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Ulich, Robert (1890-1977)

Robert Ulich

Courtesy of Harvard University Archives.

Biographical Introduction

Robert Ulich was a professor of the history and philosophy of education at Harvard University from 1935 until 1960. During those years, he published ten books whose subjects ranged from comparative education to the history of educational thought to his own philosophy of self-transcendence outlined in his best known book, The Human Career.

Born in Bavaria to a family with a long tradition of religious and contemplative thinkers, Ulich entered the Humanistisches Gymnasium at the age of 9. Over the course of the following decade, he was educated in the Classics as well as English, French and Hebrew. Ulich’s classical studies provided him with a long and profound sense of Western history which proved critical to his academic career.

At the age of 19, Ulich entered the University of Freiberg. He subsequently studied at the universities of Neuchatel, Munich, Berlin, and Leipzig before earning his Ph.D. at the age of 25. Ulich wrote his doctoral dissertation about Christian Friedrich Scherenberg, a nineteenth century poet. At this point, although his philosophical interests were well developed, they had not yet been applied to the field of education. His broad interests and unending curiosity made it difficult for him to specialize until he had a brief but defining experience working in a metal plant. Observing the misery of his working-class colleagues, he conceived of an education that must accommodate the basic human desire for progress and happiness, an education that is commensurate with the dynamics of the society in transformation.

Ulich’s new commitment to education expressed itself professionally in his 1917 appointment as assistant director of Leipzig Public Libraries. In this role, Ulich developed a new type of library designed to “initiate and guide serious reading among working class people.” As Francis Keppel, a colleague of Ulich’s at Harvard, commented, “His contribution during the dark days after World War I was to the building of a Germany whose devotion to freedom and democracy is now becoming a hope of the free world.” In 1921 Ulich became the assistant counselor in charge of adult education at the Ministry of Education of Saxony. Two years later, he was made counselor in charge of Saxon University, a position he would hold for ten years. Ulich’s professional endeavors as an educational administrator were informed by his sense of history and sociology, just as these experiences enriched his later philosophical work. Between the years 1928-1933, Ulich also taught philosophy at the Dresden Institute of Technology.

Elsa Ulich

Ulich’s first wife Elsa, who was known in Germany as the Swedish Angel of Siberia for her work with POWs during World War I.

Although Ulich’s works published during the first two decades of his career are slim in contrast to his later prodigious outpouring, two works published during this era suggest the direction of his later research. Dietmar Waterkamp has noted that these works demonstrate his ability to analyze the social and political tendencies of the present epoch by comparing them with similar constellations in history. Neither work bore any relation to education.

In 1929 he married Elsa Brandstroem, daughter of the Swedish ambassador to Russia. As a Swedish Red Cross nurse, she had acted on behalf of German prisoners of war by visiting heartrendering camp after camp all over Siberia, and thereafter became known as the Swedish Angel of Siberia.

In 1933, in response to a group firing of colleagues at the Dresden Institute of Technology who were described as “racially and politically undesirable, ” Ulich resigned both his professorship there and his position with the Ministry of Education of Saxony. He could easily have been arrested for this act of protest, but his wife’s high social standing protected him. Soon after his resignation Ulich was offered a one year position as lecturer in comparative education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. The lectureship rescued Ulich from an increasingly dangerous political climate. In 1934, Ulich, a 44-year old and seasoned academic scholar and administrator arrived at Harvard. After one year, Ulich was appointed Professor of the History and Philosophy of Education and was soon naturalized as a U.S. citizen.

There is little question that the tragic rise of the Nazi party in Germany, whose ultimate aims Ulich foresaw with uncommon clarity, shaped his approach to educational philosophy. Ulich wrote, “Nothing is more dangerous to mankind than the divine gift of faith uncontrolled by the equally divine gift of reason.”

Ulich had a powerful sense of the importance of a guiding philosophy in education. He was not especially concerned with methods, believing that teachers could be trusted to develop appropriate methods if goals were clear. Ulich’s view stood in vivid contrast to that of John Dewey, whose progressive philosophy was dominant in the American community at the time. As Harvard colleague Frederick Ellis commented, the two men were similar because like Dewey, Ulich would take philosophy out of the academy and into the brisk air of public human experience. Nevertheless, Ulich insisted on the connection between education for personal self-determination and the success of democracy. Ulich perceived the teacher as not merely the interpreter of the child, but also the interpreter of the civilization into which the child has to grow.

Just as he argued for an overarching vision for education in the U.S., Ulich argued it is the school’s responsibility to aid an individual in discovering a purpose in life—without which maturity is impossible. “If our schools fail to help a person discover his purpose,” Ulich cautioned, “they fail in almost everything that really matters.”

