The Idea of the University

A Reader, Volume 1

by Michael Adrian Peters (Volume editor) Ronald Barnett (Volume editor)
©2018 Textbook XXXIV, 694 Pages
Series: Global Studies in Education, Volume 17


The Idea of the University: A Reader, Volume 1 is a unique compilation of selected works of the major thinkers who have contributed to the discourse on the idea of the university in the German, English, American and French traditions, dating from the establishment of the University of Berlin in 1810. Readings include excerpts from Kant and Humboldt in the German tradition of Bildung through to Jaspers, Habermas and Gadamer; Newman, Arnold, Leavis and others in the British tradition; Kerr, Bok and Noble, among others, in the American tradition; and Bourdieu, Lyotard and Derrida in the French tradition. Each reading is prefaced with a brief editor’s explanatory note. The Idea of the University: A Reader, Volume 1 provides a comprehensive account of the university, and is matched by a second volume of original essays on contemporary perspectives.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Preface
  • Introduction: The Very Idea of the University (Michael A. Peters / Ronald Barnett)
  • An evolving canon
  • The idea of a canon
  • The German idea of the university
  • The English idea
  • The American tradition
  • The French tradition
  • The coming of neoliberalism
  • Taking stock
  • Sources for reconstruction
  • Conclusion: continuing tasks
  • Recommended Reading
  • Part One: The German (Bildung) Tradition
  • Chapter One: The Conflict of the Philosophy Faculty with the Theology Faculty: From The Conflict of the Faculties (1789/1992) (Immanuel Kant)
  • Editors’ Note
  • Recommended Reading
  • Introduction
  • General Division of the Faculties
  • On the Relation of the Faculties
  • First Section The Concept and Division of the Higher Faculties
  • A The Distinctive Characteristic of the Theology Faculty
  • B The Distinctive Characteristic of the Faculty of Law
  • C The Distinctive Characteristic of the Faculty of Medicine
  • Second Section The Concept and Division of the Lower Faculty
  • Third Section On the Illegal Conflict of the Higher Faculties with the Lower Faculty
  • Fourth Section On the Legal Conflict of the Higher Faculties with the Lower Faculty
  • Outcome
  • Chapter Two: A Closer Look at the University in General Terms: From Occasional Thoughts on Universities in the German Sense, with an Appendix Regarding a University Soon to Be Established (1808/1991) (Friedrich D. E. Schleiermacher)
  • Editors’ Note
  • Bibliographical Note (Terrance T. Tice with Edwina Lawler)
  • Chapter Three: The Scientific and Moral Functions of Universities: From On University Studies (1802/1966) (F. W. J. Schelling)
  • Editors’ Note
  • Recommended Reading
  • Chapter Four: On the Spirit and the Organisational Framework of Intellectual Institutions in Berlin (1809/1970) (Wilhelm Von Humboldt)
  • Editors’ Note
  • On the Criteria of Classification of Higher Intellectual Institutions; Types of Higher Intellectual Institutions
  • Chapter Five: Preface, Introduction and Lecture One: From On the Future of Our Educational Institutions (1872/2009) (Friedrich Nietzsche)
  • Editors’ Note
  • Recommended Reading
  • Preface (To be read before the lectures, although it in no way relates to them.)
  • Introduction
  • First Lecture (Delivered on the 16th of January 1872.)
  • Chapter Six: Research, Education and Instruction: From The Idea of the University (1923/1960) (Karl Jaspers)
  • Editors’ Note
  • Recommended Reading
  • Research
  • Education as Formation of the Mind
  • Instruction
  • Chapter Seven: The Self-Assertion of the German University: Address Delivered on the Solemn Assumption of the Rectorate of the University Freiburg 1933/34: Facts and Thoughts (1933/1985) (Martin Heidegger)
  • Editors’ Note
  • Recommended Reading
  • Chapter Eight: The Idea of the University: Learning Processes (1987) (Jürgen Habermas)
  • Editors’ Note
  • Recommended Reading
  • II
  • III
  • IV
  • V
  • Chapter Nine: The Idea of the University, Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: From Hans-Georg Gadamer on Education, Poetry, and History: Applied Hermeneutics (1992) (Hans-Georg Gadamer)
  • Editors’ Note
  • Recommended Reading
  • Part Two: The English and Scottish (Liberal) Tradition
  • Chapter Ten: A Discourse on the Studies of the University. A Discourse (1833), Psalm CXVI. 17, 18, 19: From A Discourse on the Studies of the University (1833) (Adam Sedgwick)
  • Editors’ Note
  • Recommended Reading
  • I
  • Chapter Eleven: Preparatory Remarks and of the Subjects of University Teaching: From On the Principles of English University Education (1837) (William Whewell)
  • Editors’ Note
  • Prefatory Remarks
  • Of the subjects of University teaching
  • Section 1: Of the distinction of practical and speculative teaching
  • Section 2: Of the effect of practical teaching on the intellectual habits
  • Section 7: On the moral effect of practical and speculative teaching
  • Chapter Twelve: Knowledge Its Own End: From The Idea of the University (1852) (John Henry Newman)
  • Editors’ Note
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
  • Chapter Thirteen: Inaugural Address at the University of St. Andrews, February 1st, 1867 (1867) (John Stuart Mill)
