A. Werner: The Transatlantic World of Higher Education

The Transatlantic World of Higher Education. Americans at German Universities, 1776-1914

Werner, Anja
European Studies in American History
Oxford 2013: Berghahn Books
344 S.
€ 76,00
Rezensiert für 'Connections' und H-Soz-Kult von:
Claudia Baumann, Global and European Studies Institute, University of Leipzig

With the emergence of the entrepreneurial and responsive university in the second half of the 20th century came the need for differentiation, and thus a system for measuring result and output. Universities exposed as individual actors in a competitive environment have changed the dynamics of higher education profoundly. Policies favoring the financial support of particular institutions to create centres of excellence or so called world-class universities marked a significant shift from emphasizing egalitarianism to a hierarchical competition crested by global rankings. Deeply engrained in today’s imaginary of higher education are ideas of a “Golden English triangle”1 and the “hugely successful American research university”.2

Anja Werner’s book serves as a reminder that admiration and praise for universities as well as for entire higher education models is subject to change. She focuses on four universities that were once destination of “educational pilgrimage” (p. 21) and seen by American students as embodying ideals suitable for advancing higher education at home. By looking at the universities of Göttingen, Halle, Heidelberg and Leipzig in particular Werner makes an important contribution in the rescaling of higher education research. It is not her intention to portray rivaling educational models pertaining to national spaces, but depicting a “fuller picture” (p. 5) of a transnational academic network and student migration at universities embedded in their specific principality or kingdom.

In the first part of the book Werner revisits student mobility figures and renews those for Leipzig and Halle unearthing information from handwritten registration records. The results of what must have been a labor intensive process in the archives show that the number of American students increased steadily over the course of the 19th century at all four universities. At the beginning of the 20th century it continued to grow only at Leipzig and Halle until the number declined in the onset of World War I. Between 1830 and 1870 it was Heidelberg that was the preferred destination while Leipzig took a lead in the years 1870-1898. In the latter phase the number of enrolled Americans at Leipzig University had grown to more than a thousand. Werner presents these figures in five phases shaped by the American Revolution, the Civil War, and Napoleonic Wars in Europe, but also as influenced by stages in reforming American higher education. Particularly noteworthy is the “regional sensitivity” (p. 26) when looking at the universities of origin. Conventional assessments tend to equate Northeastern universities in the United States with national developments despite the imprint that Southern universities left on student migration to Germany.

The reasons for joining one of these four universities were manifold, but the search for innovation might have been the single most important factor. The particular appeal of the University of Leipzig in the phase during which the number of American students peaked laid in the dialogue across disciplinary boundaries, especially between the humanities and the natural sciences, a special feature of the Saxon university. During regular Friday meetings in the so-called Leipziger Debattier-Circle around 1900 for example, the psychologist and philosopher Wilhelm Wundt, the physical chemist Wilhelm Ostwald, the historian Karl Lamprecht as well as the geographer Friedrich Ratzel and the economist Karl Büchner tried to find a common language.

Werner does not limit her study of “reform mindedness” (p. 78) among American students to the development of science, but includes experiences of African-American men, homosexuals, US women as well as hearing-impaired and blind Americans. Different constellations from the black-and-white dichotomy served as inspiration and encouragement for a new quality of “Americanness” (p. 84). W.E.B Du Bois and Richard R. Wright, Jr. for example spoke of a less racially charged climate in Berlin and Leipzig in the mid-1890s (p. 84-85) and a clearer vision of what was wrong at home. It was, however, hardly the absence of racism that allowed for this awareness in Germany at the time, but the lack of black students in general and the prevalence of anti-Semitism instead.

In the late 1870s there were about 3.000 male students enrolled at the University of Leipzig and about ten women listed as Gasthörer (hearer). Regular student status for women became an option only at the beginning of the 20th century in Germany, one of the last countries in Europe. Although exact figures are hard to come by Werner cites accounts that estimate that there were 24 women at the University of Leipzig between 1873 and 1882, four of them from the US. Women from the US constituted the largest group of foreign female hearers, second only to – and that deserves special mentioning – to Russian women. Thus it might have not only have been the American women that were more “headstrong” (p. 103) helping to open German universities. Seeing the limits that women faced at German universities American women hoped for an even more progressive promotion of gender equality back home. Although the sources for female students and other minority groups at the time are limited Werner considers the integration of their perspectives in her study as highly relevant. She argues that taking their stories out of the “alternative history” corner and interweaving them in “mainstream historiography” challenges the traditional white, male narrative more effectively as “segregated” minority studies (p. 77).

The second part of the book focuses on transatlantic academic networks and cultural transfers by presenting numerous bibliographical accounts. While it might still be possible to follow the connections created by famous professors and mentor-disciple-relationships the myriad of student names and family relations that follow presume an acquired taste for staccato narration. Every single account is rich in detail and provides intriguing insides allowing the reader to stroll through times long gone, yet the quest of marring the highly detailed with the abstracted reaches it limits in certain parts. Such is, however, the nature of these studies and it remains for the reader to choose which network can best be remembered.

There are for one the non-static study routes that brought the young intellectuals, depending on the discipline, to Berlin, Breslau (Wroclaw), Halle, Jena, Freiburg, Heidelberg, Göttingen and Strasburg. Academic mobility as one would coin it today was however not limited to these places, but spanned a wider European network with universities in Paris, Oxford, London, Edinburgh, Zurich, Basel, Vienna and Naples. There was also “Little America in Leipzig” (p. 216) best described in what Werner calls a colony with students gathering formally and informally in an American Students Club or in the American Church. These places and the records thereof appear to be a fountain of cultural encounters. There is for example American baseball that was played in Leipzig in 1878 which raised police attention after a pitch struck a small boy on the nose deeming it a dangerous sport. Lengthily explanations about the rules of the game at the central police office followed showing the frictions that occurred outside of the university. The intercultural negotiation of social customs is by no means merely an amicable act.

This book is what Anja Werner wants it to be: “a comprehensive, comparative approach to the phenomenon of 19th century US student migration to Germany covering the entire long nineteenth century” (p. 45). Her study shows that the time students spent at German universities had a significant impact on US academia and US culture at large. They developed ideas for change at home “against a foreign matrix” (p. 266) without simply adopting institutional practices, but by spotting weaknesses. While constructing a “new Americanness” against an “Other” (p. 78) captures the ambitions at the time quite convincingly, inscribing today’s imaginations of a world order with a terminology that evolved much later: “a nation striving for the top in the global power game” (p. 78) appears unnecessarily engineered. It might also distract from what lies at the heart of this book; that it were universities that exerted considerable influence by steering flows of mobility, ideas and constituting hubs in the “sophisticated coweb of American and German prejudices” (p. 76).

1 Thorsten Nybom, Creative Intellectual Destruction of Destructive Political Creativity? Critical Reflections on the Future of European ‘Knowledge Production’, in: Guy Neave/Kjell Blückert/Thorsten Nybom (eds.), The European Research University. A Historical Parenthesis?, New York 2006, p. 9.
2 Ben Wildavsky, The Great Brain Race. How Global Universities Are Reshaping the World, Princeton 2010, pp. 70-75.

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