In the decades around 1800 the German public witnessed a substantial and controversial debate about the reform of higher education with contributions by nearly every thinker of note. This debate was informed by a deep concern with individual self-cultivation (Bildung) in a society marked by an increasing division of labour and by the questions about the status and unity of (scientific) knowledge that were posed by Kantian epistemology. 1 Historically, this discussion responded both to the institutional crisis of the university as an ancien régime corporation and to French expansionism with its ensuing destruction of the political structures of the German empire. This confrontation with Revolutionary and later Napoleonic France intensified an ongoing German (and European) controversy about the final purpose of education: should all education eventually be ‘cosmopolitan’, as Kant contended (Kant, 1923, p. 448); or should it rather be concerned with the political and cultural unity of the nation? And if higher education had to form, in Wilhelm von Humboldt’s words, the ‘pinnacle of all that is undertaken for the cultivation of the nation’ (Müller, 1990, p. 273) should the university not be abandoned in favour of the seemingly more efficient French model of polytechnics?