  • Editors’ Note
  • Chapter Fourteen: Sweetness and Light: From Culture and Anarchy (1869) (Matthew Arnold)
  • Editors’ Note
  • Chapter Fifteen: Aim and Basis: From The Crisis in the University (1949) (Walter Moberly)
  • Editors’ Note
  • 1 The Open Forum
  • 2 The Reopening of Communications
  • 3 Special Academic Postulates
  • 4 Basic communal values
  • a. Universal
  • b. Western
  • c. British
  • 5 Do these values include a Christian ingredient?
  • 6 An Alternative Diagnosis
  • 7 Conclusion
  • Chapter Sixteen: The Idea of the University: From Education and the University: A Sketch for an ‘English School’; English Literature in Our Time and the University (1967) (F. R. I. Leavis)
  • Editors’ Note
  • Recommended Reading
  • Literature and the University: The Wrong Question. From English Literature in our Time & the University (1969)
  • Chapter Seventeen: The Idea of the University, 1950: From The Voice of Liberal Learning: Michael Oakeshott on Education (1989) (Michael Oakeshott)
  • Editors’ Note
  • Recommended Reading
  • The Definition of a University, 1967: From The Journal of Educational Thought (1967)
  • Chapter Eighteen: The Central Problem: From Universities between Two Worlds (1974) (William Roy Niblett)
  • Editors’ Note
  • Universities between Two Worlds: From Universities between Two Worlds (1974)
  • Chapter Nineteen: The Vernacular Basis of Scottish Humanism: From The Democratic Intellect: Scotland and Her Universities in the Nineteenth Century (1961) (George Elder Davie)
  • Editors’ Note
  • Chapter Twenty: The Academic and the Practical Worlds: From The Concept of a University (1973) (Kenneth Minogue)
  • Editors’ Note
  • Part Three: The American (Pragmatist) Tradition
  • Chapter Twenty-One: The Place of the University in Modern Life: From The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Business Men (1918) (Thorstein Veblen)
  • Editors’ Note
  • I
  • II
  • III
  • Chapter Twenty-Two: The Idea of a Modern University: From Universities: American, English, German (1930) (J. Abraham Flexner)
  • Editors’ Note
  • Recommended Reading
  • I
  • II
  • III
  • IV
  • V
  • VI
  • VII
  • VIII
  • IX
  • X
  • XI
  • Chapter Twenty-Three: The Dilemmas of the Higher Learning: From The Higher Learning in America (1940) (Robert Maynard Hutchins)
  • Editors’ Note
  • Chapter Twenty-Four: The Idea of a Multiversity: From The Uses of the University (1963) (Clark Kerr)
  • Editors’ Note
  • Recommended Reading
  • The Strands of History
  • The Governance of the Multiversity
  • Multiversity President, Giant or Mediator-Initiator?
  • Life in the Multiversity
  • Chapter Twenty-Five: The Problem of University Transformation: From Creating Entrepreneurial Universities: Organizational Pathways of Transformation (1998) (Burton R. Clark)
  • Editors’ Note
  • Recommended Reading
  • The Demand-Response Imbalance
  • The Search for System Solutions
  • The Entrepreneurial Response
  • The strengthened steering core
  • The enhanced development periphery
  • The discretionary funding base
  • The stimulated heartland
  • The entrepreneurial belief
  • The Focused University
  • References
  • Chapter Twenty-Six: The Roots of Commercialization: From Universities in the Marketplace: The Commercialization of Higher Education (2003) (Derek Bok)
  • Editors’ Note
  • Recommended Reading
  • Chapter Twenty-Seven: Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education (1998) (David F. Noble)
  • Editors’ Note
  • Recommended Reading
  • Abstract
  • Introduction
  • The classroom vs. the boardroom
  • The birth of educational maintenance organizations
  • Education as a commodity
  • Redundant faculty in the virtual university
  • Student reactions
  • Conclusion
  • Part Four: Other Contributions to the Discourse
  • Chapter Twenty-Eight: The Fundamental Question: From Mission of the University (1930) (José Ortega Y Gasset)
  • Editors’ Note
  • Recommended Reading
  • The Principle of Economy in Education: From Mission of the University (1930)
  • Chapter Twenty-Nine: Introduction; The Field: Knowledge in Computerized Societies; The Problem: Legitimation; The Method: Language Games: From The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (1984) (Jean-Francois Lyotard)
  • Editors’ Note
  • Recommended Reading
  • Introduction
  • The Postmodern Condition
  • 1. The Field: Knowledge in Computerized Societies
  • 2. The Problem: Legitimation
  • 3. The Method: Language Games
  • Chapter Thirty: The Very Idea of a University: Aristotle, Newman and Us (2010) (Alasdair Macintyre)
  • Editors’ Note
  • Recommended Reading
  • I
  • II
  • III
  • IV
  • V
  • VI
  • Chapter Thirty-One: The Principle of Reason: The University in the Eyes of Its Pupils (1983) (Jacques Derrida)
  • Editor’s Note
  • Recommended Reading
  • Chapter Thirty-Two: Preface to the English Edition: From Homo Academicus (1984) (Pierre Bourdieu)
  • Editors’ Note
  • Recommended Reading
  • Chapter Thirty-Three: On the University: From Edward Said and Critical Decolonization (2007) (Edward W. Said)
  • Editors’ Note
  • Recommended Reading
  • Chapter Thirty-Four: The Idea of Excellence: From The University of Ruins (1996) (Bill Readings)
  • Editors’ Note
  • Dwelling in the Ruins: From The University of Ruins (1996)
  • Name Index
  • Subject Index
  • Series index

