Higher Education in the United States and Germany in the Early Nineteenth Century

Adam Nelson, University of Wisconsin-Madison

While recent historians of capitalism have devoted considerable attention to processes of com-modification, they have only recently begun to examine these processes in the making of a transatlantic knowledge economy. This paper investigates how the market revolution of the early nineteenth century penetrated emerging institutions of higher education and pulled scholarship—the immaterial product of intellectual labor—into the sphere of commercial relations. It shows how scholarly ideas, as well as scholars and students themselves, became commodities that were calculated into an international balance of academic trade. This process of commodification was eviddent to the young Americans who pursued advanced studies in German universities during this period. Though led to believe that German scholars pursued knowledge “for its own sake," George Ticknor, George Bancroft, and George Calvert saw only a merciless academic competition in which scholars purveyed their expertise in any way that could attract fee-paying students. While competition among scholars was hardly new (the growth of medieval universities hinged on similar dynamics), this competition took on new dimensions with the rise of “modern” universities in the early nineteenth century. The infrastructures and ideologies of academic “exchange” shifted as higher education became increasingly “democratized,” “liberalized,” and “massified” to meet the scientific and bureaucratic demands of expanding industrial states. For some, the basic “idea” of the university was that intellectual exchange was not a market activity, that scholarship’s value transcended commercial (or industrial) modes of production. Yet, if Americans learned anything from their experiences at the University of Göttingen, they learned that scholarship had, in fact, already been commodified, and that it was the function of the university to oversee the intricate process of valuation whereby knowledge could be purchased for a price. The paper explains how modern universities became markets where scholars themselves were transformed into vendible goods.

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 Presented in Session 152. Different Beginnings-Comparative Perspectives on Early Tertiary Education