Until Hitler took power, German universities were the envy of the world. They had they best facilities, offered the best training, and employed the best researchers. Between 1901 and 1932, scholars based in Germany won 33 Nobel Prizes for academic work (counting the historian Theodor Mommsen, but excluding other winners in Literature). Americans won just five.
The academic balance of power has changed. American universities dominate international rankings. And German officials periodically warn of a “brain drain” toward the United States. It’s a sad decline for the land of Humboldt, Hegel, and Heisenberg.
You might reasonably conclude that German universities have something to learn from their American counterparts. The Notre Dame professor Mark Roche made that case in a recent book. Last week, he turned the argument around. In a piece for FAZ (link in German), Roche suggests that American universities emulate seven features of German universities: the intellectual independence they offer students; the seminar system; a place of honor for the traditional lecture; double majoring; professors who take a broad view of their subject; respect for the humanities; and a generous attitude toward academic training for non-academic careers.
Roche could have mentioned another appealing aspect of German universities: they’re much cheaper to run. As Rebecca Schuman reminds progressives impressed by the fact that they don’t charge tuition,
German universities consist almost entirely of classroom buildings and libraries—no palatial gyms with rock walls and water parks; no team sports facilities (unless you count the fencing fraternities I will never understand); no billion-dollar student unions with flat-screen TVs and first-run movie theaters. And forget the resort-style dormitories. What few dorms exist are minimalistic, to put it kindly—but that’s largely irrelevant anyway, as many German students still live at home with their parents, or in independent apartment shares, none of which foster the kind of insular, summer-camp-esque experience Americans associate closely with college life (and its hefty price tag)…There is also little in the way academic advising, which in the U.S. is now so hands-on that it has become its own cottage industry within the administration. Over there, you’re expected to know what you need to take, and to take it.
Roche provides useful reminders of the shortcomings of American higher education, which is quite expensive and not all that effective for undergraduates. But I’m not convinced Germany has many lessons to teach.
To begin with, American colleges and universities already do several of things Roche recommends. Double majors, for example, are pretty common.
Some of Roche’s other suggestions are in tension with each other. You can emphasize small seminars and traditional lectures, but probably not both. In any case, the relation between lectures and specialized study in Germany is determined by a model of secondary education that few Americans would accept. German students are ready for advanced work because they attended tracked high schools that rigorously separate the college-bound minority from those destined for trades.
Finally, funding structures make a difference. Because they depend on enrollment rather than direct subsidies, American universities have to compete for customers. Although they don’t always pay off, football, fancy dorms, and other amenities that attract students are often attempts to balance the books.
The main problem, however, is that Roche thinks too much like a German. His argument implies that there’s just one model of well-run university. This approach goes back to Humboldt himself, who conceived the research university as a rational synthesis of ancient and modern, theory and practice, institution and individual.
American universities have never achieved this ideal, or even seriously pursued it. The truth is, the set of responsibilities they’ve acquired doesn’t make a lot of sense.
That’s not so terrible, though. What we lack in coherence we gain in diversity. In Germany, one university is about the same as another. Americans, on the other hand, can choose public or private, secular or religious, technical or humanistic, urban or rural, and so on. Rather than trying to fix colleges by making them more similar, we should resist standardization, whether it’s justified by economic, political, or even academic considerations. The Germans will always do that kind of thing better, anyway.
Samuel Goldman is assistant professor of political science at The George Washington University.