At a Berlin banquet in 1892, Mark Twain, himself a worldwide celebrity, stared in amazement as a crowd of a thousand young students “rose and shouted and stamped and clapped, and banged the beer-mugs” when the historian Theodor Mommsen entered the room
The heart of Clark’s story, however, takes place not during the Middle Ages but from the Renaissance through the Enlightenment, and not in France but in the German lands of the Holy Roman Empire. This complex assembly of tiny territorial states and half-timbered towns had no capital to rival Paris, but the little clockwork polities transformed the university through the simple mechanism of competition. German officials understood that a university could make a profit by attaining international stature. Every well-off native who stayed home to study and every foreign noble who came from abroad with his tutor—as Shakespeare’s Hamlet left Denmark to study in Saxon Wittenberg—meant more income. And the way to attract customers was to modernize and rationalize what professors and students did.
Bureaucrats pressured universities to print catalogues of the courses they offered—the early modern ancestor of the bright brochures that spill from the crammed mailboxes of families with teen-age children. Gradually, the bureaucrats devised ways to insure that the academics were fulfilling their obligations. In Vienna, Clark notes, “a 1556 decree provided for paying two individuals to keep daily notes on lecturers and professors”; in Marburg, from 1564 on, the university beadle kept a list of skipped lectures and gave it, quarterly, to the rector, who imposed fines. Others demanded that professors fill in Professorenzetteln, slips of paper that gave a record of their teaching activities. Professorial responses to such bureaucratic intrusions seem to have varied as much then as they do now. Clark reproduces two Professorenzetteln from 1607 side by side. Michael Mästlin, an astronomer and mathematician who taught Kepler and was an early adopter of the Copernican view of the universe, gives an energetic full-page outline of his teaching. Meanwhile, Andreas Osiander, a theologian whose grandfather had been an important ally of Luther, writes one scornful sentence: “In explicating Luke I have reached chapter nine.”
In an even more radical break with the past, professors began to be appointed on the basis of merit. In many universities, it had been routine for sons to succeed their fathers in chairs, and bright male students might hope to gain access to the privileged university caste by marrying a professor’s daughter. By the middle of the eighteenth century, however, reformers in Hanover and elsewhere tried to select and promote professors according to the quality of their published work, and an accepted hierarchy of positions emerged. The bureaucrats were upset when a gifted scholar like Immanuel Kant ignored this hierarchy and refused to leave the city of his choice to accept a desirable chair elsewhere. Around the turn of the nineteenth century, the pace of transformation reached a climax.
In these years, intellectuals inside and outside the university developed a new myth, one that Clark classes as Romantic. They argued that Wissenschaft—systematic, original research unencumbered by superstition or the authority of mere tradition—was the key to all academic achievement. If a university wanted to attract foreign students, it must appoint professors who could engage in such scholarship. At a great university like Göttingen or Berlin, students, too, would do original research, writing their own dissertations instead of paying the professors to do so, as their fathers probably had. Governments sought out famous professors and offered them high salaries and research funds, and stipends for their students. The fixation on Wissenschaft placed the long-standing competition among universities on an idealistic footing.
Between 1750 and 1825, the research enterprise established itself, along with institutions that now seem eternal and indispensable: the university library, with its acquisitions budget, large building, and elaborate catalogues; the laboratory; the academic department, with its fellowships and specialized training. So did a new form of teaching: the seminar, in which students learned by doing, presenting reports on their original research for the criticism of their teachers and colleagues. The new pedagogy prized novelty and discovery; it was stimulating, optimistic, and attractive to students around the world. Some ten thousand young Americans managed to study in Germany during the nineteenth century. There, they learned that research defined the university enterprise. And that is why we still make our graduate students write dissertations and our assistant professors write books. The multicultural, global faculty of the American university still inhabits the all-male, and virtually all-Christian, research universities of Mommsen’s day.
He also uses the ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge as a traditionalist foil to the innovations of Germany. Well into the nineteenth century, these were the only two universities in England, and dons—who were not allowed to marry—lived side by side with undergraduates, in an environment that had about it more of the monastery than of modernity. The tutorial method, too, had changed little, and colleges were concerned less with producing great scholars than with cultivating a serviceable crop of civil servants, barristers, and clergymen.
If Clark helps us to understand why the contemporary university seems such an odd, unstable compound of novelty and conservatism, he also leaves us with some cause for unease. Mommsen may have liked to see himself as a buccaneering capitalist, but his money came from the state. Today, by contrast, dwindling public support has forced university administrators to look for other sources of funding, and to assess professors and programs through the paradigm of the efficient market. Outside backers tend to direct their support toward disciplines that offer practical, salable results—the biological sciences, for instance, and the quantitative social sciences—and universities themselves have an incentive to channel money into work that will generate patents for them. The new regime may be a good way to get results, but it’s hard to imagine that this style of management would have found much room for a pair of eccentrics like James Watson and Francis Crick, or for the kind of long-range research that they did. As for the humanities, once the core of the enterprise—well, humanists these days bring in less grant money than Mommsen, and their salaries and working conditions reflect that all too clearly. The inefficient and paradoxical ways of doing things that, for all their peculiarity, have made American universities the envy of the world are changing rapidly. What ironic story will William Clark have to tell a generation from now?