| xi →


This volume of The Idea of the University has gone through many iterations. It began when I co-taught a course with Prof Fazal Rizvi at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign in the mid-2000s that became a class that everyone enjoyed. It was based on excerpts from some of the greatest Western philosophers going back to Kant and Humboldt on the idea of the modern research university. At that point I tried to get the project started and conceived of it as a class and then group project started but other things got in the way. Over the intervening years I built up an archive of selected texts and a bibliography. It became clear that there was a need for such a book and that there was not a collection like the one I had envisaged. I mentioned the project to Ron Barnett at the London Institute and to Chris Myers at Peter Lang and both were enthusiastic about the project. Ron brought to the project his customary discipline and insight. Chris saw in the idea a workable project and provided his support and guidance. Later, Farideh Koohi, Sarah Bode and Timothy Swenarton at Peter Lang took over and expressed confidence in the project to see it through to final production.

The resulting volume has taken us a great deal longer than we expected. The project as grown in different ways with what seemed like interminable discussions over the selections and exact excerpts. Procuring the texts, locating the copyright holders and procuring the permissions also was a time-consuming business. ← xi | xii →

Professor Roger Moltzen the, then, Dean Faculty of Education generously provided funds to pay for half the copyright permissions. I used my personal research funds to pay for the others. I wish to personally thank him and the Faculty for his generosity. Also I would like to thank Professor Bronwen Cowie, Director of the Wilf Malcolm Institute of Educational Research (WMIER) for her support and encouragement. Finally, I would like to thank both Ronald Barnett my co-editor for his expertise and Richard Heraud for his research assistance on a project that was much larger and more complex than any of us ever imagined.


21 March 2017

| xiii →


The Very Idea of the University


An evolving canon

Higher education is a global phenomenon. It is found in almost every country of the world, some two hundred million people are directly involved in it, it consumes billions of dollars in some countries alone, it is engaged with economic and social institutions and is a matter of public and political debate both nationally and internationally. Under neoliberalism it has recently become central to debates concerning the engine of innovation and its contribution to the economy. Disputes over higher education have even played a significant part in leading to the overthrow of governments. Every major town looks, it seems, to have its own university. As an institution, therefore, higher education is a major force. Separately, the university as an idea—the very idea of the university—has spawned a literature which began its modern development around two hundred years ago, a literature that has steadily evolved over time, although we can point to the medieval university dating from the establishment of Bologne in 1088 and ancient centres of learning that go back to the origins of classical civilizations. However, that literature on the idea of the university is seldom a point of reference in the contemporary debates over higher education. University systems have mushroomed and universities have been established and developed with very little in the way of a consciousness that there is a long-standing literature that might inform the debate. There is a blankness ← xiii | xiv → towards that literature. The university qua institution takes little heed of the university qua idea.

We wish, therefore, with this present volume, to help in addressing this situation. We have assembled here extracts from many of the seminal writings on the idea of the university over the past two centuries. In doing so, we are trying to achieve a number of purposes. Firstly, to our knowledge, there has never been an attempt to bring together the leading contributions to the debate, revealing its history to the present time. At one level, therefore, we wish as stated simply to redress a gap in the literature.

Secondly, and by extension, we want to bring into view a literature that is seldom recognized in the policy and practical spheres, even though it is relevant to the development the university. It is certainly the case that references to, say, von Humboldt and Newman are to be seen in the contemporary debate. But (i) while those contemporary references are characteristically made to one or the other—there is seldom if ever an attempt made to place together von Humboldt and Newman and the different (Germanic and English) traditions that serve as their textual context; (ii) there are many other writings in the literature that are unfairly lost from view; and (iii) the writings of von Humboldt and of Newman can properly only be appreciated when placed in the larger debates of which they are part and which continued to evolve after their work (in the early and mid-nineteenth centuries).

Thirdly, we want to show that the literature on the idea of the university has an integrity of its own. Many works over the last two hundred years have had ‘The idea of the university’ as their title—or some variant on that theme. But much more than that, the works present in this volume are characteristically engaging with a common set of themes, such as knowledge, reason and human and social development, and so have come to constitute a canon. A ‘canon’, after all, depicts a musical form precisely in which subjects are picked up and developed in successive waves of interpretation and variation. So here too.

Fourthly, we wish to draw attention to the contribution of philosophy to contemporary debates given that the discourse concerning the idea of the university is philosophical in nature concerned not only with questions of knowledge, purposes and moral ideals but also with specific concepts such as Bildung that concern the transformation of subjectivity of students, the use of public reason and question of citizenship within an emerging global society.

Fifthly, this volume emphasizes that while the discourse of the Idea of the university is a tradition some two hundred years old, it is an open and living tradition with contributions from the leading scholars of the age such as Habermas, Derrida, Lyotard, Said and Readings. We mention this aspect because the Idea ← xiv | xv → of the university has the power to transform ideals even within the contemporary policy environment when the options seem to be effectively closed off and solidified around the form of the neoliberal university.

The idea of a canon

The Idea of the University has been represented in a range of edited texts, seminal essays and a critical tradition dating from Kant who with Descartes inaugurates the tradition of modern philosophy. Sometimes, borrowing the concept from Biblical and literary studies, this critical tradition is referred to as a ‘canon’—indeed the idea of the philosophical canon is associated with the Western tradition in general. Inevitably perhaps, and especially since the 1960s, the notion of the canon and canon-formation has led to questions concerning authority—who should have the power to determine what works are worth reading and teaching? This is a question above all about the university, about the taken for granted assumptions concerning the seemingly mundane and ritualistic practices of readings lists, of courses, of curricula in general. The canon is seen as a unitary tradition and yet increasingly the politics and ethics of anthologization, and of the selection of texts, writers and philosophers, have been questioned by those who belong to the critical tradition defined in the widest sense—feminists, critical theorists, deconstructionists, postcolonialists and others. This process and tradition of questioning also has its own canon but part of the effect of the criticism has been to recognize that there are different kinds of canon and canon-formation. Canons are formed for very different reasons: for controlling and transmitting a cultural heritage, for legitimating a particular worldview, for creating a common frame of reference or unconsciously in terms of a formation of preference. While canons change and it is a critical educational and philosophical task to inquire how the canon was created, who created it and by what authority. The canon also implicitly can be seen in terms of the aesthetic and philosophical criteria used for the selection of texts deemed worthy of study within a culture.

