Recap: “Americans and the German University System,” with Vanderbilt’s David Blackbourn

Culture being, as Raymond Williams described it, “one of the two or three most complicated words in the English language,” tracking its transfer is a somewhat elusive proposition. Be that as it may, Vanderbilt University Distinguished Professor and Chair of History David Blackbourn made clear in his September 6 talk at the Kinder Institute that we nonetheless have a number of concrete markers of the influence of German culture on the wider world, particularly from the 19th century. In broad terms, Germany “exported” mining, forestry, and military strategy beyond its borders. In narrower terms, the 1800s likewise saw the global dispersal from Germany of music (see: Beethoven and Brahms), philology, and perhaps most notably, philosophy, with the likes of Coleridge and Matthew Arnold in Britain and American transcendentalists from Emerson, to Thoreau, to Theodore Parker all falling under the spell of German ideas.

This circulation of ideas, of course, brings up questions of how. While transatlantic textual exchange was certainly a part of it, Prof. Blackbourn explained that, in the case of the U.S., the influence of Germany—particularly on higher education—can likewise be traced back to Americans studying abroad there throughout the 19th century. What’s more, this influence came to quickly bear fruit, given the perceived need to reform the university that was widespread in the antebellum-era United States. Quickly, though not immediately. For example, after studying at the Universities of Berlin, Heidelberg, and Göttingen, George Bancroft returned to Harvard in the early 1820s and, along with Edward Everett, set out to rid the college of what they saw as organizational provincialism and curricular narrowness by aligning it more closely (or, really, aligning it at all) with a German model. To little avail, ultimately, as only their proposed administrative changes stuck.

It wouldn’t be until the middle of the century—and primarily after the Civil War—that meaningful, German-inspired change took place, and Prof. Blackbourn used the second half of his lecture to focus on case studies that illuminated what such change entailed. First came Henry Tappan—“John the Baptist of the age of university reform”—who combatted obscurantism at the University of Michigan by attempting to reform it along German lines. This meant, among other things, increasing faculty size and elective course offerings; emphasizing faculty research and lectures vs. recitations; and introducing a conservatory, graduate school, and a broader curricular shift toward subjects of utility, such as civil engineering. Alas, Tappan was thought brash and he failed to encourage daily prayers, and after a decade as Michigan’s president, he was ousted by the university’s regents.

Still, Tappan’s legacy would live on in the reform projects of 1860s and 70s university higher ups. At Cornell, Andrew Dickson White similarly emphasized utility, promoting programs in agricultural science and the mechanical arts and importing German books and equipment—model ploughs, models of machine movement—to support this new focus. In establishing Johns Hopkins and serving as its first president, Daniel Coit Gilman not only showed an affinity for hiring German scholars but also, like Tappan, prioritized specialized research via the creation of a Ph.D. program and a medical school and by encouraging faculty to establish field-specific journals. Finally, succeeding where Bancroft and Everett failed to, Harvard President Charles W. Eliot put an end to the College’s prescribed curriculum and its practice of recitations and instead instituted a system of pure electives and lectures, a pedagogical turn toward a German-style freedom to learn that was perhaps most evident in the philosophy department, where William James, George Santayana, Josiah Royce, and George Herbert Palmer, all German-trained, demonstrated the European nation’s rich, complex influence on U.S. education.

Prof. Blackbourn’s lecture, the keynote event for a daylong celebration of retiring MU Curators’ Distinguished Professor of History Jonathan Sperber, was preceded by a panel discussion on the impact of Prof. Sperber’s work featuring professors Mark Ruff (Saint Louis University), Corinna Treitel (Washington University), and Chad Ross (North Carolina Wesleyan).


David Blackbourn is Cornelius Vanderbilt Distinguished Chair and Professor of History at Vanderbilt University. A Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the British Academy, he is the author of Class, Religion and Local Politics in Wilhelmine Germany (1980), The Peculiarities of German History, with Geoff Eley, (1984), Populists and Patricians (1987), Marpingen (1993), The Long Nineteenth Century: A History of Germany, 1780-1918 (1997) The Conquest of Nature (2006), and Landschaften der deutschen Geschichte (2016). He is currently completing a book called Germany in the World, 1500-2000.