CCK08 Instructional design and Humboldt

What is the relationship between general education on one hand, and training for future careers and life, on the other?

Considering the growing complexity discussed last week, it is very improbable that the preparation for the future can be achieved by trying to anticipate the needed knowledge and impart it. And trying to anticipate complexity, simulate it, and rehearse it ? This may also be questionable. So, how much should education be assimilated to training? Humboldt, obviously, viewed this rather light-heartedly.

This month I heard a wonderful presentation on Humboldt’s educational ideas (in the Zürich, Switzerland series of “Higher Education Pedagogy at Lunchtime”:)

“From the beginning, Humboldt did not see this contrast between education in its own ends, and studying as preparation for career. This is a fiction of ours.

In fact, Humboldt considered that, when humans first rarefy themselves from the societal executions for 4 or 5 years, they then will have developed so much individuality and strength that they will be able to be autonomous personalities and self-contained citizens, who will then be capable to sustain the new state.

So, he was absolutely aware that, afterwards, one becomes a teacher, or administrator in some ministry. But he says: for this one cannot be trained. For this, we can only carry on education, and when that person is finished, we are confident that he will make it.

This educational ideal has incredibly much to do with trust, namely with trust in the humans. This is an incredibly positive idea of man that, frankly, I guess, we no more have.”

(U. Welbers, Humboldt’s Mind, 14’22”. Emphasis, transcript from audio, and unprofessional translation from German is mine.)

With his advocacy for an autonomous learner, Humboldt sounds quite modern. Our today’s obstacle is that instead of trust, we focus on countless assessments and objectives and measurable outcomes. But after the degree is granted, nobody cares if the alumnus is able to keep current in their field (a crucial criterion mentioned in Siemens’ today’s presentation, slide 10).

Welbers’ talk contains a lot more details from Humboldt’s “Gemüt” (mind, or mentality, as in the untranslateable “Gemütlichkeit”). The young person should first evolve (“aufwickeln”, unroll) his inner program/ idea/ Eidos (after Aristotle) in lonely freedom, and then engage in the dialogue (Plato). This pursuit should be combined with the desireful/ longing interest (as Wilhelm von Humboldt’s brother Alexander had it for the South Seas) towards scientific exploration. University teachers and students should learn together, which is the basis for the well-known Unity of research and teaching. (see also here and here).

The notion of lonely independence was later misinterpreted to justify the academic ivory tower and removedness from practical relevance which eventually provoked the discussions leading to our Bologna reform which reshuffled the relationship of research and teaching, and the crucial relationship of “Ausbildung” (more like training) and “Bildung” (which is not easily to be translated by education because education is also “Erziehung” which sounds more like upbringing and relates to younger grades, while “Bildung” has connotations of literacy and erudition but is more focussed on personality than on factual knowledge, the latter of which is known as “Allgemeinbildung” and has also been associated with Humboldt’s ideal – I should perhaps try a concept map about these all). If you happen to understand some German, do listen to Welbers’ refreshing and enlightening talk.


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2 Responses to CCK08 Instructional design and Humboldt

  1. Keith Lyons says:


    What a thought-provoking post. I will try to listen to the Welber talk. I think your concept map would be fascinating. I believe that trust is a fundamental part of the learning and growing relationship. It is interesting that the German language has so many ways to define education. I think your post is a great example of the ‘context’ george discusses in his presentation this week.



  2. x28 says:

    Ok, here is a concept map. I indicated the language of a word by national colors and by font. I was glad to be able to use dotted lines, for the “weak ties”.

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