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Lectures and seminars

“Today, if the [university] teacher intends to bring forward all the details of his area of expertise, then he has to lose himself to such a great extent in the specific that he has no time left to offer the great, essential vantage-points according to his personal understanding. In addition to this is the fact that it is no longer even necessary to provide this sum of details in the lecture courses. For we currently possess compendiums of these details, which are excellent, and whose current level of comprehensiveness would earlier have been inconceivable to us . . . Lectures should comprise much shorter periods of time. In them, one should renounce the enumeration and critical evaluation of the particular details, and instead set oneself the task of holding orientation lectures in which one develops an overall understanding of a certain subject, a general point of view. By contrast, the practical exercises at the universities, the work in seminars, should see a greater expansion. Such work should not, as is currently the case, begin only in later semesters, but already at the beginning of university studies. Here the students should learn the methods of scientific investigation; here one should concretely train oneself to become a researcher”.

Rudolf Steiner, “University Education and Demands of the Present Time”, Originally printed in Magazin für Literatur 1898, No. 19.


Steiner points the way towards a new way of understanding the relationship of lectures and seminars. No lecturer merely communicates information (which can be found online or in libraries). Lecturers present “great essential vantage points” – which means that university teachers must be capable of doing that and employed on this basis.

            In the expanded seminars students learn to become researchers; research is not just what “the academics” do (see the Humboldt quote below). The question is: what kind of methods of research are being developed in these seminars?  See Fundamental Principles for ideas on “living thinking”.

“It is a characteristic of higher institutions of learning that they treat all knowledge as a not yet wholly solved problem and are therefore never done with investigation and research. This is in contrast to the schools which take as their subject only the completed and agreed upon results of knowledge and teach these . . . As soon as one stops searching for knowledge, or if one imagines that it need not be creatively sought in the depths of the human spirit but can be assembled extensively by collecting and classifying facts, everything is irrevocably and forever lost . . .One must separate from ideas what is mere knoweldge of the intellect and of the memory . . . Art, including poety, is  a means of transforming much into ideas that originally and in itself could not be placed there . . . Thought and feeling must unite intimately.”

Wilhelm von Humboldt, Humanist Without Porfolio, Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 1963, pp. 132 and 146



This emphasis on research stated with the Humboldt University of Berlin and has become the modern norm. However, most universities see research only for academics who tend to treat it as more inportant than teaching. That is why a university like Adelaide University has gone back to the original Humboldtian intentions and involves all students in the research process, from the beginning. Beacon of Enlightenment: The University of Adelaide Strategic Plan 2013-2023: “As a key format for delivering undergraduate  research, the university will commit to increasing  the centrality of small-group learning, in which students address the scholarship of discovery with  other students and a staff mentor. . . The origins of small-group discovery are in the Humboldt research university model of 19th century Germany . . .”

Humboldt himself says that knowledge must be creatively sought in the depths of the human spirit – in other words, not just through intellectual discussion and abstract theorising. Humboldt definitely associated the creative artistic imagination with the forming of true ideas. So just to talk about “the Humboldtian research model” is not enough, unless you take seriously his views on creative, imaginative thinking. This shows Humboldt’s connection with Goethe’s artistic form of science.



Steiner Education Centenary Revival

A booklet of specially selected excerpts from Rudolf Steiner's thoughts on education and the threefold social order. All proceeds are donations to the Education for Social Renewal Foundation. Click here to make an order. 

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