University at the Crossroad: An Interview with Emily Levine

by guest contributor Ariel Yingqi Tang

Emily J. Levine is Associate Professor of Education and (by courtesy) History at Stanford University. She received her PhD in History and the Humanities at Stanford and her BA from Yale, where she later returned as an Andrew W. Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow. She is the author of Dreamland of Humanists: Warburg, Cassirer, Panofsky, and the Hamburg School (University of Chicago Press, 2013), which was awarded the Herbert Baxter Adams Prize by the American Historical Association, and Allies and Rivals: German-American Exchange and the Rise of the Modern Research University, which was published in September 2021 by the University of Chicago Press. Levine has published in The New York Times, the LA Review of Books, Foreign Policy, The Chronicle of Higher Education, and Inside Higher Ed, as well as in such top scholarly journals as the American Historical Review and the Journal of Modern History.

Ariel Yingqi Tang spoke with her about her new book, which is the first history of the ascent of American higher education told through the lens of German-American exchange. In the book Levine offers a framework she calls the academic social contract to describe the changing relationship between the university and society, including its many different contracting partners in Germany and America. She argues that we must understand the history of the university in order to envision its future, especially when it comes to what its purpose is and whom it serves.

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Ariel Yingqi Tang: In attempts to articulate future orientations of the university, historians of education and academic reformers often turn to the medieval university and the first modern research university, the University of Berlin, as sources of inspiration. However, your book tells us that the idea of the university is an evolving concept, animated by its founding ideals as well as the series of institutional adaptations in subsequent eras. The process of “negotiating space for academic autonomy” is captured by what you called “the academic social contract” (252). What are the parties involved in this contract, and what does it entail for them each?

Emily J. Levine: First of all, thank you for this invitation and this excellent first question. Allies and Rivals tells the story of the university as a history of compromises iterated over time by cultural brokers, in which they reconciled aspects of the university ideal with broader social needs and political stakeholders. This is what I call the “academic social contract,” and it entails that universities receive patronage and a great deal of autonomy in exchange for providing services to that society. It is usually a tacit agreement between universities and their patrons about the purposes of higher education, involving questions such as who should pay for it and why. My argument is that this formulation makes the modern research university distinct from its antecedents and a building block for the modern nation state.

As such, it must begin with the University of Berlin, which was established in 1810 as an institution with the dual tasks of knowledge creation and dissemination (that is, research and teaching). Here scholars were free to pursue Wissenschaft, or scholarly research, in exchange for training a new civil service and an army that would serve the needs of the state and the aspirations towards nationhood.

I would add further that if the academic social contract is constant, the partners of it evolve with time. As the society that the university served evolved, the university co-evolved into such forms as the central state university in Berlin, the land-grant university in California, and the privately funded urban university in Baltimore, and each time, the academic social contract was reconstituted. The premise is that once an academic social contract was exhausted, academic entrepreneurs rushed in to find new partners, formulate new ideas, and establish new institutions—sometimes even outside the university.

YT: Despite the embeddedness of modern research institutions in specific social and political contexts, the university still seems to uphold certain aspirations operating independently of the shifting historical landscape. As you articulate in the book, “Germans’ and Americans’ scholarly codependence persisted despite—and because of—their political rivalry” (77). We also learn that institutions including Black Mountain College and the Institute for Advanced Study provided refuge for itinerant scholars who would have otherwise lacked an intellectual home. Unlike transnational corporations or political parties, the university seems to be negotiating with the state and the society on its own terms. What are the unique features that distinguish the university from other types of transnational networks and intermediary organizations?   

EJL: This is another thought-provoking question. Universities have long stood at the crossing of nations and the wider world. Even as universities served the nation, they promoted the exchange of ideas and the free movement of scholars and students. In a lecture titled “Science Goes Global” that Lorraine Daston delivered recently at the National Humanities Center, she described the origins and emergence of what we now call the “global scientific community,” which I think provides a counterpoint to my story and helps me to answer your question. Daston explained how institutions such as the International Astro-photographic Congress in Paris or the International Meteorological Committee developed, following the University Postal Service founded in 1874, and created a template for what she called “internationalism without nations.” This was not the case for universities, which remained indebted to their nation-states, despite their participation in a cosmopolitan Republic of Letters. If universities were exclusively global, they could rebuff political pressure at any time. But for better and worse, the terms of the academic social contract tied them to the states, nations, and societies that supported them, even as they remained conduits for our shared humanity.

