In preparing for teaching a new course about freedom of speech and freedom of inquiry (about which more soon), I was reflecting on the nature and aims of the university–historically one of the central sites for the freedom of inquiry. Of course, this is a perennial topic and it is striking to see different conceptions and ideas of the university across time–stretching from the ancient model of learning (which one can read in the work of Plato and Aristotle, especially); to the medieval and renaissance Christian intellectual strongholds of Bologna, Paris, and others; to the 19th century modern period beginning with the German model and Cardinal Newman’s still-insightful “Idea of a University”; all the way to the 20th century model whose characteristic expositor remains John Dewey. And today, the university is under new pressures to change and become something else–something quite different from what it was even relatively recently.

It was in this spirit that I noticed and look forward to reading Professor William C. Kirby’s new book, Empires of Ideas: Creating the Modern University from German to American to China (Harvard UP). Professor Kirby, an expert on China, focuses his attention on the 19th and 20th centuries and on the future, which he sees as especially powerful in Chinese universities as American universities recede in importance.

The modern university was born in Germany. In the twentieth century, the United States leapfrogged Germany to become the global leader in higher education. Will China challenge its position in the twenty-first?

Today American institutions dominate nearly every major ranking of global universities. Yet in historical terms, America’s preeminence is relatively new, and there is no reason to assume that U.S. schools will continue to lead the world a century from now. Indeed, America’s supremacy in higher education is under great stress, particularly at its public universities. At the same time Chinese universities are on the ascent. Thirty years ago, Chinese institutions were reopening after the catastrophe of the Cultural Revolution; today they are some of the most innovative educational centers in the world. Will China threaten American primacy?

Empires of Ideas looks to the past two hundred years for answers, chronicling two revolutions in higher education: the birth of the research university and its integration with the liberal education model. William C. Kirby examines the successes of leading universities—The University of Berlin and the Free University of Berlin in Germany; Harvard, Duke, and the University of California, Berkeley, in the United States—to determine how they rose to prominence and what threats they currently face. Kirby draws illuminating comparisons to the trajectories of three Chinese contenders: Tsinghua University, Nanjing University, and the University of Hong Kong, which aim to be world-class institutions that can compete with the best the United States and Europe have to offer.

But Chinese institutions also face obstacles. Kirby analyzes the challenges that Chinese academic leaders must confront: reinvesting in undergraduate teaching, developing new models of funding, and navigating a political system that may undermine a true commitment to free inquiry and academic excellence.

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