WHEN THE LINGUIST and statesman Wilhelm von Humboldt learned, in 1808, that Prussia’s new minister had chosen him to reform the state educational system, he was less than delighted. Humboldt was enjoying a quiet sojourn in Rome as ambassador to the Holy See and lamented the idea of abandoning his peaceful post. Politically, he imagined that this task would be doomed to failure, curtailing his career as a statesman. And then there was the issue of personnel. “Managing a crowd of scholars,” he complained, “is not much better than running a traveling circus.”

Under intense pressure to return to Berlin, Humboldt finally begrudgingly did so. In 1809, he founded the University of Berlin with the philosophers Friedrich Schleiermacher and Johann Gottlieb Fichte. With such idealist founders at its helm, the University of Berlin was a temple to Bildung, that famously untranslatable term which means something like the lifelong pursuit of moral, intellectual, and aesthetic development, and is often invoked with a lofty humanist flourish. Humboldt believed that the pursuit of knowledge and contemplation for its own sake would create intelligent, moral individuals who could reshape society in their own image. The University of Berlin would become an institution that furthered this ideal of harmonious self-cultivation.

But the University was also created to train new cadres for the Prussian state, which was in the throes of a vast modernization effort after its crushing military defeat by Napoleon in 1806. Prussia was rebuilding itself, and it needed a university to produce clerks, teachers, and administrators who could be on the frontlines of Prussian bureaucracy. The bargain that the University of Berlin struck within Prussia, under a regime of enlightened despotism, was for inner, intellectual freedom in exchange for civil obedience. This was a model drawn from Kant’s famous argument in “What Is Enlightenment?” (1784) that the “public” use of reason is a cosmopolitan, intellectual one, which allows scholars to question truths in principle so long as they remain obedient to authority in practice. Schleiermacher, for example, argued that certain privileges, such as freedom from censorship, could be obtained only through a close compact with the state. Only if Prussia could trust that its academics felt a sense of national obligation could they share knowledge beyond state boundaries and participate in the larger, cosmopolitan world of knowledge. The University of Berlin therefore was born as a result of an uneasy contract between reformers, thinkers, and statesman: it was designed both for the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, and as a practical means of revitalizing a state on the brink of collapse.

Emily J. Levine’s Allies and Rivals: German-American Exchange and the Rise of the Modern Research University follows this tale of institutional development through Germany and America, two nations at the forefront of 20th- and 21st-century education. In her meticulously researched, sweeping tale of the modern research university, Levine shows how American higher education was inspired by the University of Berlin, and how this model was transformed on American soil, in constant competition with Germany, into the educational landscape we have in the United States today — for better and for worse.

Though universities preach a gospel of progress, they often simultaneously reproduce social inequalities. One’s prospects of going to college remain tied to one’s educational and socioeconomic background, allowing people from families with college educations to accrue wealth and social capital through multiple generations. As anyone who has spent time in these places knows, a lot of lip service is paid to equity. Certainly, many universities today have good financial aid policies and try to attract a diverse student body. But in order for institutions to motor along, they must make compromises in their funding, hiring, and investing to ensure their continued survival. At the same time, the university is home to idealists who hope to usher in new ideas — all while navigating the shifting currents of institutional policies. How can we make sense of these contradictions, both within and beyond the university’s walls?

Allies and Rivals illuminates the historical roots of a problem central to higher education: while many teachers strive to introduce progressive ideas and ideals, the research university itself is a conservative institution, wedded to stability at the expense of radical innovation. Levine’s book reveals that the friction between progressive ideals and conservative policies has been a fundamental motor in the development of research-based higher education since its beginnings in the 19th century. Allies and Rivals also demonstrates that there has been no consensus about what, precisely, the modern research university is for — even at the moment of its founding. Some believe that the university is a place to do research and advance knowledge, unfettered by the problems of everyday life; others think it is a place to teach students skills in self-exploration and inquiry; others believe it can provide practical training for the local community; and yet others believe that it creates moral citizens who are good workers and loyal subjects. Second perhaps only to government, the university is a site in which the struggle between idealism and pragmatism is ever-present, and constantly subject to renegotiation.

