David Bromwich has recently shown how the current educational nostrum of ‘massive open online courses’, or moocs, implies a very specific idea of intellectual community: ‘At the heart of the mooc model is the idea that education is a mediated but unsocial activity. This is as strange as the idea—shared by ecstatic communities of faith—that the discovery of truth is a social but unmediated activity.’footnote1 Bromwich’s apt analysis does not tell us if there is an alternative model of higher education as a mediated and social activity. In fact there is, and it has been available at least since the late Enlightenment. At the heart of humanities teaching in most Western universities is the academic seminar. It is to this interactive, discursive form of teaching that moocs wish to become heir apparent. But where does the teaching model of the seminar come from? And how can the history of its development inform our modern understanding of higher education, and the potential for online courses within it?

In the early modern period, the lecture was the characteristic teaching form of university study. From the end of the eighteenth century, this began to change. The reforming educational writings of Fichte, Schelling, Humboldt and Schleiermacher proposed a form of study at whose didactic core lay not diligent note-taking in the lecture hall but rather independent research. Thus, they wanted, first, to allocate a new function to lectures: material was no longer simply to be conveyed—this could much better be learnt in solitude, in the quiet contemplation of relevant books. Lectures were now intended to make the process of cognition itself tangible, visible, and thus to stimulate students to undertake intellectual ‘self-guided learning’. However, merely altering the form of the lecture was not enough to bring about inquisitive learning in the context of the old system. The new tendency in education theory found purchase only with the implementation of another measure. The emphasis of these idealistic conceptions was to be carried by a new institution better suited than lectures to be the research environment of universal learning: the seminar.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century, the term ‘seminar’ denoted a complex institution, a space that made the union of teaching and research possible. The seminar was a new organizational unit in the academy, with its own budget for purchasing books or funding bursaries. It was a specific location, a meeting room, which later frequently also housed a library with study materials and accommodation, and the seminar members had privileged access to it. This was the site on which the new form of learning took place. Here, at specified hours, the members would meet to undertake research-led learning under the guidance of the seminar director. They schooled themselves in philological and historical methods, composed written seminar papers and, ultimately, came to model their own behaviour on the example of their director. At first, the seminar functioned as a new way to recruit and train high-school teachers, because teachers who had been trained as researchers were expected to give better and more challenging school lessons. However, within the university, the seminar also offered a new way to differentiate the student body. Only the highest performing individuals could become proper members of the seminar; they would often receive scholarships; and since the seminar meetings were generally public—and well attended—their privileged status was clear for outsiders to see. Seminar activity forced members to form themselves as individuals: they were to develop their own interests, work independently, be self-motivated—that is to say, to engage in ‘research’.

One early model of this complex institution was available at the time of the German university reforms, around the end of the eighteenth century: Friedrich August Wolf’s classical philology seminar in Halle. Availing himself of a precedent from the University of Göttingen, where he had studied, Wolf designed and implemented his plan in a few months in early 1787, and with the support of the Prussian minister of education, Karl Abraham von Zedlitz, established the institution of the ‘seminar’ as a constituent part of the Prussian education system in September of the same year.footnote2 Wolf became the director of a seminar with twelve members, for whom he had already been able to secure scholarships. The core concept of the seminar is that a good teacher must also be a researcher. Only those who are motivated by the ‘appeal of things in themselves’ and can pursue independent research are suited for the role. The philological investigation of antiquity motivated by the appeal of things—i.e. languages, literatures, and other cultural remains—was not supposed to be undertaken for specific purposes, but rather for its own sake, free from the inhibiting cost-benefit calculation of everyday life. Wolf sustained his programme for the next nineteen years, training researchers, who, as such, secured good positions in the Prussian education system and continued with their philological research. The students, who were accepted into the seminar on the basis of their academic performance and skills, formed a small, privileged, research-driven group within the university. Wolf’s seminar set a decisive course for the practice of university education, because he conceived of it as a working group whose activities had nothing in common with the customary form of university learning. While other students continued to attend lectures only, the seminar members were trained in philological methods. Now, the seminar was not only or even primarily a space for generating and communicating knowledge: above all, it was for developing skills and competencies.

What means were to be employed to achieve this? For Wolf, the primary one was practice in interpretation. In contrast to modern usage of the term, this included textual criticism and both grammatical and lexical explication. These exercises were to enthuse seminar members; to show them that philological attention to the smallest details could result in ground-breaking achievements, as Wolf himself had shown by personal example in his Prolegomena and the controversy surrounding it. The second practice was essay-writing. Members completed papers on topics they had selected themselves. This was a novelty in 1800, and academic writing as a part of university study was compulsory only for seminar members. The seminar was decisive in the establishment of scripturality as the primary modus operandi of academic teaching. However, in contrast to practice today, the seminar essay did not principally serve to earn course-assessment marks; it was not a generalized instrument by which to evaluate course performance. Anybody who wrote essays had already succeeded simply by being admitted to the seminar. The essay was instead more an academic text-type directed towards discipline-specific scholarly discourses and specialist innovation. Sometimes these essays also contained theses, which could be the object of oral debate. Then the student would defend his thesis against the criticisms of an opponent selected by him from among the other members of the seminar. The development of knowledge in oral debate had been the traditional form of academic examination. The seminar took this over and formalized it as a continuing exercise.