For fairly obvious reasons, nationalism has been on people’s minds in higher education lately. Nationalist/populists are on the loose, and their values and policies appear to be inimical to those of higher education. The standard higher education party line usually includes i) something about knowledge knowing no boundaries ii) some reference to the earliest universities in Italy where the student body was fully international and iii) something about building global understanding for peace/trade/development/whatever.
And that’s all true as far as it goes. One strand of higher education’s history is deeply internationalist. But this ignores another, probably more important strand, which is that for the last two centuries, universities have been instruments of state power and that Higher Education’s development worldwide is closely tied to nationalism and the rise of the nation-state.
This wasn’t always the case. Until two centuries ago, higher education was genuinely international but that was mostly because it was dominated by religious institutions whose missions (Anglicans aside) sat uneasily alongside the temporal concerns of states. But in the midst of the Napoleonic Wars, after the Battle of Tilsit when Bonaparte was 10-0 and beating eight kinds of crap out of every major state in Europe, the Prussian reform movement decided to re-do its education system. Building up universities as major instruments of state power was a fundamental part of this reform. Though initially this was mostly about producing more thoughtful and competent public servants, by the late 19th century the focus on research had a major impact on the development of Germany’s economy and was particularly responsible for its domination of the global chemical industry.
In the 20th century, of course, research universities would become major players in the war efforts of many countries, and nowhere more so than in the United States. And in the new states that emerged in Asia and Africa as the colonial tide ebbed, national universities were key institutions in the development of nascent states. Their history departments developed national narratives, their humanities and social science departments populated new national civil services and buttressed new state ideologies. The research university is thus at best an instrument of the nation-state, and more often than not one of nationalism as well.
None of this is to say the internationalist angle on universities is wrong; it’s just incomplete. Yes, universities have an internationalist origin, but their expansion and development had a lot more to do with nationalism than internationalism. The two forces need not be in irreconcilable conflict; in fact, very often the best thing an institution can do for a local economy – and local state power – is to be a window on the wider world.
Still, higher education need to be less Pollyanna-ish about this. For the most part universities – research universities anyway – rely on state funding and it shouldn’t be a huge surprise that global themes will not always resonate strongly in the halls of power. And it wouldn’t hurt to acknowledge the historical truth than universities owe as much if not more to nationalism as internationalism.