Idea of Liberal University

  • Research and teaching connected
  • Teaching – knowledge for its own sake
  • Academic freedom – academics and students
  • Academic freedom – from the state
  • National identity and culture
  • Spiritual and moral training
  • Citizenship and Professional training
  • Community of teachers and learners
  • Education of elite

If the medieval university was defined by its sense of disinterestedness and detachment from the social world and sited in particular cities, the liberal university was based on a very different notion of the relationship between intellectual space and place. The key to the development of the liberal humanist university was its relationship to the development and maintenance of the newly emerging nation-state. The university came to play an important role in the construction of a national identity and public culture ( Delanty 2001 35 – 36).

Key to the development of all a national public culture was the concept of academic freedom, and key to the development of academic freedom was the relationship between teaching and research. It was the relationship between teaching and research, and how it should be organised, that dominated the debates about the construction of the idea of the liberal university. The essence of the liberal university is the way in which the relationship between teaching and research came to express the liberal values of the development of the individual and the nation-state.

This debate between teaching and research has become personified and dichotomised within the contributions of Wilhem von Humboldt ( 1767 – 1835) and Cardinal John Newman ( 1801 – 1890).


Humboldt’s name is ‘magic’ in the context of the Idea of the university ( Ash 2008). He is credited with setting up the University of Berlin in 1810 and consolidating the ideals on which it was based.

The principle of academic freedom was enshrined in the formation of the first modern European university, the University of Berlin in 1811. This version of academic freedom extended not only to academics but also to students and, importantly, to the relationship between the university and the state.

In so far as the concept related to academics and students, the ideal of academic freedom was to be guaranteed by a focus on ‘scholarship’, which was based on a very particular form of teaching and learning. Key aspects of this pedagogy of scholarship included the close integration of teaching and research in which the transmission of knowledge through lectures would be abandoned, with teaching taking place solely in seminars. Students were to be directly involved in the speculative thinking of their tutors, without strictly planned courses and curricula. Students should work in research communities with time for thinking and without any practical obligations ( Knol and Seibert 1967).

As Von Humboldt, the founder of the University of Berlin wrote:

‘It is furthermore a peculiarity of the institutions of higher learning that they treat higher learning always in terms of not yet completely solved problems, remaining at all times in a research mode [ i. e. being engaged in an unceasing process of inquiry]. Schools, in contrast, treat only closed and settled bodies of knowledge. At the higher level, the teacher is not there for the sake of the student, both have their justification in the service of scholarship’ ( Humboldt, 1810).

As to relationship between the university and the state, the principle of academic freedom maintained that by guaranteeing the academic freedom of the university, the state itself is regenerated by the way in which the university promotes and preserves the vibrant cultural life of the nation; and, in so doing, establishes a genuinely cultured population who would be trained to act as independent and autonomous citizens ( Knoll and Seibert, 1967).

Humboldt’s university was to be based on the ideal that ‘the scientific search for just causes always coincides with the pursuit of just ends in moral and political life’, arguing that this is the basis for academic freedom and the ultimate justification for knowledge ‘paving the way for ‘the spiritual and moral training of the nation’ ( Lyotard 1979 33).

Elton (2008) argues that Humboldt ideas are ‘ as relevant today as they have been throughout the intervening years, although they naturally need adapting to today’s conditions’ ( 224). For Elton, as for Humboldt, the best way for the university to serve the nation is to be free from the interference of the state: ‘the inner organisation of these institutions must be about maintaining and always revitalising, but unforced and intention-less collaboration’ ( Elton on Humboldt 228)


If Humboldt’s name is ‘magic’ ( Ash 2008), Newman has been described as a ‘household god’ ( Scott 1984 5).

In the same period another type of university, grounded in a very different ideal of higher education, was being established in Dublin, Ireland. Whereas the University of Berlin was based on a progressive relationship between teaching, research and the notion of scholarship, the University of Dublin was based on the idea of the university as a place of teaching universal knowledge. As Cardinal Newman, the founder of the University, wrote

‘ The view taken of the university…is as following: that is a place of teaching universal knowledge. This implies that its object is, on the one hand, intellectual, not moral: and on the other, that it is the diffusion and extension of knowledge rather than the advancement. If its object were scientific and philosophical discovery, I do not see why universities should have students.’ (Preface to The Idea of the University, 1850).