The book of readings presented here follows this heuristic model: it does not deny the ideological effects of the canon, nor its theological values such as the norming of the importance of a literary culture for the education of the young but it does provide within the context of a book a number of chapters based on those expressions of the Idea of the University within the national (and nationalistic) traditions of Germany, the United Kingdom, America and France. There are many gaps, holes, omissions, and exclusions both within these national traditions as we have represented them. There are many European cultures and languages that have ← xv | xvi → strong university traditions not mentioned here. In one sense we cannot dispense without the notion of the canon even although under the force of criticism we are driven to acknowledge its cultural production, reception, and its role in the formation of the disciplines (Fishelov, 2010; Damrosch & D’haen, 2011; Gorak, 2013).

While the question of the canon is in part a question of who is privileged, and invoked and thereby, through the logic of exclusion who is silenced and marginalised, it is also an evaluation of what texts are important and which have become recognized as providing the measuring stick for an idea or philosophy. Canon (κανών, όνος, ὁ; kann) in the Greek means measuring standard, a rule, norm, principle or law, that in the early Church quickly became its ‘consensual theology.’ We can say that our selections are according to the national traditions we have arranged are strategic texts based on consensual agreement, often implicit and deeply philosophical and expressive of certain universal ideals of the university as an institution that transcends its age.

All collections of readings constituted by the selection of ‘strategic texts’ are implicitly involved in periodizations of history and constructions of historical narratives. The anthology of the modern university is no different. All systems of periodization are more or less arbitrary: some are defined by the magical decimal systems of decades as though history is episodic and naturally divided into handy decades—the 1960s, the 1970s etc.—reflecting our cultural predilections for the seemingly inherited ‘natural’ divisions of the Gregorian Christian calendar. Other periods are named after kings and queens—‘the Victorian era’—or influential individuals—‘the Kantian university’, ‘the Humboldtian University’ or ‘Newman’s Idea of the University’. Some follow numerical conventions of carving off the modern age from the medieval and the classical, and then categorizing it as early, middle and late. Again, other have taken a more normative stance to talk of stages in a Marxist or literary sense—premodern, modern, late modern of postmodern—as though there is some implicit historical unfolding of an idea or practice.

We have decided to proceed pragmatically. Given that this is a selection of texts about the Idea of the modern university—that is a philosophical discourse, rather than a historical one—we have been guided by the canon that has become established over the years, beginning with the founding texts and discourse of the university in different national traditions, passing through the Enlightenment and scientific revolution, to the establishment and spread of modern university institutions during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, leading to the contemporary period of global forms of the entrepreneurial, enterprise, and innovation forms of university under the sway of neoliberalism.

The Idea of the University establishes the founding discourses of the modern university not in its early modern form but rather in relation to ‘reason’ ← xvi | xvii → and ‘enlightenment.’ The idea of a university in which teaching and research were first combined in the search for impartial truth reached classic form in nineteenth-century Germany, and eventually became the dominant model that became influential in a global sense. Intellectual freedom in research and teaching, university autonomy, the growth of independent disciplines with their own standards and priorities, and a kind of cosmopolitanism established the parameters of the university as a liberal institution comprised the basic features that came to characterize the university institution.

The notion of a canon has led to questions concerning authority—who should have the power to determine which works are worth reading and teaching? It has also led to questions about legitimation—by which criteria are works being picked out as constitutive of a canon? These questions are especially apt in relation to the university, where taken for granted assumptions have permanently to be held under review. Increasingly, any selection of texts can be questioned by those who belong to critical traditions defined in the widest sense—feminists, critical theorists, deconstructionists, postcolonialists and others from non-Western traditions. Further, canons change, and it is a legitimate educational and philosophical task to inquire how a canon has been created, who created it and by what authority. These questions about the construction of the canon also indicate how we can proceed or how the canon itself can accommodate differences from outside it.

The selection of readings presented here is proffered against the background of such considerations. It does not deny the ideological aspects of the selection (with its undoubted partialities), nor its theological linkages (after all, many universities have had faith and church origins), nor the question-begging character of any such selection. We readily admit, therefore, to there being many gaps, holes, omissions, and exclusions both within this selection. There are many cultures and languages that have strong university traditions not included here. We acknowledge, accordingly, the questionable nature of the canon, as we present it here, including its cultural production, reception, role in the formation of the disciplines (Fishelov, 2010; Damrosch & D’haen, 2011; Gorak, 2013). Nevertheless, we consider that the texts included here could be said to constitute prima facie membership of a canon devoted to the idea of the university. Each offers a particular articulation of the idea of the university—so revealing that, over time, the canon has provided a multiplicity of ideas of the university.

We have proceeded pragmatically. Given that this is a selection of texts about the Idea of the University—really, the idea of the modern university—we have been guided by the thread of debates over the last two hundred years, beginning with the founding texts in different national traditions, passing through the Enlightenment and scientific revolution, to the establishment and spread of ← xvii | xviii → modern university institutions during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. We bring the story up-to-date with texts that reflect the contemporary global forms of mass, multi-faculty, entrepreneurial and digital forms of the university under the sway of neoliberalism.

Within these readings, there is a story or, rather, an integrated set of stories, therefore. The Idea of the University was initially elaborated as a self-conscious idea of the university at the beginning of the nineteenth century. If there was a central concern in this founding set of discourses of the modern university, it was perhaps that of ‘reason.’ This concern took institutional form in Germany in the early nineteenth century, in which teaching and research were first combined in the search for impartial truth. Subsequently, this institutional form became the dominant model that remained influential in a global sense until well into the twentieth century. Intellectual freedom in research and teaching, university autonomy, the growth of independent disciplines with their own standards and priorities, and a kind of cosmopolitanism established the parameters of the university as a liberal institution comprised the basic features that came to characterize the university institution.