YT: The title of the book “Allies and Rivals”—instead of “allies or rivals”—is as captivating as it is provocative. Besides capturing the entanglements between the university and the state as well as the competitive emulation between German and American academic institutions, it also seems to hint at the ambivalent fruits of international knowledge exchange and the twin faces of internationalism in general. “Two very different streams flowed through the conduits of international exchange. The first circulated the values of international peace and the universal pursuit of science,” you wrote, whereas “the second fomented racist, nativist, and eugenicist ideas and politics”(207). Far from being synonymous with a vehicle for mutual understanding, the translation of ideas across political contexts risks spreading peace and prejudice alike. Do you think this is an inevitable danger or an unfortunate anomaly? 

EJL: The quotation that you cite comes from the penultimate chapter of the book, which details how Hitler took only three months to co-opt the German universities, previously the premier universities in the world, and to use them as a tool for his racial war. German historians have long debated whether or not Hitler and Nazi Germany was the logical conclusion of 19th-century mass politics or an aberration from it. Insofar as the university is a constitutive feature of the nation, the story of Hitler’s coordination or Gleichschaltung of the universities contributes to that debate. I think the takeaway from that moment is that rather than a rupture, the Nazification of the German universities highlights the malleability of the preexisting relationship—that is, the academic social contract. If anything, Hitler’s regime exposed how vulnerable the university was to deployment in the services of goals that most academics today find repugnant.

YT: The book elucidates the ongoing debates about higher education in numerous ways. One example is your illuminating account of the mistranslation of “academic freedom” from the German context to the U.S. While “academic freedom was from its inception a freedom from rather than a freedom to,” you suggested that it is not to be taken for granted as an unconditional right, as “the precious freedom enjoyed by the Ordinariat in Germany was connected to their role as civil servants” (169). To what extent shall we expect this condition to apply to our understanding of academic freedom today?

EJL: We see the repercussions, in the last months, of the origins and mistranslation of academic freedom in America. But let me clarify my argument here. The American version distorted the German concept, which viewed academic freedom as part of an academic social contract. The German model recognized that the university occupied a negotiated space between two worlds—the ideal and the economic and political. In America, academic freedom did not require that service to the political order as it had in Germany, which in many ways was a positive thing. But the American version also ignored the fact that in Germany, the academic freedom worked and was needed because there was more freedom inside the university than in the wider political culture. The philosopher Immanuel Kant captured this German compromise succinctly with his famous words—“Argue as much as you please, but obey!” The American version, in contrast, had one goal—to permit tenured faculty to express controversial views without fear of dismissal. They were successful in creating a vision for academic freedom, as a freedom from rather than a freedom to, defined as negative rather than positive liberty, to use Isaiah Berlin’s term. But this has mistakenly elided academic freedom with civil liberties in the US. As I have written elsewhere, it has decoupled academic freedom from its original social contract, effectively freeing academics from any responsibility to society or citizenship, or at least certainly not making that responsibility an essential feature of that exchange. This is surely not to diminish the many challenges we face structurally in the university, but I would like to see academics talking about not just what we are owed, but also what we owe society.

YT: In the past twenty years, we have seen the rise and retreat of universities with global campuses, a novel institutional setup for higher education. Yet both in the success cases such as Bard College Berlin and the abortive experiments of Bard College in Satin Petersburg and Yale-NUS, the two enduring forces in the academic contract—state and capital—seem to assume an overpowering status, sometimes eclipsing completely the vision of the university educators. Can we claim that an academic social contract is fraying in these circumstances? On what grounds can the university reassert itself in the negotiation, or is it time to sign the academic social contract anew? 

EJL: That is a great connection to make, and I think the crucial word here in your question is “an”—an academic social contract, or the previous one, is indeed fraying. But since these contracts are usually tacit agreements, that makes them vulnerable to manipulation, as the Hitler example revealed. The book also shows how the breakdown of a contract creates the conditions for a new one to emerge. In the case of the closing of global campuses, we are beginning to see them flow to more free societies, which leads the universities to bring their benefits to other communities that wish to host them. As with the Central European University, for example, where nationalism threatened their project, one could say that the institutional leaders used their globalism and their cosmopolitanism, which were under attack, to their advantage and emigrated to Vienna, which will now benefit from that institution. The point, again, is that the academic social contract is not a fixed or a singular concept, but an evolving one.

And I might add that there is also no necessary progress—history does not follow a logical pattern, and institutional change certainly does not either. Change can be for better or worse. In that vein, it is certainly possible that we have seen the fruits of some of the best academic social contracts, for example, at the end of the last 19th century or in the immediate post-World-War-Two era, and that these simply will not be replicable in the future.

YT: Much evidence in the book has been convincingly drawn from archival research conducted on both sides of the Atlantic, which involves an impressive combination of institutional archives and personal papers. Can you tell us why you selected the archives that you did?

