Friday, May 17, 2024

Dr Oliver Hartwich: Humboldt's Gift - What a Prussian aristocrat can teach us about education

For the past six years, I have had the privilege of writing this Newsroom column on any Europe-related topic. While some may appear obscure at first, I always choose topics that I think New Zealanders can benefit from knowing more about.

Today, I would like to pay homage to one of my intellectual heroes: Wilhelm von Humboldt. I believe that this Prussian aristocrat’s ideas on education could help us with our current challenges in New Zealand.

Born in 1767, Humboldt was what one might call a true “Renaissance man” for the breadth of his learning and the depth of his curiosity. He was a philosopher, linguist, diplomat and, indeed, an education reformer.

But he was also very much a product of the Enlightenment, shaped by its ideals of reason, progress and individual liberty. In turn, Humboldt helped shape the course of the Enlightenment. He left a lasting mark on central European thought and culture.

In 1809, as Prussia lay devastated by the Napoleonic wars, Humboldt was appointed head of the department of education in Berlin. Amid the ruins of defeat, the Prussian government embarked on a series of desperate, radical reforms to rebuild the state. Humboldt’s reimagined the education system from the ground up – and he did so in just over a year.

Humboldt’s vision was revolutionary. At that time, especially in militaristic Prussia, most schools were little more than factories for learning rigid discipline. Humboldt dreamed of an education that would cultivate the full potential of everyone – intellectually, morally and aesthetically. He believed that the true aim of education should not be narrow vocational training. He thought it should holistically develop young people’s character and talents. Crucially, he wanted to see every child educated in this way, regardless of their socio-economic background or their later careers.

Central to Humboldt’s revolutionary vision was the idea that true creativity and problem-solving skills could only arise from a foundation of deep, substantive knowledge. Humboldt understood that genuine innovation was not possible without mastery of a subject – that the ability to think critically and imaginatively depended on a thorough grounding in the facts, concepts and methods of disciplines like science, mathematics, history and philosophy. In his view, the role of education was to provide this grounding, to equip students with tools to embark on lifelong journeys of learning and discovery.

Humboldt’s crowning achievement was the founding of the University of Berlin in 1810, which later took his name (and that of his brother Alexander, the famous naturalist and polymath). Built on the principles of academic freedom, the unity of teaching and research and the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, Humboldt’s university became a model for the modern research university. Its influence can still be felt in the best institutions around the world today.

Yet Humboldt’s impact extended far beyond the university. The Prussian school system he created, with its emphasis on a broad, liberal education and the development of the whole person, laid the foundations for what later became the German education system. That system, for all its faults and modern-day decline, has long been admired for its rigour, depth and intellectual ambition.

So, what can Humboldt teach us in New Zealand today, as we grapple with our own educational malaise? Because let us face it: our education system is in trouble. Our school students are slipping behind their international peers, university entrants are ill-prepared, and employers lament the lack of basic skills among graduates. Our universities, too, are grappling with issues of academic freedom and struggling to maintain relevance.

The root cause, I believe, is an education system that has lost sight of its core purpose: to cultivate the full potential of each individual pupil, not merely to produce job-ready cogs for the economic machine.

This is where Humboldt’s philosophy of Bildung – a German term that encompasses the holistic development of an individual’s intellectual, moral and aesthetic capacities – is more relevant than ever. Bildung (literally: ‘formation’ – often loosely translated as ‘education’) is not simply about acquiring either knowledge or skills. It is a transformative process that shapes one’s character, values and way of engaging with the world.

Crucially, this philosophy of Bildung is not about creativity for its own sake, or problem-solving skills in a vacuum. Rather, it is about nurturing these capacities through rigorous engagement with the substance of learning – the facts, ideas and disciplines that make up the heritage of human knowledge.

In recent decades, New Zealand has often got this backwards, prioritising “skills” over content and “creativity” over mastery. But Humboldt would insist that true creativity can only flourish on a bedrock of deep understanding.

A Humboldtian approach to education would therefore place a renewed emphasis on subject knowledge, on the systematic acquisition of the concepts and methods of the various disciplines. It would recognise that the ability to think critically and solve problems is not a generic skill, but one that depends on a thorough grounding in the specifics of a domain. It would strive to provide this grounding to all students, not just a select and lucky few.

Of course, we cannot simply transplant Humboldt’s 19th-century Prussian model wholesale into 21st-century New Zealand. Teaching ancient Greek, for instance – though one of Humboldt’s passions – may not be feasible or desirable in most schools today.

But that does not mean we should throw out the baby with the bathwater. Even if students do not learn ancient Greek, they can still engage with the enduring legacy of classical civilisation – its literature, philosophy, art and political thought. The same goes for other pillars of a liberal education, from the sciences to the arts and humanities.

The key is to adapt Humboldt’s principles to our own cultural, social and economic context, while staying true to their animating spirit: the belief that education is not just about transmitting information or skills. It is about cultivating the unique potential of each young person through a deep engagement with the substance of learning. Realising such an ideal is no easy feat. It would require rethinking how we structure and fund our schools and universities, how we train and support our teachers and how we define and measure educational success.

If we want to build a truly world-class education system – one that equips our young people not just for the jobs of today, but for the challenges and opportunities of an uncertain future – we could do worse than look to Humboldt as a guide. His message, though rooted in a different time and place, remains as relevant as ever: The true aim of education is to enable everyone to discover and develop their own unique potential through a rigorous and wide-ranging engagement with the world of knowledge.

I began this column by saying that one of the joys of writing for Newsroom is the freedom to explore whatever European topic I find interesting and important. Introducing a historical figure like Wilhelm von Humboldt fits that bill. Though hardly a household name in New Zealand (or even in Germany these days), his vision of a reformed, knowledge-rich education system has much to offer us.

In our quest to create an education system fit for the challenges of the 21st century, we may find that the most innovative ideas are not always the newest – and that the wisdom of a long-dead Prussian thinker may help us build a brighter future for all our children.

Dr Oliver Hartwich is the Executive Director of The New Zealand Initiative think tank. This article was first published HERE.


Gaynor said...

I liked for last paragraph Oliver where you state that the latest ideas are not always the best and we should look to the past.

I couldn't agree more since it is the prevailing Progressive education, in our schools, that insists on unthinkingly implementing the latest gimmick in education. This is foolishness since it has proved to be so often destructive to children's learning. Think Whole Language instead of phonics, a dominance of implicit and discovery learning instead of teacher initiated explicit instruction or open classrooms.

In NZ, we of an older age group, can remember the world class education we received mid- last century before John Dewey and his dastardly child-centered education had completely replaced Traditional Education which had the same components Humboldt advocates.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for that magnificent essay. Our education system is desperately in need of an Antipodian Humboldt to rescue us from the feculent mess we now inhabit.