By examining the transatlantic development of higher education, Allies and Rivals shows how American and German universities have, in the past 100-plus years, made “academic social contracts” with their countries and communities. The modern research university is an institution born of a brokered contract between an autonomous, global republic of knowledge, and a national set of political, social, and economic concerns. It is inherently an institution of compromise, of exclusion as well as inclusion, bound up intimately with each nation’s vision of itself. The research university in its current form is not self-evident, but rather a social experiment that has undergone many iterations over the last 200 years, linked to the rise and fall of the nation-state.

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The United States in the 19th century was dominated by small religious colleges, whose faculties often had limited training and did not undertake much research. In 1828, the Yale faculty issued a report that adamantly rejected research, and claimed that the purpose of the American college was solely to teach students. As a result, many Americans seeking further education ended up traveling to Germany, where they were dazzled by the commitment to research they encountered, and where they obtained PhDs. What nearly 10,000 American expatriate scholars found in Germany was a system based on four fundamental principles: “freedom of teaching and learning”; “unity of teaching and research”; “devotion to ‘pure’ research as connected to character formation”; and “the unity of the natural sciences and the humanities.” Students could attend lectures when and where they wanted and study with any professor they chose. They could move freely between universities and study with renowned faculty; all they needed was to get their lecture booklet signed, and present it at their current institution once their course of study was complete to obtain a degree. Faculty, in turn, enjoyed the freedom to teach what and how they wanted, provided they did not cross certain political lines. (Naturally, this was only possible at the top of the professorial food chain; an adjunct had no such safeguards.) The German university cultivated a strong spirit of autonomy, championed research for its own sake, and attempted, in good Humboldtian fashion, to provide a holistic education that sought to cultivate hearts as well as minds.

Only in the 1850s did American educational reformers begin to argue that if the country was to become industrially competitive, it would need to significantly bolster its capacities for scientific research. Two schools that combined research and teaching following the German model emerged in the latter half of the 19th century: the University of Michigan and Johns Hopkins University. Led by the magisterial Henry P. Tappan and Daniel Coit Gilman respectively, these universities pushed for disciplinary reorganization into research departments and religious freedom. While Tappan spent only a few years at the helm of the University of Michigan, Gilman made his mark upon American higher education when, in 1874, the board members of Johns Hopkins asked him to lead a university with $3.5 million at his disposal, no strings attached. Inspired by the German system, Gilman wanted to create an educational system that could serve two functions: the transmission of practical, applied skills, and the independent pursuit of knowledge. As Levine shrewdly notes, Gilman was an able politician, playing both sides of the field: “[I]n the tradition of Humboldt, it was never entirely clear which was his priority.”

Almost all of the ways in which Gilman shaped Johns Hopkins remain hallmarks of the American research university today: a funding structure in which departments, rather than individually endowed chairs, are given budgets to encourage collaboration; academic publishing as a means of garnering prestige and attention; stipends for graduate students (set initially at $500 per annum); and an undergraduate college which was initially conceived as a “feeder” for graduate programs, but grew and increased with importance in time. Another feature, too, was the tiered teaching structure of professors and adjuncts, a direct import from German institutions. By 1905, Johns Hopkins had become an impressive institution that garnered admiration even in Germany, and by 1909, the scholar Albert Bernhardt Faust described it as a “sinister institution,” which threatened to overshadow Germany’s established academic excellence.