While there are significant differences across the texts represented here, more striking is the overlap between them across time and across national traditions. Themes characteristically present in the writings here include those of knowledge, truth and the mind and their relationships, intellectual freedom, human and social development, culture, reason and the relationship between universities and the wider society. Crucial sub-themes are those of teaching, understanding, students and research, inquiry and disciplines. This has been more than a loose assembly of themes for, in their pursuit of these themes, these writings sought to advance a particular conception of the university, namely—and as implied—a university imbued with the spirit of reason. Through its association with reason, it was considered that the university could play a major role in the elevation of humanity and, indeed, the world. (A favourite metaphor of Newman in England was that of ‘ascent’.) However, especially in the last fifty years (towards the end of the twentieth century and the advance into the twenty-first century), the attachment to the university of reason has loosened as other ideas—and forms—of the university have made their appearance. The university of utility, markedly in the entrepreneurial university and the performative university, have appeared as ideas.

This volume is the first of two volumes. As indicated, this first volume contains extracts from historically important writings—and writers—on the idea of the university. The second volume contains specially commissioned chapters from some of the most influential contemporary writers who have been wrestling with the nature of the university in the twenty-first century. This volume (volume one ← xviii | xix → of the two volumes), accordingly, is in a way deliberately situated in the past. Is this collection, therefore, as it might pejoratively be felt, merely of historical interest? Worse still, only of ‘academic’ interest? We believe to the contrary. The canon of writings on the idea of the university constitutes even a great tradition in that it contains reflections and concerns that are pertinent to the considerations about the evolution of the university in the twenty-first century. Issues of the purposes of universities are matters of public debate today: what kind of knowledge might be central to universities? How might its connection with the development of students be construed? Does the concept of culture carry any weight today? What is the point of research? How, if at all, might or should universities engage with the wider society? On all these matters—and many others—the writings here have things to say and which speak to us, even across two centuries.

Of course, at the limit, the selection here could have been otherwise. But many, if not most of the texts, presented themselves without challenge. A volume such as this would have been manifestly incomplete without inclusions from Kant’s The Conflict of the Faculties, von Humboldt’s statement about University Reform in Germany, Newman’s The Idea of the University, Heidegger’s inaugural lecture on The Self-Assertion of the German Universities, Jaspers’ The Idea of the University, and Ortega and Gasset’s Mission of the University. Whatever one’s view of these individual texts, they have undeniably been influential in shaping the ideational landscape of the university over the past two hundred years.

Thereafter, certainly, choices have come into play. A key influence here lay in our sense that the major writings on the university have not only helped to shape but have also been shaped by their unfolding context social and institutional context. Accordingly, the great tradition—of writings on the idea of the university—turns out to constitute several lines of thought. Four such sub-traditions stand out for us, those of Germany, England, the United States and the French postmodern perspective.

The German idea of the university

The University of Berlin was founded in 1810 by the Prussian linguist and philosopher Wilhelm von Humboldt, whose humanist version of the university served as a model for the rest of Europe and for the West more generally.1 As a philosopher ← xix | xx → Humboldt had written a treatise on the limits of State action and defended the principles of public education in 1792 as an extension of the liberties of the Enlightenment, asserting ‘the ultimate task of our existence is to give the fullest possible content to the concept of humanity in our own person […] through the impact of actions in our own lives’ (Gesammelte Schriften, I, p. 283).

By the time that Humboldt founded the University of Berlin in 1810 there were already some 125 universities established in Europe. What distinguished the model of the University of Berlin was the ‘Universitas litterarum’ that was intended to achieve a unity of teaching and research and provide students with an all-round humanist education. Humboldt was influenced by Johann Gottlieb Fichte, the first vice chancellor of the University, Friedrich Schleiermacher, Schiller and Goethe.

Against the bloody background and mass executions of the aftermath of the French Revolution Friedrich von Schiller (1794) writes Letters on the Aesthetic Education of Man where he provides a theory on the moral development of mankind that springs from the aesthetic state.3 Schiller attacks ‘Kant’s belief that morality can only be achieved by negating man’s negative sensuous impulses and proposed instead that we should educate the emotions of man, in order to bring them into harmony with reason.’ As William Wertz (2005) points out ‘For Schiller, a human being who has achieved such harmony, by transforming his selfish, infantile erotic ← xx | xxi → emotions into agape of truth, justice, and beauty, is a “beautiful soul”’ (p. 81). Philosophy is thus recast as aesthetics and proceeds from considerations of beauty as a means of reaching a truly aesthetic state of mind (Wertz, 2005, p. 82). There is no doubt that this vision exercised a strong influence over Humboldt who twenty five years after Schiller’s death publishes ‘On Schiller and the Course of His Spiritual Development,’ as an introduction to a book of their correspondence:

The German idea of the university was born in the new research-centered university known as the ‘Humboldtian’ university that emerged from German idealist and Romantic philosophy. As Marek Kwiek (2006) argues:

In this configuration the University is granted autonomy from the State as an essential premise of its development: culture, freedom and learning trumps the State. Bildung is the basis for a national self-knowledge rooted in the search for truth and a kind of virtue or spiritual vocation. The German ‘Humboldtian’ research-university recovers the idea of the university from its medieval closed mind and rescued the institution that was perilously close to the prospect of its demise. Thus Timothy Bahti in his ‘Histories of the University: Kant and Humboldt’ describes the situation of the German universities of the period in the following way:

Timothy Bahti discusses the historiography of the modern university in terms which not only emphasize its historical break with the medieval university but also echo the theme of the posthistorical:

Bahti indicates that whereas the seventeenth century had been heyday for the European academies of sciences, the eighteenth had been the lowpoint for German universities, with student rioting and drunkenness, dropping enrolments and little relationship between subjects taught and vocations. In the last decade of the eighteenth century there was talk of abolishing the university altogether, allowing the academies of sciences and the new practical vocational schools to take its place. And then in 1810, the University of Berlin was founded. In the intervening years following the defeat of Prussia by Napoleon, the reorganization of the Prussian bureaucracy occurred and, as Bahti (1987, p. 439) points out, also the discourse of German idealism becomes established with ‘the philosophical writings on and for the university, from Kant and Schelling and then from Fichte, Schleiermacher, and Humboldt.’