His rich historical knowledge and philosophical training set him apart from most educational thinkers at work in the United States. As Dietmar Waterkamp has observed, “Most of Ulich’s writings treat the history of the mind in Western culture, inspired by the insight that the long process of intellectual search in the West had brought about fundamental beliefs and convictions about the fate and destination of Mankind, which our century is at risk of losing unless contemplation and reflection back to these underlying ideals will take place.”

Ulich argued in favor of inspiring a new feeling for the value system which underlies Western culture. Ellis noted, “In arguing for an abiding sense of direction, Ulich has endeavored to restore to educational thinking the vision of man from which were derived the magnificent ideal of democracy and freedom.”

Ulich at Harvard

Robert Ulich addressing a Harvard dinner audience, 1942. Courtesy of Harvard University Archives.

Ulich’s philosophy of self-transcendence was most fully articulated in his 1955 book, The Human Career. As Vana E.M. Kim summarizes, “Ulich held that reason is the supreme human faculty that guides human action according to the dictate of the self-limiting, normative principle of morality and also of a more positive and creative force, namely the principle of self-realization.”

Education, wrote Ulich, was a long enduring process of cultural self-evolution in which we must discover ourselves as part of a reality that is creative and whose power compels a cosmic reverence. His thinking reflected a secular religiousness. As Ulich explained, “The most radical and comprehensive thinking leads a person beyond the boundaries of the merely empirical and rational into the sphere of the mysterious.”

Waterkamp explains that Ulich’s religiousness was a spirituality and a belief in belonging to a cosmic totality with no specified contents of belief and an aversion to every dogmatism. This belief may have been nourished by his friendship with Paul Tillich, whom he first met at the Dresden Institute of Technology and knew later when both men were at Harvard University. His philosophy of self-transcendence conformed with the Unitarian faith to which he and one of his favorite educational philosophers, Thomas Jefferson, belonged.

Arts education, suggested Ulich, both in practice and in appreciation, was one of the best means of achieving self-transcendence. Indeed Ulich himself, throughout his busy academic career, found time to become a poet. He published three books of poetry over the course of his lifetime.

As a scholar of comparative education, Ulich analyzed the American school system. In his 1951 book, Crisis and Hope in American Education, published by the Beacon Press of the American Unitarian Association, Ulich outlined the weaknesses of the current system, mentioning as key factors in its failure “the lack of a coherent curriculum in schools and undergraduate studies, the rule of the credit-system, the widespread application of tests, the broad range of choice for the students—which allowed the avoidance of intellectually demanding courses and impeded coherent and sequential learning—the lack of selection in schools and undergraduate studies, and the clinging to a ‘single-ladder’ school system.” (Waterkamp). His preferred model for the U.S. educational system has been described as elitist in that it fell in line with fellow Unitarian Thomas Jefferson’s belief in a “natural aristocracy among men.” Waterkamp explains that “it set up a typology of talents in relation to societal needs as a basis for establishing a selective school system.” In such a system, the two social classes would share a mutual understanding, if unequal educational opportunities. Social mobility ought to be a slow process, according to Ulich, in order to prevent “the half-education of the Hitler type” and “an uprooted and unemployed academic proletariat of the Goebbels type.”

Robert Ulich

Courtesy of Harvard University Archives.

In 1954, Ulich’s prolific contributions to the fields of the history of education, philosophy of education, and comparative education were recognized with his appointment to the first James Bryant Conant Professorship at Harvard University. He retired from teaching in 1960 and returned to Germany in 1970.

The fact that Ulich’s name and philosophy are not commonly known in education today may be related to his intellectual aims for education which resisted concretization. He did not focus his energies on a dissection of the American system or on the creation of methodology, but strove instead to persuade educational leaders to think critically about educational problems within a historical and philosophical framework.

After his first wife died in 1947, he married a former student, Mary Ewen Ulich, who described her husband as relentlessly productive, “He just cannot be idle. There is no day of vacation when he does not make some notes for an essay or book and read a scholarly work.” On a more profound note, she observed, “What he calls the supreme characteristic of man, namely the capacity of self-transcendence or the desire to widen one’s horizons of insight and experience, is his own personality interpreted philosophically.”

— By Heather Miller.

Award Presented to Professor Robert Ulich

ROBERT ULICH, German-born philosopher and educator who fled his native land shortly after the rise of Adolf Hitler, was honored Oct. 9, 1957, by the Federal Republic of Germany with the Commander’s Cross of Merit at a ceremony at the Harvard Faculty Club. Dr. Ulich, the first James Bryant Conant Professor of Education at Harvard University, was awarded the medal for the “great and immeasurable services, by person and work, in the past and the present [he] has rendered to the German people, German science and the mutual relations of Germany and the United States.

Harvard Faculty Memorial Minute

Born in Bavaria, Robert Ulich, the James Bryant Conant Professor of Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, left a distinguished career in Germany and became a political refugee in the United States in 1934.

