It is generally acknowledged that the South African system of education is plagued by a myriad of problems. The debate on higher education reform in South Africa is currently dominated by a multiplicity of competing visions about what universities are or should be, so that the country can move forward and be competitive in the global economy. The country has three types of universities, namely, Traditional Universities where the focus is philosophical, Comprehensive Universities (traditional Universities that merged with Technikons) where the focus is professional and managerial, and Universities of Technology (former Technikons afforded stand-alone status) where the focus is vocational and technical. What is the purpose of education in the 21st Century? In the 1830s, there emerged a unique social contract between Prussian academia and the state of Prussia. The Humboldtian University emerged as a humanistic experiment and this was promoted and inspired by numerous idealistic scholars such as Wilhelm von Humboldt, Friedrich Schleiermacher and Johann Fichte. The theory of the Kulturstaat developed which postulated the notion that society exists to promote the evolution of Kultur. Berlin University, founded in 1810 was the first expression of this humanistic university initiative and it later served as a model for other German universities to emulate. In this model, the state’s role was twofold, namely, to serve and support universities as reservoirs of culture and to guarantee academic freedom which was crucial for the preservation and further development of culture. A plethora of Humboldt’s ideals on higher education maintain much of their attraction today. This article seeks to interrogate these ideas and to suggest how the Humboldtian conception of research and learning can be useful for South Africa today at a time when the country needs to be making progress towards greater competitiveness in the knowledge-based economy.
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