Virtues of History: Exercises, Seminars, and the Emergence of the German Historical Discipline, 1830-1900

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During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, historians across the world often started the history of the modern historical discipline with Leopold Ranke’s teaching at the University of Berlin during the 1830s. Ranke, they argued, here introduced a new style of training exercises, which afterwards defined the discipline. Some connected this history to a story of increasing standardization and institutionalization of education and research, culminating with the methodological textbooks, uniform training exercises, and large research institutes of the period. Many historians also associated Ranke’s exercises with certain epistemic virtues, such as carefulness, accurateness and love of truth. These epistemic virtues, some argued, were products of the close relationship between teachers and students. The virtues, this paper argues, also helped nineteenth-century historians assess the scribes, chroniclers, and historians of the past. The paper illustrates this emphasis upon epistemic virtues through the example of Georg Waitz, who participated in Ranke’s famous exercises during the 1830s and whom nineteenth-century historians often described as his most prominent and loyal student. It especially focuses upon how Waitz conveyed the virtues of the Ranke school to his doctoral students in Göttingen and how this training influenced the students’ practices of interpretation and source criticism. Finally, the paper discusses the tension between the educational ideas of the Ranke school and the standardization and institutionalization of education and research during the second half of the nineteenth century. The tension, it argues, illustrates that the emergence of the modern historical discipline cannot be explained solely with reference to the process of institutionalization.
Original languageEnglish
Book seriesHistory of Universities
Publication statusAccepted/In press - 2021

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