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Education: Freie Universitat

3 minute read

Its largest lecture room was once a subway car barn, its campus is still the city streets, its study halls are still the handiest park benches. Yet in three lean years, the Free University of Berlin has grown into a vigorous symbol of academic liberty. While its famed pre-Nazi counterpart, in the East sector of Berlin, withers and dies from an overdose of Communist dialectic, the Free University may well become the birthplace of a more widespread liberal education than Germany has ever before attained. Last week the young institution got a generous gift of the one thing it needed most: $1,309,500 from the Ford Foundation.

Shoestring Start. The first classes met at the Free University in 1948, in a handful of shoddy houses and what was left of the research buildings of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute. Two years earlier, in the Eastern sector, the Soviets had reopened the old University of Berlin. But they did little more than repeat the Nazi patterns of corruption. A disgusted group of students and professors went to Generals Clay and Howley to plead for a decent school. From the A.M.G. and the West Berlin government of Mayor Ernst Reuter they got money and equipment for a shoestring start.

In the early days, there was a faculty of 70 and a student body of 2,200. Today there are 240 teachers and 5,500 students, nearly half of whom have sneaked through the “little iron curtain” of the Soviet zone. They have sacrificed family ties and risked retaliation in their gamble for a free education. And the odds were against them from the start. As many as 55,000 refugees and West Germans apply for admission each semester. The university can take only 10%.

Student Government. Too poor for much of the U.S. type of extracurricular college life, the students have substituted a fierce interest in their active and powerful student government. Their representatives sit on the board of trustees, the university senate and the numerous admissions committees and scholarship boards. So far they have beaten down any semblance of neo-Naziism, and have run a successful intelligence operation to root out Communist infiltration. They have even prevented the growth of the old German “corporations,” the dueling fraternities that are popping up in West German universities.

Aware of their ticklish position deep in Communist territory, students of the Free University sometimes wonder if their alma mater will be permitted to grow old enough for traditions of its own. Their worry is understandable, but their rector, Hans Freiherr von Kress, a professor of medicine, is letting it interfere with none of his plans. With their new finances, he and his staff are counting on a new building to include lecture halls, a desperately needed central library, and a student dining room. They are going to organize the first adult education program ever attempted in Germany and are planning on a yearly program of U.S. guest lecturers. And perhaps most important of all, they will try to cure the worst blind spot in old-style German education—its failure, for all its technical excellence, to turn out graduates with a thorough understanding of each man’s privileges and responsibilities as a citizen.

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