For Kant, it was the idea of reason that provided an organizing principle for the disciplines, with ‘philosophy’ as its home. Reason is the founding principle of the Kantian university: it confers universality upon the institution and, thereby, ushers in modernity. As the immanent unifying principle of the Kantian university, reason displaces the Aristotelian order of disciplines of the medieval university based on the seven liberal arts, and substitutes a quasi-industrial arrangement of the faculties. In The Conflict of the Faculties Kant writes:

The free exercise of a self-critical and self-legislating reason controls the higher faculties of theology, law, and medicine, establishing autonomy for the university as a whole. Readings (1996, p. 59) argues that there is, in Kant, a problem or paradox that haunts the constitution of the modern university: how to institutionalize reason’s autonomy, or how to unify reason and the state, institution, and autonomy? Kant attempts to reconcile this conflict through the republican subject, the universal subject of humanity, who incarnates this conflict. Thus, while it is one of the functions of the university to produce technicians or men of affairs for the state, the state must protect the university to ensure the rule of reason in public life. Philosophy, as the tribunal of reason, must protect the university from the abuse of power from the state and must act to distinguish legitimate from illegitimate conflict, that is, the arbitrary exercise of authority.

Humboldt’s project for the foundation of the University of Berlin in 1810 is decisive for the modern university up until the present day. Once the Kantian idea of reason is replaced with the Humboldtian idea of a national culture, the university becomes pressed into service of the state. For the German idealists the unity of knowledge and culture has been lost and needs to be reintegrated into a unified cultural science (Bildung). The university is assigned the task of producing and inculcating national self-knowledge and as such becomes the institution charged with watching over the life-world of the people. In other words, the notoriously difficult concept of Bildung has to be understood within a broader German interest in inquiry as such. Inquiry benefitted the mind but the mind was itself understood not just as a property of individuals, but had also wider societal connotations. This perspective on mind, and on Bildung, was connected with large themes in German idealist philosophy about the development of reason and indeed the spirit of reason.

The English idea

The German line of thought was soon followed by an English school of thought. John Henry Newman is the most well-known figure here but he was part of a large ← xxiii | xxiv → conversation that went on for decades in the middle of the nineteenth century; and the writers included here from that time (Sedgwick, Whelwell, Stuart Mill and Arnold) are only representative. Others—such as Haldane, Huxley and Playfair—could equally have been chosen here.

The debates in Germany and England had much in common and, from one perspective, might have been felt to have resembled each other. Both had a concern with the development of mind, both saw reason as central to that endeavour, and both considered it crucial that the university had a measure of autonomy from the state. On one reading, at least, there seemed to be little difference between the German idea of Bildung and the English idea of liberal education and its association with the cultivation of the mind. But there were, as implied, major differences between the two intellectual traditions. In England, the themes of liberal education, of knowledge ‘as its own end’ and of a ‘philosophical outlook’ (as Newman put it) had their place in an intellectual war on two fronts. On the one hand, Newman was contending with German idealism: not for him, a metaphysical sense of the onward march of reason. On the other hand, Newman was fighting against a spreading instrumentalism, or the advance of a belief in utility—pressed in particular by English philosophers (such as Bentham and Mill). Given this stance, Newman’s objection to research was understandable, for his concern lay precisely in the cultivation of the individual person.

The English, from John Henry Newman and Matthew Arnold, substitute literature for philosophy as the central discipline of the university, and, therefore, also of national culture. The possibility of a unified national culture is defined explicitly in terms of the study of a tradition of national literature. In England, the idea of culture came to gain its purchase in opposition to science and technology, partly as a result of the threat posed by industrialization and mass civilization. Newman gives us a ‘liberal education’ as the proper function of the university, which educates its charges to be gentlemen through the study of literature. Readings argues that ‘For Arnold, as for Eliot and Leavis after him, Shakespeare occupies the position that the German Idealists ascribed to the Greeks: that of immediately representing an organic community to itself in a living language’ (Readings, 1996, p. 78). In ‘The Idea of a University,’ F. R. Leavis proposes that all study should be centred in the study of literature, centred in the seventeenth century, and based on Shakespeare as the natural origin of culture. Leavis believes that the University of Culture can provide the lost center and heal the split between organic culture and mass civilization.

In ‘Literature: A Lecture in the School of Philosophy and Letters,’ delivered in 1858, Newman (1968, pp. 201–221) ‘explicitly positions as the site of the ← xxiv | xxv → development both an idea of the nation and the study of literature as the means of training national subjects’ (Readings, 1996, p. 76). Newman suggests that ‘a literature, when it is formed, is a national and historical fact; it is a matter of the past and present, and can be as little ignored as the present, as little undone as the past’ (Newman, 1968, p. 230). National language and literature defines the character of ‘every great people,’ and Newman speaks of the classics of a national literature by which he means ‘those authors who have had the foremost place in exemplifying the powers and conducting the development of its language’ (p. 240).

