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Humboldt Laboratory

Experiments with the Limits of the Classical University

A globalized world is characterized by the increasing dislocation and blurring of functional, structural, and territorial borders. The classical university is also confronted by this development:

More and more research is being conducted outside of the universities, universities are integrated into worldwide networks but are also competing for the best students and professors, and businesses and political organizations are closely linked to science and research. At the same time, the ongoing scientification of our world is leading to a situation in which research is relevant for more and more societal domains. In a word: The classical university is transcending its limits.

This is by no means the first time the classical university has transcended limits: The quest for freedom to conduct research and teach, the thirst for limitless knowledge, and adherence to the unity of research and teaching are all in the best tradition of Humboldt’s educational ideals, and these are the ideals on which the classical university is based. Nevertheless, the following questions demand an answer:

  • What identity does a “limitless” university have?
  • Who, then, defines what makes up a university?
  • And especially: how and with what consequences?

The fact of the matter is, only limits create identity. They form a border around that which is different, thus defining that which is one’s own. They provide structure and orientation.

The starting point for the issue of university reforms is thus the question as to why limits exist. What purpose do they serve and what functions do they have – and with what consequences for whom. What role do the various actors from private businesses, politics, societal organizations, and of course research itself play in this question?


In this way, reflection on Humboldt’s ideals becomes an experiment with spatial, structural, functional, and ethical limits – as the location at which these experiments are conducted, the classical university may be understood as a Humboldt laboratory.