Wilhelm von Humboldt, the PhD and the modern research university

Recent conversations at multiple venues have prompted me to reflect on Wilhelm von Humboldt, the Doctor of Philosophy degree and the evolution of the modern research university.  First, the Swiss higher education system and the routine acknowledgement of Humboldt ‘s influence were discussed during the Input Seminar for the UniBasel Global Perspectives Program (March 18-19, 2013).  Two days later in Dublin at the EUA-CDE Global Forum on Doctoral Education (March 20-22), the topics of conversation included the evolution of doctoral education in Europe and the increasing emphasis on research in doctoral education (PhD).  During the last few class sessions of GRAD 5104 Preparing the Future Professoriate, our discussions focused on global higher education and several international students shared an overview of the higher education systems from their home countries.  This provided the opportunities to reflect on the historical perspective of higher education and their influences on universities around the world.  At the March meeting of the 2013 VT Global Perspectives Program, we discussed terminology and the similarities and differences to understand better the evolution of global higher education and the universities that we will visit in May.  And finally as I read through selected blog posts from GRAD 5104 and GPP Switzerland I pondered the themes of these ‘conversations’ and realized the underlying but un-articulated interconnectedness of the 21st century research university, the evolution of the PhD and the influence of Humboldt.  Humboldt, the German university and the man, are frequently referenced in discussions about the university in Europe but less so in the United States although his influence is part of U.S. history as well.


Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) was a 19th century philosopher, a Prussian diplomat, and an early ‘architect’ of national education including the ‘university’.  He is well known throughout Europe as the founder of the University of Berlin in 1810. Within a relatively short period of time, the University of Berlin (Humboldt) would soon became a model for 19th century European universities and ultimately would influence the development of U.S. universities. In recognition of Humboldt’s influence in shaping the modern university, the university was renamed Humboldt University of Berlin in 1949. The name of Humboldt reflects both Wilhelm’s contributions and those of his brother Alexander, a famous geographer and explorer.

Wilhelm von Humboldt espoused the view that the university should be a community of scholars and students.  In this ‘Humboldtian’ university, teaching and research were interconnected and vital to the work of the individual scholar.  Although important to advancement of knowledge and integral to the university’s mission, research was thought by Humboldt to be ‘ancillary to teaching’.  This notion persisted until the 20th century when research would finally be recognized as a ‘vital entity in itself’ thus setting the stage for the further development and prominence of the modern research university.

During the recent European University Association (EUA) – Council on Doctoral Education (CDE) Global Strategic Forum on Doctoral Education in Dublin, the PhD was described historically as a ‘license to teach’.  This makes sense when one considers that the original purpose was to prepare scholars to teach in universities.  For many years, the doctoral degree required advanced scholarship but not original research.  And once Wilhelm von Humboldt entered the discussions, the strong link between teaching and research was made that would change the university.  As the value of research expanded and the desire for original research increased throughout the last century, the Doctor of Philosophy degree changed and the PhD is recognized as a research degree worldwide.

The modern research university will continue to evolve and an emphasis on research will remain.  But the conversations about doctoral education must also continue about the importance of teaching and learning, the preparation for careers outside higher education, and the engagement between the university and society.  These conversations are happening within EUA-CDE regularly and will continue in the Future Professoriate graduate course (GRAD 5104) and especially the VT-UniBasel Global Perspectives Program.  I look forward to the ongoing dialogue.