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The scholar’s vocation

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07.04.2020

In 1908, the first study of Germany’s ‘next generation of academics’ was published, written by the German economist Franz Eulenburg. After 200 pages of line graphs and tables, he concluded that they were neither young nor going anywhere. Although some who taught in Germany’s world-renowned universities enjoyed the freedom presumed to accompany an academic life, just as many merely endured. ‘Depressed and impoverished’, they waited for the ‘call’ – the Ruf as Germans termed it – to a permanent position they knew would never come. Stuck in precarious positions, excluded from faculty self-governance, without fixed salaries, these scholars, 38 years old on average, made up almost half the teaching staff in German universities.

Despite all these ‘broken existences’, as Eulenburg – himself a 41-year-old scholar with two published books but no regular position – called them, these academics remained committed to the university. Why?

Like most others who had withstood the rigours of Germany’s elite secondary schools and whose families strove to get their children through them, they regarded the university as the pinnacle of the nation’s intellectual and moral culture. They identified it with an intellectual life. The university also offered one of the few paths for aspiring intellectuals to make a living while doing what they enjoyed: reading, writing, talking.

The university was a modern-day patronage system. Intellectuals had long relied on the powerful and wealthy to provide for their material needs. In return, intellectuals advised princes and kept bureaucracies running efficiently. With the rise of the modern research university in 19th-century Germany, they assumed an even greater social role as members of a community that created knowledge for society at large.

Leipzig University, where Eulenburg taught, was founded in 1409. It began with a few hundred students, and remained roughly that size for centuries. In the 1830s, enrolments began to increase dramatically. As the state started to invest significant financial resources, a modern scholarly infrastructure and a division of intellectual labour emerged. In 1909, Eulenburg noted that although Leipzig University was 500 years old, it had become an ‘industrial operation’ in just the past 50.

The university’s evolution, he added, was a ‘microcosm’ of how life had changed in just a few decades. Modernity showed itself not just in urbanisation, industrialisation and steam-engine train travel, but also in the remaking of intellectual life. The transformation of the German university had far-reaching effects on the production of trustworthy knowledge. The conditions of intellectual life matter, and at the beginning of the 20th century many of the German cultural elite, especially younger people, felt like they were breaking down.

Eulenburg described the factory-like conditions of the modern university with statistics. Members of the Free Student Alliance (FSA), a Left-leaning national federation of university students, railed against them with soaring and nostalgic rhetoric. ‘The historical vocation’ of students and the university, wrote Walter Benjamin in 1914 as president of the Berlin branch, was to ‘liberate the future’ from its deformation in the present. Benjamin and his fellow student activists contrasted their high-minded devotion to the university with the utilitarian interests of ‘vocational students’, a term of derision for those who used the university to collect credentials and get a job. By asserting the impossibility of intellectual work or an intellectual vocation, the students of the FSA were not only lamenting the loss of a sacred institution; they were also expressing their sense that, in its absence, something would be missing.

In the summer of 1917, leaders of the FSA’s Munich branch decided to organise a lecture series on ‘intellectual work as a vocation’. They did so in the final year of the First World War, when Germans faced severe food shortages and millions of young men returning from war maimed, or not at all. The students sent their first invitation to the economist and social theorist Max Weber.

When he walked on to the podium on 7 November 1917 in the Steinickesaal – a small theatre connected to the bookshop where the students met – Weber delivered the lecture ‘The Scholar’s Work’, translated into English as Science as a Vocation. Weber thought that universities were in a dire situation. He worried about the conditions of knowledge and the possibilities for making meaning. But Weber did not think that the university and an intellectual life were necessarily the same thing. His answer to the students’ question about the standing of intellectual work is even more relevant today, when the prospects for viable scholarly careers in Anglo-American colleges and universities are dim and the fears of a global pandemic can render concerns about an intellectual life frivolous.

Weber began with a blunt account of the material conditions of the university. He enumerated the structural problems: terrible teaching, workplace discrimination, the exploitation of the labour force, an arbitrary........

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