Meanwhile, the many liberal arts colleges that dotted the American landscape resisted this model. Having evolved from the Oxbridge model, they focused largely on teaching. Charles William Eliot, the president of Harvard from 1869 to 1909, first quipped on a research stay at the University of Marburg that the German model would “suit the 150 young men who enter Freshmen [at Harvard] every year, about as well as a barn-yard would suit a whale.” But this changed quickly when Eliot realized that students hungered for the opportunities to pursue advanced degrees. In 1872, he created a graduate program at Harvard, basing his reforms on the changes Gilman had made at Yale before going to Johns Hopkins. Yet although many colleges transformed into research universities by introducing research-focused graduate programs, the United States was not yet ready for exclusively research-based institutions. Clark University, founded in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1887, was conceived initially as a graduate school only, inspired in part by Johns Hopkins, but had difficulties establishing itself within the surrounding community (as a rule, graduate students make poor public relations officers). Clark eventually opened an undergraduate college in 1902.

These new universities were elite institutions that championed research for its own sake. Other educational reformers wanted to expand practical, vocational training, and looked toward Germany’s creation of “technical universities,” which focused on engineering, agriculture, and geology. In order to broaden the country’s educational system, the Morrill Act of 1862 proposed a land-grant bill that gave land to states for the establishment of agricultural colleges. This created a nationwide network of technical and agricultural schools, which form the basis of most public universities today, including the massive University of California system. However, the nearly 11 million acres of lands used for this project were expropriated from over 250 Native tribes and communities, at almost no cost to the US government. The push to modernize and consolidate national education was, from its very beginning, one that enacted colonial policies of appropriation and exclusion.

Levine argues that the decentralized US government and the differing approaches to the mission of the university created a highly competitive environment which spurred innovation. The US educational landscape became a field of intense internal competition. This, in turn, led to the development of institutions that proved to be fair competition for Germany. If the German press had congratulated itself on its influence across the Atlantic — writing, “[t]he American research university is the best conquest that we have made in the world since Goethe” — by 1900 Germany feared it was losing its place at the top of the global educational system.

As is often the case, when institutions begin to offer new opportunities, new people are eager to partake. Yet interest in higher education from minorities and women led universities to develop stricter gatekeeping policies. Access to new resources had to be given to the “right kind of people” — and African Americans, Jews, and women were the wrong kind of people in the eyes of university administrators. In contrast, Germany welcomed — or, at any rate, tolerated — students who were kept out of American higher education. Both W. E. B. Du Bois and Martha Carey Thomas found in Germany the knowledge and resources they could not access in their homeland and came back with the determination to reform the US educational system. Du Bois reshaped the Department of Sociology at Atlanta University in the model of the German research university, establishing new scientific standards for sociology that would promote social and racial reform. Thomas, in turn, founded Bryn Mawr, which was conceived as an all-female Johns Hopkins. As Levine points out, however, Du Bois’s and Thomas’s desire to become cultural insiders led to their perpetuation of the same elite prejudices that had set up gatekeeping policies in the first place.

In this way, even as universities expanded and promised equal access and social mobility to their students, they remained by-and-large elite institutions. Levine’s characterization of this paradox still rings true today:

The ensuing clash among pioneering individuals, academic leaders, and emerging interest groups created the conditions under which higher education could remain the preserve of the elite — a hallmark of America’s “credential society” — while paying lip service to the ideals of equal access and meritocracy.

Even 100 years later, this paradox remains, leading to what George Packer has termed “Smart America”: an educated class of citizens who are part of a “credential society” and barely interact with fellow Americans who do not share their educational, socioeconomic, or cultural backgrounds. Their emergence can be traced directly back to the history of higher education described by Levine, in which meritocracy and elitism jostle uneasily with one another.

Professionalization, which raised educational standards nationally, was just as much a double-edged sword, as it solidified existing inequalities in the educational system. German universities had begun professionalizing several decades earlier, separating medical training from the PhD process, and driving a cleft between scientific research and the humanities. Professionalization in the US began as an initiative to standardize medical education across the nation, spearheaded by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (CFAT) in 1905. CFAT hired Abraham Flexner, a cantankerous Midwesterner who had spent significant time in Germany, to apprise the state of medical colleges across the nation. Flexner was appalled by what he found, calling Michigan’s Missionary Medical College in Battle Creek “very revolting”; Bowdoin College Medical School in Portland a “disgraceful affair”; and Birmingham Medical College a “joint stock company.”

