Wilhelm von Humboldt – theory of human education

What is education? To what extent are freedom, diversity and the state connected? The educational reformer of modern German cultural history, Wilhelm von Humboldt, asked himself these questions. He was motivated by his goal to achieve a reorganization of the education system with the inclusion of new humanism.

  1. What you need to know about Humboldt
  2. Humboldt’s image of man
  3. What Makes True Education Possible?
  4. Humboldt on the mind
  5. Education as the primary goal of people
  6. The role of the character
  1. What is Humboldt’s basic position?
  2. How does it characterize people?
  3. What conditions does it attach to education?
  4. How does understanding get into education?
  5. What is the purpose of education?
  6. Are freedom and diversity related?

What you need to know about Humboldt

Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835) is considered to be the great pioneer of German cultural history who popularized and conceived the idea of ​​education and in the course of which brought the so-called humanistic grammar school into the field [1]. It is precisely for this achievement that he is known and valued to this day.

An important detail of his life has to be mentioned here in order to avoid confusion, namely that there are two Humboldts: Wilhelm von Humboldt and his brother Alexander von Humboldt. Wilhelm was on the cultural side, Alexander on the scientific side.

In any case, both Humboldts enjoyed an elitist and comprehensive education among their aristocratic origins and, above all, studied German idealism with Immanuel Kant and a special interest in the question What is Enlightenment?

But let us quickly turn away from the structure of Humboldtian life and rather get to the content. In a nutshell, one could describe Wilhelm’s attitude to education and people in such a way that he advocated an interdisciplinary ideal of education, which was expressed in accordance with his own way of life through enormous, multi-layered work in the fields of political and historical philosophy, anthropology and linguistics.

As a state functionary, he was committed to promoting and educating people and made it his ideal to interpret this as the specific task of each individual, that is, to work on oneself – to strive for the path to self-perfection:

The propositions that nothing on earth is so important as the highest power and the most varied education of individuals and that therefore true morality is the first law, form yourself, and only their second: work on others through what you are; these maxims belong to me so that I could never part with them. [4]

Humboldt’s image of man

Accompanied by these impressive lines of his deepest conviction in the education of individuals, let us now take a look at Humboldt’s concept of man. It is incredibly important to approach Humboldt’s educational concept precisely in this way, because for him – as we shall see – education and the specific human being cannot be separated.

So first of all you have to learn to understand what moves people, what really makes them special. Humboldt makes a significant and impressive sentence on this in his writings on anthropology and history:

In the center of all special kinds of activity stands the human being who, without any individual intention, wants to strengthen and increase the forces of his nature, to give his being value and duration. [3]

This sentence already contains the fullness of the basic humanistic attitude: the human being is a being who strives for the realization of inner potentials. Growth and perfection of one’s being are specific characteristics of human endeavor.

But what must we conclude from this? If the essence of the human being, as Humboldt tells us, lies in an intentional striving to increase one’s own strength, shouldn’t one also be able to make statements about what the meaning of being human is? Certainly, because that’s how …

… the real purpose of man – not that which the changing inclination, but which alone the eternally unchangeable reason prescribes for him – the highest and most proportionate formation of his forces into a whole. [2]

What Makes True Education Possible?

True education, according to Humboldt, is always humanistic, that is, holistic education that is always geared towards the human pursuit of self-realization. But how can this be implemented? Obviously, we have to ask ourselves what conditions Humboldt’s image of man places on education, and he himself explains as follows:

For this formation freedom is the first and indispensable condition. In addition to freedom, the development of human powers requires something else, although it is closely connected with freedom: namely, the multiplicity of situations. Even the freest and most independent person who is placed in uniform positions is less educated. [2]

So we now have a clear answer based on Humboldt’s perspective. Freedom and diversity are necessary conditions for the development of human powers. What is particularly exciting here is that Humboldt clearly outlines the limits of the state with regard to freedom in his work on determining the limits of the state’s effectiveness for the benefit of freedom. We see this in the following section.

Humboldt on the mind

In short, Humboldt takes the very laudable, enlightening and liberal view that people have to be educated to think for themselves. The human mind is only formed through one’s own use, through one’s own reflection. This especially needs to be trained.

In general, the understanding of man, like any other of his powers, is formed only through his own activity and inventiveness or [at most] through his own use of foreign inventions. [2]

If one does not teach a person to move in the world by virtue of his own intellect, moral decline occurs far too often. Humboldt points out when he wants to clear up the state’s borders in matters of education and freedom again:

Anyone who is guided often and a lot can all too easily come to the point of voluntarily sacrificing what remains of their independence. He believes that he has lifted the worry that he sees in strange hands and that enough to do if he awaits her leadership and follows her. This shifts his ideas of merit and guilt. [2]

In summary, we hold onto the Humboldtian perspective quite simply as …

… that true reason cannot wish for a state other than one in which not only does each individual enjoy the most unbound freedom to develop himself in his own peculiarity, but in which physical nature also receives no other shape from human hands as each of you according to the measure of his need and inclination, limited only by the limits of his strength and his right, self and arbitrarily. [2]

Education as the primary goal of people

How incredibly important the concept of education was for Wilhelm von Humboldt is explained by the fact that he even wanted to put freedom under the name of education. As we have already heard, the purpose of human existence according to Humboldt is the formation of its forces into a whole. But then we have to add one more thing: the commitment and connection of people with the world!

The last task of our existence: to give the concept of humanity in our person, both during the period of our life and beyond, through the traces of living work that we leave behind, to provide as great a content as possible, this task is solved solely through the connection of our ego with the world to the most general, most active, and most free interaction.

This alone is now also the actual yardstick for judging the processing of each branch of human knowledge. Because only that path can be the right one in everyone, on which the eye is able to follow an unshakable progress up to this last goal, and here alone can the secret be sought, to animate what otherwise remains eternally dead and useless and to fertilize. [3]

The role of the character

In conclusion, I quote one of the most important passages in Humboldt’s writings, which particularly clarifies what education should look like for him and why freedom and diversity are so essential for it. The new central concept in this context is character:

Man should keep his character, which he once received through nature and the situation, only in him he moves easily, he is active and happy. That is why he should not less satisfy the general demands of people and set no limits to his spiritual training. […] Man can certainly collect enough material in individual cases and periods of his life, but never as a whole.

The more material it transforms into form, the more diversity it transforms into unity, the richer, livelier, more powerful, more fertile it is. But the influence of diverse conditions gives it such a variety. The more he opens up to him, the more new sides are alluded to in him, the more active his inner activity must be to develop them individually and to connect them together to form a whole. [3, p.340ff.]

Man can expand himself through the possibility of freedom alone and come into contact with matter of diversity. This contact enables him to collect and unite the material, to internalize and incorporate what he has learned to create a proportional, holistic character that is in the service of humanity.


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