Supplementary Appendix: German University Life

Concerning German University Life [*]

Anonymous, “Letter from an American in Europe.”
The United States Literary Gazette
4 (April 1 to October 1, 1826) (Boston 1826), no. 2 (April 15, 1826), 102–6.

My Dear C. As you are about to put on the academic habit, I suppose you will be interested in those who wear it, though of a different hue and fashion, in other countries. I will, therefore, give you a sketch of a German university. The name of university is perhaps connected in your mind with groves and gardens, with lofty and venerable halls. But by the indigent literati of this country, such things are deemed only the splendid trappings of idleness.

A German university is most properly to be regarded as an assemblage of learned professors. The greater their number or their fame, the more numerous the students who resort to them for the purpose of hearing their lectures. It is not here as in England, where the descendant of such a family, or the advocate of such a political creed, sends his children in consequence to Oxford or Cambridge. The celebrity of these institutions has frequently risen with the appointment, and declined upon the death, of one or two eminent individuals. The professors are appointed by the civil government of each state. There are different ranks among them.

They are at first only “professores extraordinarii,” with little or no salary from government. As they become more distinguished, they are advanced to the rank of “professores ordinarii;” then they receive successively, as a sort of retaining fee, to prevent their accepting offers from other universities, the honorary titles of Hofrath, Justiz-rath, Geheimer-rath, which may be translated, Counsellor of State, Counsellor of Justice, Privy Counsellor; in some few cases, Kitter, which is perfectly untranslatable; and last of all, one or two in a century arrive at the ultimum of a German’s notion of earthly dignity, in the permission to set “von” (answering to the Dutch “van” and the French “de“) before their name. For one might say, perhaps, without uncharitableness, that the Germans are title-mad. With this increase of honour, the salary increases too; though much the larger part of a professor’s income arises from the fees he receives from those who attend his lectures.

Some time before the close of each semester, or semiannual term, a catalogue is published of the lectures to be delivered in the succeeding one. The students select those which most interest them, either from the celebrity of the lecturer, their own predilection for the subject, or its indispensable connexion with the profession they pursue. They wait upon the professor, whose course they intend to hear, and request a seat in his lecture-room. He gives them a ticket, with the number of the seat to be occupied, and they retire, leaving a louis-d’or (equal to four dollars) on the table.

As each professor delivers three or more courses, and the more eminent have frequently above one hundred auditors, it is easy to perceive, that a popular professor might soon become comparatively opulent. Thus the professors act under the constant stimulus of ambition and of interest. Their intercourse with each other is but partial and limited. And I am sorry to say of these learned gentlemen, that there is an incredible degree of hatred and envy among them, which they often take no pains to conceal, even from the students; and the different gradations of rank before mentioned, while they keep the professors diligent, produce at the same time a supercilious spirit in the more distinguished, and a proportionate jealousy and ill-will in the rest. Where two professors read, or are desirous of reading lectures on the same subject, the hostility is naturally the greatest, as their interests are thus brought into actual conflict.

This is true to such an extent, that, in the cities where the larger universities are found, it is necessary for every one, who invites the literati to a party, carefully to inspect the list of those to be invited, lest two professors who are not on terms of common civility, should be among the number, as they would infallibly destroy the harmony of the company. One professor, of some distinction in Göttingen, was so unfortunate in his temper, that when he was invited, it was hardly possible to send for any one else. Thus they laugh at each other, abuse each other, and emulously throw obstacles in each other’s way, to the great edification of their pupils.

Their intercourse with the students is very slight. To those few whom they happen to know, their conduct is strikingly polite. But they meet these young men upon a footing of perfect equality; not as instructer and pupil, but as one gentleman meets another. It must not here be forgotten, that the professors are dependent for the larger part of their salary upon the good opinion of the students individually; and, accordingly, it will not be wondered at, that they neither exert, nor attempt to exert, any useful influence over them. On Sunday forenoon they hold a sort of levee, and then it is allowable for any one to call upon those professors whose lectures he attends.

Their lectures are full of scientific matter, usually arranged in admirable order. But they have no conception of a pleasing and graceful delivery; and their voices, probably from their inactive and sedentary life, are very bad; their manner often disagreeable even to the point of disgust. Literary labour, too, has now come to be as minutely divided as mechanical; and the advantage in both cases is similar, in the more rapid progress of discovery. Yet the disadvantage also arises, that subordinate departments of study are elevated to an undeserved importance, and one science is dissected into several, to furnish as many professors with a livelihood.

Most of them despise dress, and some of them decency. They are rarely seen abroad, still more rarely at church. They are generally frugal and temperate. Their diligence is indefatigable; their literary acquisitions immense. They write books as easily, and almost as mechanically, as a joiner makes a bench or a table; and they speak to an acquaintance of the works they have written, with as much ease as we do of those we have read.