For Newman research was ‘best undertaken in institutions other than universities’ (Scott 1984 3). Newman’s version of knowledge was traditional rather than scientific. For Newman universities were about preserving traditional cultures and practices rather than finding ways to remake the future through the production of new knowledge. In this way it might be possible to inculcate young students with their national cultural preoccupations so that they can be the guardians of their own national culture. This model for the idea of the university, is one based on the principles of citizenship and the guardianship of a culture, which had as its core activity the training of professionals ( e.g. teachers, doctors, lawyers) and administers in the traditional subjects of philosophy and theology ( Scott 1984 30 – 33).

Newman’s idea of the university was by no means unusual and would have been endorsed by colleagues at Cambridge and within the English speaking universities ( Halsey 1995 24). The university was to be a community of teachers and learners, like a family, a paternal and filial relation between student and teacher, based on essay writing, tutorial teaching and disputations ( Halsey 1995 47).

For this version of the university knowledge is an end in itself, with the purpose of education to be the transmission of a received body of knowledge and, therefore, not requiring basic research to produce new knowledge. (Delanty 2000 36).

An important part of this role as guardian of the traditional culture out of which it emerged, the liberal university was to maintain an independence from the science-based values of the newly emerging industrial society. In this way the liberal university, like the medieval university before it, was able to keep its autonomy – if for different reasons ( Scott 1984 49 – 52).

Temple ( 2007) reminds us how this was being reflected in University architecture:

University architecture in Britain in the 19th century often made reference to classical civilisation – the University College London buildings (1827-28) by Wilkins, for example… The socially-coded message was clear: these buildings had a higher purpose signaled by the implied links with ancient Greece and Rome and hence to classical scholarship. The founders of the first London University in 1825 explicitly wanted “a palace” that would bring to mind “the porticoes where Socrates sat, and the laurel-groves where Plato disputed” (quoted in Crook, 1990). Here, architecture was linked with educational values and with a mode of learning: it was a visible, architectural rejection of the “medieval, ecclesiastical, obscurantist and restrictive” traditions of Oxford and Cambridge (Crook, 1990). The slow process of academic modernisation in Britain – begun, perhaps ironically, by the opening in 1828 of the Graeco-Roman building that would become University College London (Harte, 1986: 67) – may be seen also as eventually encouraging a form of university architecture that seemed to look forward, rather than one that looked back to a lost age. (Temple 2007 38)

‘Nearly a century after the completion of its first Graeco-Roman buildings, the University of London turned to modernism of a sort. In 1927, the Vice-Chancellor, William Beveridge, began to look for an architect “who can embody [the very idea of a university, imperial and modern] in stone and steel and marble – not too much marble” (quoted in Crook, 1990). The search resulted in Charles Holden being appointed to prepare a largely unrealised master-plan for a university campus in Bloomsbury, representing “a new architecture of functions and pure form” (Crook, 1990). Whatever the limitations of Holden’s approach – only the Senate House (1933-38) was built in the form envisaged by him (and even that was not fully completed) – it was at least an attempt to create buildings that met defined academic needs, while also signalling the existence of an imperial institution’. (Temple 2007 40 – 41)

Further Reading

Ash, M. ( 2008) ‘From “Humboldt” to “Bologna”: history as discourse in Higher Education Reform Debates in German Speaking Europe’, in B.Jessop, N. Fairclough and R. Wodak (eds) Education and the Knowledge-Based Economy in Europe, Sense Publishers, Rotterdam and Taipai

Delanty, G. ( 2001 ) Challenging Knowledge: The University in the Knowledge Society, The Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press, Buckingham and Philadelphia

Elton, L. ( 2008) Collegiality and Complexity: Humboldt’s Relevance to British Universities Today, Higher Educational Quarterly, Volume 62, No. 3, July, pp 224 – 236

Halsey, A. H. (1995) Decline of Donnish Dominion: The British Academic Professions in the Twentieth Century, Clarendon Press, Oxford

Humboldt, W. von (1970), ‘On the spirit and organisational framework of intellectual institutions in Berlin’, Minerva 8, pp. 242 – 267 [original 1810]

Knoll, J.H., and Siebert, H. ( 1967) Humboldt: Politician and Educationalist, Internationes, Bad Godesberg

Newman, J. H. (1852) The Idea of a University, Longmans Green

Scott, P. ( 1984) The Crisis of the University, Croom Helm, London and Sydney

Temple, P. (2007) Learning Spaces for the 21st Century – A Review of the Literature