The American tradition

The American tradition was concerned neither with the growth of a world spirit and the life of reason in that regard (the German outlook) nor in the cultivation of persons and in immediate utility (the English stance) but in the birth and development of a multi-cultural society. Service to society, a ‘general education’, an active learning orientation, and universities supporting economic and social development became key early themes. But these themes were quickly accompanied by a democratic interest in access, such that America witnessed the first truly mass higher education system. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, arose a plea—espoused especially by Robert Maynard Hutchins at Chicago, for a ‘general education’ that would help to supply a common foundation for participation in civic life. In turn, as the American universities grew in size and function, emerged concerns that they no longer possessed a unifying function, either within or across institutions. Famously, as Clark Kerr put it, the American university was a ‘multiversity’, held together only by ‘a common grievance over car-parking’.

That view, however, was quickly overtaken as America saw, in Burton Clark’s telling phrase, the birth of ‘the entrepreneurial university’. This development has surely to be seen as a shorthand for a mix of movements, which have not been with their critics from various quarters. Bloom famously pointed to what he saw as ‘the closing of the American mind’, as universities were invaded by a popular culture with its relativism and a sense that ‘anything goes’. Rather more gently, a leading university leader, Derek Bok voiced concern over ‘the commercialization of higher education’ in America as the universities were required to secure their positions ‘in the marketplace’. For Readings, however, the universities were ‘in ruins’. As such, their relationship to culture in any serious sense was lost: all that might be eked out was to work towards a space of ‘dissensus’, in which competing views might have their day. ← xxv | xxvi →

The French tradition

The French tradition, as we are placing it here, takes the form of a critical commentary on what has befallen the university over recent decades. We term it a ‘postmodern tradition’: after all, its most prominent writings have come from French philosophers who self-consciously proffered their ideas of the university in a context in which the large themes for which the university stood—reason, truth and knowledge—were all in the dock as having no secure foundations. Indeed, Jean-Francois Lyotard, in his book on The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, not only inaugurated the postmodern movement but explicitly linked postmodernism with the university. Originally published in Paris in 1979, the book became an instant cause célèbre because Lyotard analyzed the status of knowledge, science, and the university in way that many critics believed signaled an epochal break not only with the so called modern era but also with various traditionally ‘modern’ ways of viewing the world. It was written, Lyotard asserts, ‘at this very Postmodern moment that finds the University nearing what may be its end’ (p. xxv).

In The Postmodern Condition, Jean-François Lyotard was concerned with grand narratives which had grown out of the Enlightenment and had come to mark modernity. Grand narratives are the stories that cultures tell themselves about their own practices and beliefs in order to legitimate them. They function as a unified single story that purport to legitimate or found a set of practices, a cultural self-image, discourse, or institution. For Lyotard, such narratives were irredeemably suspect. The university could not be immune from such a development. After all, it had its own grand narratives, marked out in the previous one and a half centuries, with knowledge as its central and now apparently shaky concept.

Lyotard writes in a now famous formulation: ‘I will use the term modern to designate any science that legitimates itself with reference to a metadiscourse … making explicit appeal to some grand narrative, such as the dialectics of the Spirit, the hermeneutics of meaning, the emancipation of the rational or working subject, or the creation of wealth’ (1984, p. xxii). By contrast, he defines post-modern simply as ‘incredulity toward metanarratives’ (p. xxiv). Lyotard holds that capitalist renewal after the 1930s and the postwar upsurge of technology has led to a ‘crisis’ of scientific knowledge and to the internal erosion of the very prospect of legitimation. He locates the seeds of such ‘delegitimation’ in the decline of the legitimating power of the grand narratives of the nineteenth century.

The speculative narrative of the unity of all knowledge held that knowledge is worthy of its name only if it can generate a second-order discourse that functions to legitimate it, otherwise such ‘knowledge’ would amount to mere ideology. Lyotard ← xxvi | xxvii → claims that the process of ‘delegitimation’ has revealed that not only does science play its own language game (and consequently is both on a par with and incapable of legitimating other language games) but also it is incapable of legitimating itself as speculation assumed it could. In particular, the process of European cultural disintegration is symbolized most clearly by the end of philosophy as the universal metalanguage able to underwrite all claims to knowledge and, thereby, to unify the rest of culture. By European cultural disintegration Lyotard is referring, first, to the collapse of the European monarchies and the two world wars, and, second, what Nietzsche calls the question of European nihilism (see Shapiro, 1991).

Given this postmodern condition, the university no longer had secure conceptual foundations available to it but only rival sets of ideas. The university could perforce secure its legitimacy through being seen to perform efficiently in the world. If, therefore, there was a watchword for this university, it was that of ‘performativity’. Efforts to outflank the limitations of this knowledge condition—whether through interdisciplinarity or through ‘teamwork’—were themselves manifestations of ‘the performative criterion’ (p. 52). Consequently, ‘the question … now asked by the professionalist student, the State, or institutions of higher education is no longer “Is it true?” but “What use is it?”’ (p. 51).

The coming of neoliberalism

Since the late 1970s neoliberalism has become the dominant global narrative. (The publication of Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition coincided with the election to power of Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government in Britain). The discourse of neoliberalism revitalizes the master discourse of economic liberalism and advances it as a basis for a global reconstruction of society. A form of economic reason encapsulated in the notion of homo economicus, with its abstract and universalistic assumptions of individuality, rationality, and self-interest, has captured the policy agendas of Western countries and of university development. Part of its innovation has been the way in which the neoliberal global narrative has successfully extended the principle of self-interest into the status of a paradigm for understanding politics itself, and, purportedly, all behavior and human action. In the realm of higher education policy at every opportunity the market has been substituted for the state: students are now ‘customers’ and teachers are ‘providers.’ The notion of vouchers is suggested as a universal panacea to problems of funding and quality. The teaching/learning relation has been reduced to an implicit contract between buyer and seller. As Lyotard argued prophetically in The Postmodern Condition, ‘Knowledge is and will be produced in order to be sold, it is and will be ← xxvii | xxviii → consumed in order to be valorized in a new production: in both cases, the goal is exchange’ (1984, p. 4).