The students go from the high schools to the university. Their object, however, is the study of a profession, not, as in our colleges, the pursuit of general literature. The German students, therefore, stand on a level with our resident graduates, both as it regards age, and objects of pursuit . They pass no examination on entrance, for which they pay the fee of a louis-d’or. The only ceremony attending admission, is shaking hands with an officer, called “University Counsellor,” and promising to obey the laws, — particularly two, which prohibit the student from duelling, and from entering any secret society. The number at Göttingen has usually been a little above fifteen hundred, of whom about seven hundred are students of law.

Beside the three classes of jurists, theologians, and medical men, which include the great majority of the students, some devote themselves exclusively to the classics, and are called philologians. But in general, any one who does not chiefly pursue one of the three leading professions, is called a student of philosophy. This is the only classification which exists. The only mode in which they receive the instructions of the professors, is, as has before been intimated, by hearing their lectures. On the striking of the public clock, the students are hastening in all directions through the streets, with portfolios under their arms, to the dwellings of their respective professors.

On entering the auditorium, as the lectureroom is called, they employ themselves in mending their pens, and unscrewing their horn-inkstands, which they carry about in their pockets, till the professor enters. He immediately begins to read, and they to scribble in their note-books, and all they hear they write off with untiring and undiscriminating industry. When the clock strikes the next hour, the students, many of whom go directly to another lecture, close their note-books, and pluck up their inkstands; and the noise constantly increases, with stamping and hissing at last, unless the professor stops. He usually breaks off at the first period, without any regard to the context, and, of course, the next lecture must begin as abruptly as the last was broken off.

One of the most striking circumstances in the situation of the students, is their almost unlimited freedom. Attending lectures is the only duty required; but no bills of absence from the lectures are kept; and as they live in any part of the city at pleasure, and need not have the slightest intercourse with the professors unless they choose, it is not surprising that there are many who do not attend any lectures, and whose freedom becomes licentiousness. But a large majority are certainly diligent in their own way; that is, they attend from four to six courses of lectures every semester, which occupies that number of hours every day.

But though the lecture-room is full at the beginning of the semester, it soon becomes thinner, till, towards the close of the term, not more than about half the original number continues to attend. Out of the lecture-room their conscience is clear; and I am of opinion, that the majority do not read any thing worth mentioning. A few there are, who unite themselves with two or three associates in a recapitulatory exercise, to recite the substance of the lectures they have heard.

The philologians, and they alone, have a practical exercise with their professors. All the rest are only hearers. It is easy to perceive, that this mode of acquiring an education must have this good consequence, — that daily listening to the results of the patient and persevering study of men, who have devoted their whole life, in many instances a very long one, to the particular science they teach, — that this can hardly fail to give them the most just views of the subject discussed; and this ill consequence, that the prime end of education, the development of the student’s mental powers, is entirely lost sight of, and he is, in consequence, often a mere copyist, and receives slavishly the opinions of his teachers.

As there are no classes, no literary distinctions among the students, the relation in which they stand to each other is necessarily wide of that which exists in our colleges; and thus, on the one hand, envy is extinguished, but on the other, there is no play for a noble and quickening emulation. The chief source of friendly connexion among them is the territorial division of Germany, by which every one belongs to a certain “Landsmannschaft,” and with this connexion inherits certain friendships and enmities.

Thence arise a large portion of those contemptible duels, which are the scandal of the German universities. Of the many idlers sauntering about the streets, and in the billiard rooms, some of different “Landsmannschafts” must necessarily come in contact, and the real or supposed affront is invariably settled by a duel. When one individual is involved in a dispute, others of his “Landsmannschaft” deem it a point of honour to take his part, and there are sometimes twenty or thirty duels in consequence of one young gentleman’s having been pushed into the gutter.

The parties usually go to a neighbouring village on Sunday, as this is an idle day with the students, and there fight with broadswords. This shameful practice has not even the apology of a high-spirited courage, for the heads of the combatants are defended by a peculiar kind of large hat, and their bodies by a pair of pantaloons thickly stuffed for the purpose, which are drawn up as high as the breast, thus leaving little beside the face exposed. The combatants make twelve passes at each other, and then shake hands. But if one of them, as is usually the case, is hit sooner, the seconds and the surgeon interfere, and peace is made. If it be a deadly feud, and twelve passes have been made in vain on both sides, they go on to twenty-four.

But German wrath very seldom burns so hotly as to bring them to exchange thirty-six. As might be expected, slit noses and scarred cheeks are common ornaments of the streets. During the time I have been here, the average of these duels has been something above one per day. The theological students fight duels frequently, though they have become a little reserved on that score, since the consistoria have declared that they will give no candidate a parish who has a duel scar on his face.

Besides the “Landsmannschaft,” another bond of union among the students is the secret societies, whose objects are political [editor’s note: such was considerably less the case during the late eighteenth century]. These have given a great deal of trouble to the government of Germany, by the intemperate zeal for liberty and independence which they have excited at the universities. Whenever they are discovered to exist, the most summary measures are instantly resorted to. They have been tolerably quiet for two or three years, but even during the last year [1824], such a one was discovered in the Prussian university of Halle, and one third of the students were expelled in consequence; report said, three were sent as stateprisoners to the fortress of Magdeburg.

