Friday, February 24, 2023

The life of a professor at a German university in 1900

Irwin Collier, Germany. University life seen through American eyes. Tupper, 1900-1901, Economics in the Rear-View Mirror, Feb 23, 23.

Now for the German professor! The last generation has seen the passing of the old type that appears in “Fliegende Blätter” and “Jugend,” grimly bespectacled, long-haired, absent-minded [5]. He is now usually a capable, practical and responsible man of affairs, whom the dust of the schools has not blinded. He has made sacrifices for the higher end, for his upward progress has been slow. After his doctor’s examination, following three years of advanced work, he decided to forego an oberlehrer’s or higher school teacher’s position with its seemingly princely salary of thirty-six hundred marks (nine hundred dollars), and to take his place on the lowest rung of the university ladder, as “Private- docent,” with fees of perhaps eight hundred marks. His undoubted ability and enthusiasm attracted students (perhaps too much stress is laid on his drawing power), and after some two or three years of very lean kine, he became extraordinary or associate professor. In the meantime he “scorns delights and lives laborious days.” He can take no steps towards soliciting a vacant professorship; but his “opus,” on which he has labored so faithfully appears. His name is up from Freiburg to Konigsberg. A call to a chair in a larger university, Berlin or Munich, comes, and he is a made man of social rank and comfortable income. He is, henceforth, an oracle among men, and his fame draws many wandering students to his university.

The fields of usefulness of the professor are three: His lectures, his personal association with students and his research. As a rule he is not a good lecturer, immeasurably inferior to his compatriot of the Sorbonne, who is nearly always a golden talker, and not approaching the best American or even English standards. There are, of course, many exceptions. Harnack and Willamowitz-Wollendorf drew and still draw large crowds to the “publicum” or public lectures; and few of us will forget the delight with which we listened to Dessoir discourse for many hours on Fine Arts. But Harnack and Willamowitz were giants and Dessoir had French blood. I think my statement holds—the lectures are often well planned, but they are too heavily burdened with fact, are poorly delivered and lack inspiration. Mountains of method, a thousand details, but few vistas and little illumination. The German professor is a social being. I remember how one great-hearted, deeply learned scholar affected young men. At the “kneipes” or feasts of his students he sat at the head of the table (wherever he sat would have been the head) directing the talk and joining lustily in the songs. The reverence for him was great; a quarrel in his presence was felt to be sacrilege, and the love of clash and conflict was nobly repressed. Then he drew men to his home, opening up to them in his study great stores of special knowledge, stimulating, quickening them by the force of his personality and example. I shall always recall long walks with him in the “Thiergarten.” His lectures and readings from Shakspere and the English poets (“Vair is voul and voul is vair,” “I could not lofe dee, dear, so mooch”) sometimes appealed to an American sense of humor, but roads traversed with him in private led always to treasures at the foot of the rainbow, and one was very grateful. In research, the German professor is pre-eminent. The way that he cuts is often very narrow, the path that he blazes through the wood of recondite scholarship is wide enough for only one man; but he sets those with whom he has to do journeying in this or that direction with ax and torch. Lights flash and steel rings everywhere, until the forest becomes known ground. Though others may range more extensively and with far better perspective, he has in accurate, painstaking, intensive scholarship, no equal on earth. And he attains and leads others to the goal in the face of at least one tremendous difficulty, a library system unparalleled in impracticability and inefficiency. Lack of catalogues and a poor library staff necessitate an interval of twenty-four hours between the time of ordering a book and its receipt, or rather the time due for its receipt, for, in many cases, when it is not on the shelves, its whereabouts are so uncertain that it may be reclaimed only when its usefulness is passed. All sufferers from this will doff their hats to the men who have triumphed over such conditions.

They liked their sentences long in those days. H/t Tyler Cowen.

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