A key text in its analysis of this story of the modern university—extracts from which we reproduce here—is that of Bill Readings The University in Ruins. As Readings argues: ‘The University … no longer participates in the historical project for humanity that was the legacy of the Enlightenment: the historical project of culture’ (Readings, 1995, p. 5). Accordingly, the grand narrative of the university, centered on the cultural production of a liberal, reasoning, citizen subject, in the wake of not just this neoliberalism but also globalization, is no longer credible. Excellence has become the last unifying principle of the modern university, yet the discourse of excellence brackets out the question of value in favor of measurement and substitutes accounting solutions for questions of accountability. As an integrating principle excellence is entirely meaningless: it has no real referent. Under corporatization universities have become sites for the development of ‘human resources.’ As Readings remarks: ‘University mission statements, like their publicity brochures, share two distinctive features nowadays. On the one hand, they all claim that theirs is a unique educational institution. On the other hand, they all go on to describe this uniqueness in exactly the same way’ (Readings, 1996, p. 12).

Readings goes on to tell the true story about of how Cornell University Parking services received an award recently for ‘excellence in parking.’ The discourse of excellence is contentless: it does not enable us to make judgments of value or purpose and it does not help us to answer questions of what, how, or why we should teach or research. We may also observe that this story about Cornell’s carparking arrangements has a particular irony. Famously, in his book on The Uses of the University (extracted here), Clark Kerr observes that the modern university might be understood as ‘a series of individual faculty entrepreneurs held together by a common grievance over parking’. (… 15) Cornell, it seems, had clearly attended to its new core purpose.

Taking stock

It could be felt that this volume leads to a dismal conclusion, namely that the great tradition of writings on the idea of the university is at an end. The justifications for this point of view are as intimated. The university is variously a ‘multiversity’ without direction being all things to all people, is ‘entrepreneurial’ and is without direction save that of money, is ‘digital’ and is therefore yet again directionless given the fluidity of the world of digital and social media, is an institution located only by vacuous terms such as ‘excellent’ and ‘world-class’ having become merely ← xxviii | xxix → the creature of world rankings. On all these counts, serious consideration of the idea of the university is at an end; or so it may be suggested, and some do suggest just this (Rothblatt, 1977).

We believe to the contrary. The idea of the university cannot yet be judged to be at an end. Rather, we suggest that the idea of the university is on a cusp. A number of reasons can be advanced in support of this contention.

First, when one delves beneath the surface of the writings on the idea of the university over the past two centuries, one can see that they had their place amid fierce debates. There was considerable argument and disagreement, over reason and utility, over science and the humanities (including theology) and over the life of the mind and the value that lay in its development. In that latter debate, views differed as to whether value lay in the personal development of the individual or contributed more significantly to the wider society or even to the state. All of these issues remain with us today: they may be hidden from view but they are all present in current debates over skills, the value of research, the merits of humanities in relation to the STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) disciplines, and the extent to which higher education is of private or public benefit.

Second, as the twenty-first century moves on, there is to be found a proliferation of ideas of the university. We are witnessing a new age, a rebirth indeed, of the idea of the university. In the contemporary literature, one finds ideas around the university of wisdom, the public university, the open university (in a digital age), the civic university (anew), the creative university and the ecological university. Characteristically, these are set out in explicit opposition to the idea of the entrepreneurial university, the digital university and the university of excellence (or the world-class university). The contemporary landscape of the idea of the university is not just awash with ideas but is a site of conflicting ideas. Further, the current oppositional ideas of the university enlist in support concepts such as those of wellbeing, care, otherness (or alterity), the public sphere and global community. And so the conceptual base of the idea of the university is being widened.

Our second volume is intended to help in opening this widening conceptual landscape. The point here, for this volume, is that the historical debate around and evolution of the idea of the university matters today, precisely because the idea of the university is not at an end but has potential ‘lines of flight’ in front of it and that historical set of perspectives may offer shrewd insights that may just help to open vistas even today. This is in no way to want to return to some kind of glorious past. The university of reason, undisturbed by matters of calculated impact and income generation, cannot be recovered as such. But yet, it may harbour nuances that can help to prompt new and imaginative ideas for the twenty-first century. ← xxix | xxx →

Sources for reconstruction


XXXIV, 694
ISBN (Hardcover)
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2018 (February)
higher education academic freedom Humboldtian university humanist education von Humboldt modern research university philosophical discourse
New York, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, Oxford, Wien, 2018. XXXIV, 694 pp.

Biographical notes

Michael Adrian Peters (Volume editor) Ronald Barnett (Volume editor)

Michael A. Peters is Professor in the Wilf Malcolm Institute for Educational Research at Waikato University, NZ, and Emeritus Professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, USA. He is also Distinguished Visiting Professor in the School of Sociology, BNU, China. He is Executive Editor of Educational Philosophy and Theory and founding editor of several other journals. His latest books are Wittgenstein and Education: Pedagogical Investigations (2017), with Jeff Stickney, and The Digital University: Manifesto and Dialogue (2017), with Petar Jandric. Ronald Barnett, DLitt (London), PhD (London) is Emeritus Professor of Higher Education, University College London Institute of Education. He has spent a lifetime in establishing the philosophy of higher education as a field, advancing original concepts and practical principles. His latest book is The Ecological University: A Feasible Utopia (2017).


Title: The Idea of the University