Universities are astonishing, unbelievably resilient entities. Clark Kerr once noted that of the 75 Western institutions founded before 1520 (and which have survived intact to the present day), sixty of them are universities.
But universities aren’t merely unique in their reach across time – they are also unique in their reach across space. Few if any institutions are as truly global as a university. The basics of a campus are instantly recognizable whether you are in Nairobi, Tianjin or Regina. Give or take some nomenclature, administrative structures are essentially the same everywhere, and as David John Frank and Jay Gabler put it in their book, Reconstructing the University, they increasingly teach the same subjects and categorize knowledge the same way as well.
I was reminded of this the other day while reading James Fallows’ new book China Airborne, which examines both China’s enormous progress to date and its enormous challenges through the lens of the aviation industry. It’s an interesting book if you’re interested in innovation because it shows how tough it is to compete in so-called “apex” industries (that is, ones in which success requires the mastery of enormous numbers of different technological fields).
What caught my eye was Fallows’s discussion of how the Chinese reacted to having to adapt to new air safety regimes in the 1990s. They couldn’t be told they were adopting “American” standards, because that would have been humiliating. Being told they were adopting “international” standards was better, but what worked best of all was being told they were adopting international standards “with Chinese characteristics.” Being an ancient civilization (and they do genuinely think of themselves as a civilization rather than as a nation-state), it’s important for them to put their own imprimatur on things.
And yet, when it comes to universities, they don’t. China does have its own tradition of higher study dating back almost 1,400 years to the Great Academies of the Tang Dynasty which prepared students for imperial examinations; but while today’s gruelling Gaokao (i.e., university entrance) exams owe something to its imperial predecessor, there’s no pretence that universities are native Chinese or have Chinese characteristics. It’s all “global standards” and “world-classness” – without any modifications.
For all the criticisms and dissatisfaction which universities face in the West, it is in some ways the West’s most successful cultural export. Even the most virulent anti-colonialists never rejected them; indeed, they usually opened more. They have reached every corner of the globe and everywhere have a central place in the formation of the new middle classes. For all their faults, they have become the one universal and indispensable organization.
So if naysayers are getting you down, just remember – we must doing something right.