The new standards the 1910 Flexner Report put forward forced many medical colleges to shut down. Among these, underserved communities were hit the hardest: rural and Black colleges lacking the resources to implement the suggested changes were shut down in large numbers, while medical schools in wealthy, urban areas survived. Flexner deemed only two Black medical schools — Howard and Meharry — worth saving, and he showed no sympathy for those who were faced with shrinking opportunities caused by the reforms. Many other professions followed suit by formalizing their courses of study: first law, then business, and lastly, “scientific management.” This prompted further reorganization of liberal arts colleges: at Harvard, Eliot separated the BA from the professional schools. These changes marginalized the humanities, which did not directly lead into a professional program, and turned them into an intellectual “playground” before real vocational education would begin. Levine terms this compromise a “devil’s bargain,” noting that though Eliot felt he had saved the humanities through these reforms, they were ultimately sidelined by this new credential-granting structure.

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The respective political and economic models of Germany and the United States presented vastly different opportunities for institutional creation and change. The American industrial revolution created massive wealth in the hands of a few entrepreneurs, such as Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, and the growing US educational system flourished through their philanthropy. The country’s strong commitment to laissez-faire economics meant that university presidents often preferred working with private donors rather than relinquishing power to the state. It was in the period of Carnegie and Rockefeller that Charles William Eliot at Harvard came up with one of the iconic, much-bedeviled innovations of the US university system: the endowment. Eliot saw endowments as a means of ensuring domestic and international success vis-à-vis Germany. He called the idea “free money”: a pool of unrestricted financial assets gathered together in a fund that could be grown and drawn upon at will. The university would be a place to innovate because it did not have to bow to supply-and-demand economics or adjust its offerings based on tuition income. The standing of a university and its ability to pursue academic excellence would depend on the amount of free money it could put toward its research goals.

Other interest groups wanted to prevent the consolidation of wealth and power by private universities, and advocated for the establishment of a national university which could be a flagship institution for the United States, much as the University of Berlin was for the newly unified Germany. When Andrew Carnegie sold his steel empire and began to turn his mind toward educational philanthropy, several people lobbied him to put his money toward this end. Yet Carnegie, who wanted above all to bolster American research, finally ended up founding CFAT instead. CFAT proved to be the death knell for the national university movement, leaving the landscape carved up between private and land-grant universities.

Germany, meanwhile, had invested nationally in research, since universities were wary of bowing too heavily to private interests and were comfortable with the bargain they had made with the state — minimal supervision in exchange for political quiescence. Already in 1870, the physiologist Emil du Bois-Reymond had approvingly called himself and his colleagues at the University of Berlin “the intellectual bodyguards of the Hohenzollerns.” From a German perspective, an alliance with the state remained far superior to one with businessmen. To keep pace with American research, which had been greatly stimulated by the influx of private money, Prussia founded the Kaiser Wilhelm Society in 1909, which balanced industry funding with government money to provided extra-university support for scientific research. In an inaugural speech for the Kaiser Wilhelm Society, theologian and educational reformer Adolf von Harnack echoed du Bois-Reymond’s views:

If the state does not provide [funding], the daily workings of science will become dependent on the views of those who give money — see America, Rockefeller, Carnegie! […] The creation of our very own Kaiser-Wilhelm-Gesellschaft is a powerful antidote; the state and academia are thereby channeling capital into an “untainted” bed.

Given the development of German history after World War I, the Faustian bargain implicit in this statement is harrowing. Yet whether financial backing for research was coming from private investors or state funds, the end result was to turn scientific research into “big business” that could survive and triumph in transatlantic competition.

