Wilhelm von Humboldt and Prussia’s Education System

Wilhelm von Humboldt
(1767 – 1835)

On June 22, 1767, Friedrich Wilhelm Christian Karl Ferdinand von Humboldt was born. He was a Prussian philosopher, government functionary, diplomat, and founder of the University of Berlin. He is especially remembered as a linguist who made important contributions to the philosophy of language and to the theory and practice of education. In particular, he is widely recognized as having been the architect of the Prussian education system which was used as a model for education systems in countries such as the United States and Japan.

Wilhelm von Humboldt along with his brother Alexander experienced a decent education by prominent teachers and published articles in early age. His first works focused on Socrates and Plato and his most important influences during school were the works by Leibniz, Hume, Locke, and Rousseau. After finding no intellectual challenges at the Prussian University of Frankfurt Oder, Humboldt enrolled at the University of Göttingen, where he studied law, philosophy and natural science.

Their mother foresaw a future in the office of state for both of the Humboldt brothers, but both chose a different way. Wilhelm began showing interests in experimental physics, and the history of nature. Already during his studies, Humboldt made several trips around Germany, getting to know Friedrich Schiller and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in Weimar. He increased his studies on Ancient Greece, which later influenced his ideas on the changes in the education system.

After his mother passed away, Wilhelm von Humboldt moved to Paris for a few years, getting to know influential politicians, philosopher and artists. From there, he traveled to Spain learning from the country’s culture as well as its political system and its language.

Humboldt began working in Rome in the early 1800’s, but was sent back to Germany after Prussia’s defeat against France. He was then occupied with reforming the educational system in Germany to help improving the country’s resources in any way. Even though Humboldt did not ask for this position, he began changing Prussia’s education system dramatically and with lots of enthusiasm. He soon developed completely new teaching methods, new plans for schools and important topics to be studied. He adjusted his systems to the various school types and developed significant ideas on didactics. Critiques often noted how Humboldt was not the right person for this position, since he never experienced public schools by himself, but their doubts were later proved unfounded. Humboldt proposed his idea to establish a three step schooling system with a primary school, a grammar school and the university. He introduced the final exams for teachers, a uniform obligation of the school leaving exams all implemented in between 1810 and 1834.

However, to Wilhelm von Humboldt’s most significant contributions belongs the founding of the University of Berlin in 1810. He managed to occupy prominent professors like Friedrich Carl von Savigny, Johann Gottlieb Fichte and many more. His goal was to connect contemporary research with new teaching methods and a well balanced relationship between educators and students.

Since Wilhelm von Humboldt was so active in improving the educational system, you may enjoy a lecture by Charles Leadbeater, talking about Education innovation in the slums.

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