Catching Up with the (New) West: The German "Excellence Initiative," Area Studies, and the Re-Production of Inequality

Article excerpt


The label of "Westernization," whether positively or negatively connoted, has been widely used to describe--or decry--the convergence of social, economic, political or cultural patterns toward a supposedly homogeneous Western model. However, what counted as "Western" has differed considerably across time and space, depending on the shifting relations of power between the parts of the world that have informed the notion of "the West" as a normative reference and model to be followed. (1) Regarding systems of higher education, reference to the "Western university"--by definition, a label used mostly in non-Western contexts, to which it served as a model--has successively denoted the Renaissance university in Italy, Spain and Portugal in the 17th century, the Enlightenment university in England, Germany, and France from the end of the 18th century onwards, as well as the foreign-policy oriented, military-sponsored Cold War university in the United States (Mignolo 2003; Wallerstein 1997).

The German system of higher education in particular has shaped the modern definition of the Western university during a decisive period in its history. The reforms of the early 19th century initiated by Wilhelm von Humboldt, which centered on the unification of research and teaching in state-sponsored institutions, prompted the restructuring of higher education throughout Europe along the lines of state support for both education and science within university structures, rather than within particular institutions dependent on private patronage, as had been the case until the 18th century. The self-understanding of institutions of higher education and their relationship to the emerging Western European nation-states, the main methodological positions, as well as the corresponding demarcation of academic disciplines in both Great Britain and France--the other major 19th-century actors in the shaping of the university establishment--took shape under the influence of or in direct confrontation with Humboldt's idea of an educational state apparatus (Kulturstaatskonzept), the idea of sciences of the state (Staatswissenschaften), German Historicism, and the Methodenstreit between idiographic and nomothetic approaches to scientific knowledge production (DiMeglio 2004; Mielants 2004). With the United States' ascent to hegemonic status in the world-system after World War II, the Humboldtian university model, which had prevailed throughout the 19th century and well into the 20th, gradually lost ground to the U.S. model, which consequently became the epitome of the Western university by the end of the 20th century.

This historical loss of the power to set academic standards is a recurrent theme in both German academia and policymaking--the competition with the U.S. system a constant reminder of it. That the reputation of today's U.S. universities should correspond to that of the German universities of the 19th and early 20th centuries is alternatively denounced, deplored, or taken as proof of the German state's poor implementation of the latest reform of higher education--but as such it is undisputed (Roche 2010; Darnstadt 2010). The same is true of the brain drain which has made Germany the number one country of origin of foreign doctoral students in the U.S. and in other European Union member states and has prompted specific countermeasures and "homecoming programs" by the German Scholars Organization since 2006 (Jung 2010). The result, as in the case of other European university systems in search of past academic luster, is a renewed Westernization, this time fashioned on the U.S.-American model.

The thesis advanced in this article is that what is currently being negotiated as a policy of higher education in the German context in fact represents an institutional catching-up process that unwillingly reproduces the main fallacies of mid-20th century policies of modernization as Westernization, along with their main consequences for the reproduction of existing inequality structures. …