As both private industrial and national capital flowed into universities, their missions were reshaped on both sides of the Atlantic. Upton Sinclair acerbically noted in 1914, “Our educational system is not a public service, but an instrument of special privilege; its purpose is not to further the welfare of mankind, but merely to keep America capitalist.” The reformer and economist Thorstein Veblen equally chided the “free-money” business model, in which administrative matters were decided not by professors, but by a separate administration: “The university is conceived as a business house dealing in merchantable knowledge, placed under the governing hand of a captain of erudition, whose office it is to turn the means in hand to account in the largest feasible output.” As university presidents turned more toward business and politicking (Levine singles out Nicholas Murray Butler, the president of Columbia and an inveterate opportunist, as a case model), perceptions about the university changed, and the first criticisms of the “corporate university” began to emerge.

While leftist reformers in the United States decried the corruption of education by capital, Germans used American-style funding to pursue progressive politics in the face of the establishment’s gatekeeping policies. In Germany, institutional antisemitism barred Jewish researchers from becoming tenured professors. Private research institutes, such as the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Physical and Electrical Chemistry, were endowed by Jewish industrialists who in turn made space for Jewish — and sometimes women — researchers. Germany’s most famous institute, the Frankfurt Institute for Social Research — founded in 1923 by Hermann Weil, a fantastically wealthy Argentine German grain trader whose wayward socialist son, Felix, convinced his father to endow an autonomous institute for the study of Marxism — gave a home to a number of Jewish leftist intellectuals, including Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, who had been excluded from the German educational establishment. Capital proved essential for opening doors, even for leftists and liberals with other ideological missions.

American institutions founded on experimental models, such as the New School for Social Research or, later, Black Mountain College, rejected endowments and tuitions and tried to found educational institutions on utopian ideals. While they remain inspirational today, Levine shows that in both cases, the founders’ plans were subject to heavy compromise to create working institutions. Charles Beard, one of the founders of The New School, wanted to lead the school on a “hand-to-mouth plan” because “every endowment tempts pirate educators to clamber over the gunwales, dirk in teeth.” The New School initially offered semi-public lectures at low cost by leading intellectuals in social science. But three years after its founding, it was on the edge of bankruptcy. It began charging tuition and gave up the dream of being an autonomous social science research institute, popularizing its offerings and pivoting toward the arts instead.

Black Mountain College, the utopian cradle of American modernism, was also created on a shoestring budget by four defectors from the Congregationalist Rollins College in Florida (one, the Classics professor John A. Rice, was fired by the president of Rollins after colleagues complained that he “spoke too loudly in chapel, posted ‘obscene’ pictures to discuss the nature of art, and wore a jockstrap on the beach.”) Rice’s colleagues joined him after the president tried to force them into a loyalty pledge. Black Mountain was conceived as an anti-hierarchical, anti-institutional place of learning governed by democratic self-rule. By offering jobs to the exiled Bauhaus artists Josef and Anni Albers, and attracting American avant-garde artists and thinkers such as Buckminster Fuller, John Cage, and Robert Rauschenberg, Black Mountain College secured a reputation as a radical anti-establishment arts school. But the model was ultimately not sustainable: there was no money for dormitories; faculty members were asked to forgo salaries; and the community had to contribute their own manual labor to build facilities. The Alberses left for more secure employment at Yale School of Art in 1948. By 1952, the college only had 15 remaining students who were dubbed the “subsistence dwellers.” In 1957, it shut down.