Francis Keppel, who served as Dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education at the time of Mr. Ulich’s 1960 retirement from the faculty—and who later served as U.S. Commissioner of Education, said:

His departure from Germany in 1933 was not caused by academic ambition. It was rather a magnificent protest against a way of life he could not approve. It was an act of personal courage and intellectual honesty.

Once arrived in the United States, he did not take the easier path for which his academic training had fitted him. He joined the faculty of a School of Education, well knowing that it was neither fashionable nor an easy road for a new citizen. One might have thought then that Robert Ulich would champion the pure tradition of German intellectualism, since a perversion of it was itself in part responsible for some of the tragedies of his own life. Or he might have reacted, as so many have done, by taking the leadership in expounding the popular educational philosophy of the day in America….

Characteristically, he did not. He ever sought the strength of both traditions, and struggled to rid them of their weaknesses. He soon found in the America of the 1930s and 1940s that he walked a lonely road.

Although a lifelong educator, Professor Ulich was never one to perceive a wall of scholarship between those who were highly educated and those who were not. “If humankind consisted only of potential professors,” he wrote in his 1951 book, Crisis and Hope in American Education, “civilization would break down before it had begun. Only on the broad base of a hard-working and practical-minded people can the scholar and artist work and live. If a culture has grown so old that man is judged only according to his brain, then exactly those who have the brain ought to warn their fellow men that the pyramid of civilization cannot be built upside down. Unless the base rests on the ground, the whole structure will collapse.”

To Robert Ulich, education was the symbol of the universal conscience of humanity.

He retired in 1970 and died in his native Germany in 1977.

–From Harvard Alumni Bulletin, Fall 1977.

The Mission of a Religious Liberal
by Robert Ulich

Knowledge, wisdom of the past, and true mysticism
combine to help us to find answers

Robert Ulich

Courtesy of Harvard University Archives.

Because of a certain exclusiveness of the Judeo-Christian tradition with its claim to represent the only right way to heaven, even people with a more universal point of view are inclined to identify the adherence to a particular religion with being religious.

According to old tribal lore, to be found also in Islam, but not in Brahmanism, Buddhism, and the great Chinese worldviews, Christianity has taught its disciples for almost 2,000 years that outside its bailiwick there can be no grace, no salvation, no vision of the Divine, but only “pagans.”

In face of the widening of our horizons through international contacts, science, and comparative disciplines of thought, this Christian tribalism breaks down. Even the Catholic Church no longer likes priests who too stubbornly insist on the doctrine of nulla salus extra ecclesiam—at least in countries with a religiously mixed population.

All this provides an enormous challenge for a liberal religion. It must start from the joyful admission that the same divine soul is diversely incarnate in many souls and nations, a belief from which there derives the recognition of the dignity and equality of all people who seriously strive for the good and the true.

If the basic religious-moral truths are established, we well may leave it to the individual to develop his answer to life’s eternal mysteries.

On the other hand, the liberal’s insistence on a universal outlook should not prevent each new generation from knowing about the language and symbols of our ancestors. Rightly interpreted, they still contain more about the inner concerns of humanity than science ever will achieve. And though we said that adherence to a particular religion does not necessarily make a man religious, it does not follow from that statement that a religious personality can develop well without a person’s acquaintance with the spiritual tradition of his culture.

Nor should the liberal’s desire for rationality make him blind to the fact that the most radical and comprehensive thinking leads a person beyond the boundaries of the merely empirical and rational into the sphere of the mysterious. “Mysticism,” in the positive sense of the word, is not lack of reason but reason which in the process of self-examination recognizes its limitations and dares engage in the adventure of vision. Call such vision poetic, if you wish, but it may be more true, and in a deep sense even more empirical, than mere description and analysis ever can be.

The whole appears to the human mind only in specific revelation. Yet, even the finest instrument, if played alone, can give but a faint reflection of a symphony. In order to understand fully the greatest of all symphonies, the life of the cosmos, we would have to hear all its instruments at once, which is beyond human power. We even may hear falsely and distort the voice of the original revealer. The most passionate disciples often do so. They may be necessary, but they are also dangerous, for they generally are infinitely smaller than their master.

The Great Composer and his universe are too large for our minds. Yet, though aware of our limitations, we must not permit them to become our prison; rather, we must use all our mental organs to comprehend as much as we can. Only thus, however faintly, can the human order lead our eyes toward the universal order, of which we are a part. And whatever our beliefs, whether we are naturalists or supernaturalists, humanists or transcendentalists, we then are religious.

— From the Christian Register, December 1956.

Resources Recommended by Harvard Square Library

Ulich, Robert. Three Thousand Years of Educational Wisdom: Selections from Great DocumentsCambridge: Harvard University Press, Second Edition, 1954.

Ulich, Robert. “An Autobiography,” in Leaders in American Education, Volume 70, Part Two, pp. 414-434. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1971.


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