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Higher Education News from the Collegiate Way

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Woodrow Wilson: British Colleges, German Universities

— Historians commonly distinguish between two broad organizational models in higher education: the British model and the Germanic or Continental model. The British model is the residential college model, and the residential college revival of today takes its ultimate inspiration from the collegiate universities of Great Britain. The Germanic model of higher education, by contrast, is the model of the research university, and it traces its roots to the innovative structure of the University of Berlin in the early 1800s, which emphasized advanced study, original scholarship, and professional publication.

Today’s revival of the collegiate model of higher education is in fact the second revival of the collegiate way of living. The first revival took place at the beginning of the twentieth century in reaction to the great wave of Germanification that had just swept across the American educational landscape. Beginning with Frank Bolles’ prophetic account of the consequences of university expansion, and strengthened by Abbott Lawrence Lowell’s call for a renewal of community life, the first collegiate revival culminated in the establishment of residential college systems at both Harvard and Yale Universities in the 1930s.

One of the leading figures of that first collegiate revival was Woodrow Wilson, who was the president of Princeton University before he became President of the United States. In the first decade of the century Wilson strove to implement a “quadrangle plan” at Princeton that would divide the growing campus into a collection of British-style residential colleges, each of which, he hoped, would be able recreate some of the virtues of the small and intimate “old college” that had been lost to expansion and specialization. Wilson’s quadrangle plan failed in the end because of political opposition from the powerful network of private clubs that dominated the life of the campus at that time. It is only now, a hundred years later, that Wilson’s collegiate vision for Princeton is finally being realized.

The residential college advocates of this earlier period recognized many of the same problems that we recognize today in higher education. Here is Wilson, lamenting the lack of connection between the life of the classroom and the life of the campus as a whole, in a 1909 Phi Beta Kappa oration called “The Spirit of Learning.” What would Wilson think of the massive industrial multiversities of today?

There went along with the relaxation of rule as to what undergraduates should study [as a result of the introduction of the Germanic elective system] an almost absolute divorce between the studies and the life of the college, its business and its actual daily occupations. The teacher ceased to look upon himself as related in any responsible way to the life of his pupils, to what they should be doing and thinking of between one class exercise and another, and conceived his whole duty to have been performed when he had given his lecture and afforded those who were appointed to come the opportunity to hear and heed it if they chose. The teachers for this new régime, moreover, were most of them trained for their teaching work in German universities, or in American universities in which the methods, the points of view, the spirit, and the object of the German universities were, consciously or unconsciously, reproduced. They think of their pupils, therefore, as men already disciplined by some general training such as the German gymnasium gives, and seeking in the university special acquaintance with particular studies, as an introduction to special fields of information and inquiry. They have never thought of the university as a community of teachers and pupils: they think of it, rather, as a body of teachers and investigators to whom those may resort who seriously desire specialized kinds of knowledge. They are specialists imported into an American system which has lost its old point of view and found no new one suitable to the needs and circumstances of America. They do not think of living with their pupils and affording them the contacts of culture; they are only accessible to them at stated periods for a definite and limited service; and their teaching is an interruption to their favorite work of research.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021