at Göttingen University in only two years. He went on to be educated as a judge and a diplomat, aiming to serve the state. After his time at university he moved to Jena to live close to his very good friend Friedrich Schiller, and became the most important critic and advisor of Schiller and Göthe. After the defeat of Prussia in 1806 he went back to Berlin, becoming Minister of Education in 1809. In this role in 1810 he founded the University of Berlin, now called Humboldt University, and managed to engage some of the brightest and best known intellectuals of Germany to be the first professors at the new university, including Friedrich Schleiermacher, Friedrich Carl von Savigny, Johann Gottlieb Fichte and Barthold Georg Niebuhr.
After only one year in office his influence was greatly reduced. The Prussian king wanted educational reforms to come to an end, and sent him first to Vienna and then to London as an ambassador. In 1819 he was removed from office because of his liberal views. He finished his life as a pensioner caring for the palace his mother had left to him. Wilhelm’s main role, the role which made him famous, was that of reformer. He introduced a number of new ideas to the Prussian educational system (detailed below). The Prussian reform movement started in 1806 when Napoleon defeated the Prussians. It was clear that Prussia needed a new start, new citizens who would be willing to fight for their country and king, a new motivation to exist. It was the Prussian King who said after the defeat: “The State has to replace what it has lost of its physical power by intellectual power.”
Science had to be reinvented; Wilhelm von Humboldt was the man who did it. His ideas, realised in the creation of the Berlin University he founded in 1810, were based on the principles of science as an end in itself and state supported research. Together these two principles give freedom to science, which no longer needs to prove its right to exist by its utility. Individuals are encouraged to follow their interest, to be their best and finally, to serve the state which financed their process of becoming an individual. According to Humboldt’s ideas, teachers who wanted to work at a state school had to pass an exam, which was prepared and administered by the state, to be sure that their level of education was sufficient. This is still the case in Germany today.
Humboldt invented an education of intellectual freedom, organised by the state and therefore independent of practical needs and necessities, allowing citizens in turn to serve the state through their intellectual contributions. This was the beginning of a long success story; German education became the best of the world until 1933, when Hitler forced the best scientists to emigrate, in most cases because of their Jewish origins. When Humboldt founded the university, he was able to engage intellectuals like August Böckh, Friedrich Daniel Ernst Schleiermacher, Johan Gottlieb Fichte, Karl Friedrich von Savigny and Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland. 29 Nobel Prize winners have come from this University, amongst them Albert Einstein, Max Planck and Robert Koch.
Today Humboldt’s ideas seem to be subject to debate. The state has reduced the education budget. Education has become a very problematic issue in German society today. There is a shift towards private sponsorship due to lack of state money. This development might be necessary, because German science is only a shadow of its former self, and the German school system is not amongst the best of the world anymore. However, a lack of publicly funded research threatens the autonomy of science and can lead, in the long run, to a lack of basic and theoretical research, since primarily applied research is paid for by private companies. The discussion of Humboldt’s ideas in our modern society is a necessary challenge today.