EJL: Certainly, this is a historians’ favorite question! I originally set out to research extra-university institutions in the 1920s, the period about which I wrote my first book, Dreamland of Humanists. I entered the Prussian archives in 2012 for what I thought would be some brief background, but I became engrossed in a lesser-known aspect of the university’s origins. The traditional story, as you know well, is that Americans went to Germany and “imported” the modern research university to America. But this does not hold up to the archives. In the archives, we learn about Germans who were traveling to America as early as the last quarter of the 19th century, eager to learn about American innovations in higher education, including co-education, philanthropy for scholarship, and the urban campus. I became persuaded that bi-directional transatlantic exchange spins the motor of intellectual, institutional, and political history, and I wanted to use the bi-directional exchange among the individuals whose stories I found in the archives to tell that narrative about the belated empires, Germany and America.

Therefore, my criteria for archival selection became the academic entrepreneurs on both sides of the Atlantic who visited one another’s institutions, exchanged ideas about how to organize ideas, and made decisions about what innovations to adopt and integrate, inevitably with different outcomes. The result is a story that not only tells us something about the ascent of Germany and America at the end of the 19th and the early 20th century, but also shares more universal lessons about how ideas spread and how innovation occurs, namely through that two-way exchange.

YT: I find it fascinating that the grand narratives that you have constructed about transatlantic history does not obscure the agency of individual actors.

EJL: Not only are they not obscured, they are absolutely essential. Individuals pull the levers of change, which is the source of the institutional evolution.

YT: You wrote this book from the standpoint of an intellectual historian, but also from the perspectives of a university citizen and educator of future educators. I wonder—in what ways has the writing of this book been informed by your experience in the university? Does the thesis of the book renew your self-understanding as an educator?

EJL: Great question. I have spent time as a student, educator, and scholar at both private and public institutions in America as well as institutions abroad, mostly in Germany. I have always been attuned to how it was that specific times and places became conducive to robust intellectual life while other places remained off the map. Subsequently, I gravitated to stories about clusters of individuals and networks that illustrate how intellectual life takes shape and how it is that institutions create the conditions of possibility—to use a Kantian formulation of intellectual history—for certain kinds of scholarship and academic social contracts. Having now published the book, I think I am increasingly self-aware of our role and implication in those contracts as scholars and educators. I am devoted to fostering conversations about this, as I am at Stanford now with colleagues Mitchell Stevens and Caroline Winterer through our Stanford funded grant, “Recovering the University as a Public Good.” I am particularly invested in how we, as scholars, might turn the tools of historicism on our own institutions and take a more critical look at the ideas about higher education that often go unquestioned.

YT: Central to the early endeavors of the academic entrepreneurs who founded the modern research university was the idea of Bildung, which could be translated as self-cultivation, “a uniquely German concept that combined individual intellectual and moral betterment” (17). It is surprising to see how a seemingly peculiar concept born out of the German tradition came to blossom in a foreign land. To what degree is it still worthwhile to revisit the notion of Bildung in our contemporary discourse about education? 

EJL: You saved the hardest question for last. In many ways, Bildung is the overlooked child in the history of the university, in which scholarly research or Wissenschaft is continuously prioritized over an education of self-betterment in the evolution of the institution, which I think brings us back to where we began our conversation. Why is it that Wilhelm von Humboldt and Daniel Coit Gilman thought that uniting research and teaching under one roof made sense? Almost as soon as that institution was founded, there were cries that it was both entrenched and insufficient, a contradiction that persists today. By combining research and teaching under one roof, educators have ensured that these two very distinct value systems associated with research and teaching are awkwardly conjoined. The vertical value system of research supports lavishing the most resources on the best and the brightest, justified by the goals of advancing the frontiers of knowledge. At the same time, the horizontal value system of teaching and Bildung, or self-cultivation, encourages the democratic and personal uplift of everyone. The inefficiency of this duality has led to the undervaluing and under-supporting of the other half of the house, as Molly Worthen and Jon Zimmerman have recently written. But Bildung is linked to the project of teaching insofar as we as educators are invested in encouraging our students on a path of self-fulfillment, self-betterment, and what philosophers have called the good life. At Stanford, we are investing in reprioritizing the role of Bildung in undergraduate education. Supported by the Cornerstone Grant from the Teagle Foundation, we are redesigning the first-year course along these lines. I hope that it will be a model for other universities to emulate.

Ariel Yingqi Tang is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Political Science at Yale University. Her dissertation “The Apprenticeship of Selfhood: Bildung and the Politics of Education” examines the entangled history of liberal education and liberalism during the Enlightenment and beyond.

Featured Image: University of Berlin, sometime between 1890 and 1900. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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