For the purpose of enforcing the laws, large powers are vested in a University Court, consisting of a few professors only, expressly designated by government. Their efforts are almost exclusively directed against secret societies, and against duelists. They have an armed police at their disposal, and these are almost constantly in pursuit of the duelists. Those whom they catch are committed to prison, and if not expelled, they are usually punished, on conviction, with three or four weeks’ confinement. Between the duelists and those arrested for debt by the citizens, the jail is kept generally full. Once in a great while, one is expelled for gross licentiousness. But in general, one might be idle or industrious, economical or extravagant, without praise or reproof.

Rebellions are frequent in the German universities. They originate sometimes in the hostility of a few against some professor, for the opinions he has expressed, or his manners towards his auditors; sometimes from the punishment of some duelist or leader in the secret societies; sometimes in the mere fury of liberty. In such cases, the mutineers assemble in the streets, and compel all the students either to take part with them or quit the city. All are then sworn never to return to the university. They then leave the city in a tumultuous manner, singing songs of freedom, smoking their pipes, &c.

The last rebellion at Göttingen was in the fall of 1823. It did not become general, but several hundred went off in a body to a mill, a few miles from the city, and there staid some days, eating pancakes, and smoking. They then proceeded toward Cassel, a number having avowed the intention of assassinating the Elector. This prince was not a little alarmed, and sent a body of horse to prevent them from entering his territories.

The students are so numerous, that when they unite, they can accomplish almost any thing they choose. One of the citizens insulted a student a few years since; the whole body were soon assembled, and entirely demolished the house of the offender. They have in a body made repeated exactions of the government, with which the latter have judged it prudent to comply. They obtained in this manner the right of free hunting for a certain number of miles round the city; a great privilege in Germany.

One word of their dress and manners. The professors wear hats; but the students universally wear caps, of different colour and fashion, according to their respective “Landsmannschafts;” the Prussian, for instance, is white, the Westphalian, scarlet. They usually wear a rough frock-coat, and when it rains, a great-coat, with a cape reaching nearly to the ground. This latter article of dress is very becoming, from the graceful folds of this huge cape. Their manners in the streets are often rough, and their appearance is not rendered more attractive by the fierce-looking mustachios which are frequently worn.

They usually take their meals entirely alone. They make their own coffee and tea, and their dinner is brought from a neighbouring tavern. When in their own rooms, they smoke almost constantly a pipe about a yard long. On Sundays when there are no lectures, and on Saturdays, when there are but few, the students are as numerous as ever in the streets, but instead of a port-folio, they carry a pipe. They are not allowed indeed by the police to smoke in the street, but they visit each other, and smoke for hours in company. And in passing through the city, at any hour, one is sure to see many a student’s head thrust through the casement, smoking and staring at the passengers with imperturbable gravity. On their return after vacation, they salute an acquaintance by a shake of the hand, and a kiss on each side of the face. On bidding one another “Good-bye,” at the end of the term, the same ceremony is repeated. This frequently occurs in public.

As for their amusements, smoking is by no means to be reckoned among them; it is as much a necessary of life with them as their food. But music of all kinds; a walk on Sunday; or, if their purse will admit of it, a ride, six or eight together, in a large, open, dirty basket, put on four wheels, and drawn by two horses, that are often harnessed to the vehicle by ropes; playing at nine-pins of an afternoon, and at billiards of an evening; visits to the gardens just outside of the city, and to the dirty villages, at some distance, where the weary and thirsty refresh, and often intoxicate themselves with incredible quantities of bad wine, and worse beer; — —these constitute the chief amusements of the future lights of Germany.

Consider this, my dear C , as a very imperfect sketch of the prominent points in these universities. Like all human institutions, they contain mingled good and evil. To compare them, in general, with our own; — we read, and the Germans write. Among them, the professors must study, and thus great literati are formed; among us, the scholars, and thus useful men are formed. The different modes of education may, perhaps, not unaptly be compared to the different systems of European and American governments. Theirs elevates the few; ours refines and ennobles the many. Indeed we of the new world must appropriate the words of the English poet, and say of European institutions —

Of old things all are over old, 
Of good things none are good enough; 
We'll show that we can help to frame 
A world of other stuff.

(Wordsworth’s Rob Roy.)

Very affectionately, yours.


[*] Though this account dates from a good quarter century (and more) after Caroline’s time in Göttingen and Jena, and fifteen years (and more) after her time in Würzburg and Munich, it still largely reflects the essentials of German university life as she experienced them especially during her childhood and young adulthood in Göttingen and during her and Wilhelm Schlegel’s stay in Jena. Many of these circumstances and peculiarities are repeatedly reflected in her and others’ letters. Back.

Translation © 2011 Doug Stott