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The research university in context: The examples of Brazil and Germany

The Worldwide Transformation of Higher Education

ISBN: 978-0-7623-1487-4, eISBN: 978-1-84950-543-7

Publication date: 3 June 2008


For the longest period of its history, the university was the guardian and transmitter – not the producer – of knowledge. This relatively recent change of transmitting canonical knowledge and generating new knowledge is normally associated with Wilhelm von Humboldt. Other highly influential university models were provided by France and Great Britain. The association of certain types of universities with particular countries is a strong indicator of the intricate link between nation-state and education. Hence, the history of tertiary education and its elite institutions, the research universities, must be considered in relation with a sea change in educational history – the gradual emergence of national education systems. Only under the conditions of the by now standard form of organizing modern societies as nation-states did education become a central institution (Meyer, Boli, Thomas, & Ramirez, 1997) collapsing individual perfectibility and national progress. The nationally redefined university was integrated into the education system as its keystone while also being considered the motor of societal development. From a social history perspective, the latter aspect in particular indicates the pragmatic (training professionals, imparting military and technical knowledge, etc.) and symbolic expectations, “myths” of the nation-state that have been so aptly described and analyzed in numerous macro-sociological neo-institutionalist studies (Meyer, Ramirez, & Soysal, 1992; Meyer et al., 1997; Ramirez & Boli, 1987). In a macro-phenomenological perspective, the term “myth” is used to denote a fundamental change in the self-description of European society which since the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries no longer views itself as consisting of separate collectivities divided from each other by social origin – as was the case under feudal conditions – with each collectivity providing itself the necessary education for its members or being provided for by others in the case of neediness. Instead, as a result of a number of material and immaterial changes, society now defines the individual as its key unit, with the nation being consequently the aggregate of individuals and not of collectivities and the state redefined as the guardian of the nation. This conception might be taken as a kind of overlapping area which includes different approaches, such as Michel Foucault's concept of the disciplinary society (Foucault, 1977), Balibar and Wallerstein's (1991) deliberations on the relation between race, class, and nation, and Benedict Anderson's (1991) description of nations as imagined communities. All these studies could be taken as sharing the notion of “constructedness” (cf. Berger & Luckmann, 1972) of modern society with the neo-institutionalist perspective. The concept of a “world polity” which encompasses the “myths” society is based on, the overall notion of a cognitive culture, which takes Max Weber's concept of rationality as a point of departure, is identified as the basis of isomorphic change in the organizational structure of modern education systems (cf. Baker & Wiseman, 2006). However, the strong emphasis on international, world system embeddedness of nation-states and their education systems is not to be taken as a unidirectional dependence on external forces. While modern nation-states originate from and remain tied to international dynamics and developments, they are conceived as unique entities. For most of their history, modern nation-states have been preoccupied with making themselves distinct from each other. Thus, while international competition has always been present, looking abroad traditionally meant reworking, adapting, and reshaping what was imported, or borrowed (Halpin & Troyna, 1995; Steiner-Khamsi, 2004). This is true for education as well as for other areas of society.


Amos, K., Bruno, L. and Parreira do Amaral, M. (2008), "The research university in context: The examples of Brazil and Germany", Baker, D.P. and Wiseman, A.W. (Ed.) The Worldwide Transformation of Higher Education (International Perspectives on Education and Society, Vol. 9), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 111-158.



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