Despite the post-1968 perception that universities are hotbeds of leftist activism, institutional policies throughout much of the 20th century — in both Germany and the United States — were not progressive. By and large, universities did not go out of their way to expand enrollments to minority students, hire minority faculty, or ensure job security for non-tenured faculty. Often, there was no disagreement between the professoriate or the administration on these matters: instead, both viewed the status quo as worth defending. In Germany, the professoriate upheld their own academic freedom not because of political views, but as “a proxy for social and economic status,” as Levine writes. In the United States, tenure was first proposed as a means to ensure academic freedom in the face of political repression during World War I — but it was equally informed by the class anxieties of the professoriate. The landmark statement on tenure, issued in 1915 by the Committee on Academic Freedom and Academic Tenure of the American Association of University Professors, declared that tenure should ensure the “freedom of teaching and research,” and make professorial positions more attractive to “men and women of ability,” since until then, academics had enjoyed little job security and received low compensation. By linking academic freedom to tenure, non-tenured faculty were left behind, and those who were lucky enough to obtain tenure often fell in step with the institution that gave them this hard-won privilege.

Moreover, whatever lip service was paid to academic freedom, it gave way in both countries under nationalist pressure during World War I. It is particularly troubling to read the now well-known story of how American racial science and statistical research inspired and encouraged the Nazi regime to undertake many of its repressive policies. Despite the university’s purported independence from national politics, once the nation called on its universities to be willing public servants, many campus leaders were happy to oblige without being critical of the cause.

Conversely, US universities greatly benefited from the “brain drain” brought about by the exile of Jewish researchers from Germany, though they were often hesitant to provide substantial support to intellectuals seeking refuge in the United States. The Emergency Aid Committee, which was in charge of scholar resettlement, was careful not to grant too many visas or positions because of broad antisemitic sentiment across the nation. (Levine notes: “In 1938, a poll by Opinion Research Corporation found that 82 percent of American adults were opposed to large-scale immigration of German Jews.”) Nor did the committee consider which communities might profit most from the influx of scholars. One single German Jewish scholar was resettled at a historically Black university; only around 50 eventually found their way into employment at historically Black colleges. “[A]cademic leaders aimed to keep the hierarchy of knowledge production in line with the hierarchy of race,” Levine writes.

Academic freedom, so highly championed and so bitterly disputed, can produce mavericks, avant-gardes, new political and social ideals, and universities present themselves as spaces for open inquiry. Institutionally, however, they rest on the pragmatic social contracts that they have brokered with their countries and communities. Allies and Rivals reveals that the American university was buoyed by the national current at large, while playing off a transatlantic relationship with a country that was, during its highest period of influence on US education, deeply nationalistic, patriarchal, and politically rigid. This curious combination of German idealism, freedom of inquiry, and hierarchical, conservative structures continues to determine the university we have today. No wonder it’s such a strange place to be these days.

It is tempting to dismiss today’s university as an institution irreparably tainted by its conservative history and to declare Humboldt’s liberal vision of Bildung obsolete. But universities continue to attract teachers who believe that there is something worthwhile to build upon. A university is not a monolithic institution, but rather a group of people with different ideas trying to work together. The conservative and liberal elements which characterize this collaboration are intertwined, and open up spaces of possibility for each other.

Yet it is hard to say whether the research university in its current form is worth saving. The dividends of higher education are decreasing: college graduates face an uncertain future, student debt, and an unstable economy. Much of the teaching is done by overworked and underpaid scholars. Tenured appointments are dwindling. The value of a PhD (especially in the humanities) is unclear. Brilliant teaching, intellectual exploration, and skills acquisition can happen in all sorts of places outside of degree programs. However, we can only produce deep, focused research with time and money, and this means that economic and social interests must align with the pursuit of knowledge. Even if we completely reimagine the university, it is likely that our future institutions will still manifest the same tension: they will have to balance the need for economic stability and political relevance with an imaginative desire to open up new worlds. If we can acknowledge this fact, and the complexity it brings to our mission, perhaps we can better imagine the educational spaces for our future.

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Sophie Duvernoy is a PhD student in German Literature at Yale University, where she focuses on literature and aesthetic theory of the Weimar period. She is the winner of the 2015 Gutekunst Prize for young translators, and her translation of Gabriele Tergit’s 1931 satire Käsebier Takes Berlin appeared with NYRB Classics in 2019.