Book review (Scientific journals)
Review of Meyer, Heinz-Dieter (2017): The Design of the University: German, American, and “World Class”. Abingdon: Routledge
POWELL, Justin J W
2018In Comparative Education Review, 62 (3), p. 451-454
Peer Reviewed verified by ORBi


Full Text
Publisher postprint (443.91 kB)

All documents in ORBilu are protected by a user license.

Send to


Keywords :
university; research; model; education; Bildung; Germany; United States; world
Abstract :
[en] By and large, we take our universities for granted. Indeed, the oldest have outlived political regimes of all kinds. This stimulating historical and comparative study exemplifies the importance of in-depth experience and engagement with the cultural and structural environments in which some of the world’s greatest universities have over centuries incrementally developed and been embedded. This is crucial if we hope to understand the sources of their authority and myriad contributions to scientific knowledge and human flourishing. A neo-institutionalist scholar and multicultural citizen who fruitfully contributes to dialogues exploring core institutions in education and society on both sides of the Atlantic, Heinz-Dieter Meyer is uniquely placed to grapple with the complex processes of institutional learning and design that have made the German and American universities among the globally most productive. He also shows how they have influenced each other via the complex, yet crucial flows of inspired scholars and students carrying key idea(l)s with them for interpretation and application back home. The contributions of key actors, but also the outcomes of choices at critical junctures, such as the failure to establish a national state-funded university in the United States, take center stage in this engaging account of how the leaders of American universities adapted the German model, joining diverse concepts to design what has become the greatest uni-versity system in the world, yet one that remains nearly impossible to emulate due to the unique constellation of actors and institutional environment in which it developed. In eighteen chapters in four parts, The Design of the University: German, American, and “World Class” takes us from Göttingen and Berlin to Boston and to the world level as the scientific enterprise—and competition between scientists and the most crucial organizational form in which they conduct their experiments and make their arguments, the research university—becomes ever more global. Contributing to and inviting debate, Meyer’s main argument is that the American university has suc-ceeded based upon an institutional design—or, perhaps, a non-design—that on multiple levels facil-itates self-government and the identification of a niche within an extraordinarily large and differen-tiated higher education system. This is not a full-fledged historiographic treatment of a subject fa-vored by academics (permanently searching for reputational gains) and policymakers (as they in-creasingly launch research funding programs and evaluation systems to foster competition). Rather than a full-fledged sociology of science, this book creatively sketches the trajectories of German and American university development, emphasizing affinities as well as crucial differences, to ulti-mately argue that in fact “Humboldt’s most important ideas flourished in the American atmosphere of unrestricted institutional experimentation and vigorous self-government” (xiii). Interrogating what he calls the “design thinking” of eminent thinkers Adam Smith and Wilhelm von Humboldt, among others, Meyer traces the challenging, complex, and contingent learning processes in the adaptation of the German research university model to the American context, eventually becoming the most differentiated and “world-class” higher education system in the world. Asking about the reasons for the American university’s success, especially in comparison to the recent insti-tutional crisis of the German research university, albeit still extraordinarily productive, Meyer argues that this American meritocratic success story has institutional design (of self-government) at its heart. Enjoying the patronage of not one, but three major institutions—state, church, and market—the American university attained true autonomy and global preeminence through unparalleled wealth of patronage and an intricate system of checks and balances. In this line of argument, chart-ing the ascendancy from humble origins of what can hardly be called a system due its extraordinary diversity, Meyer concurs with David Labaree (2017), who’s A Perfect Mess [1] is a highly-suitable com-panion piece grounded in the history of American higher education. Contemporary architects of higher education policy globally, driven by the fantasy of “world class” labels, Meyer warns, have completely underestimated the “institutional, social, and political prerequisites that excellence in research and teaching require” (p. 4). Meyer begins his treatise, appropriately, in Göttingen, the site of Georgia Augusta University, where many leaders of American higher education, first and foremost Boston Brahmin George Ticknor, learned by doing, ensconced in a cosmopolitan center of learning and intellectual enlightenment. The blueprint included professionalized scholarship, the unification of research and teaching in seminars and lectures, freedom to choose among academic offerings, a vast library of scientific knowledge, and academic standing based on perpetual production of cutting-edge research judged by peers (p. 19). Instead of Adam Smith’s preferred instruments of competition, choice, and tuition-dependence, Wilhelm von Humboldt’s “design revolution” proposed “three unities” whose powerful integration could surpass the utilitarian logic prevalent then and now: “teaching and research; scien-tific discovery and moral formation (Bildung); scholarly autonomy and scholarly community” (p. 40). The book’s second part, on institutional learning, charts the institutional migration of the blueprint; the contested design options of Gymnasium, college, and graduate school (the latter ultimately the key to global preeminence); the lasting influence of Protestantism (here Meyer follows the arguments of Max Weber, Robert K. Merton, and Joseph Ben-David) and extraordinary educational philanthropy; the battle between those who would centralize, by establishing a national university, and those committed to local control; and finally the contrasting answers to the eternal question of vocational-ism—e.g., how should business be treated, as a sibling to medicine and law or as their distant cousin? The more education-enamored, democratically-inclined patrician elites of the American East Coast were, Meyer argues, radically different institution-builders than German scholars, French state nobility, or even Chinese mandarins: “No other class combined their respect for, and grand vision of, the civilizing role of learning with their economic resources and the realism needed to put their plans into practice” (p. 113). Building on philosophical and historical elaboration, the book’s third part on achieving self-government discusses the six American moves leading to institutional innovation. At organizational level, the German chair and institute give way to departments and discipline, the university presi-dent is no longer figurehead but chief executive, and independent boards of trustees, not govern-ment officials, have ultimate authority. The implications for individuals and organizations of these “design shifts” cannot be overstated. Anyone seeking to understand American higher education, with its phenomenal vertical and horizontal differentiation and on-going academic drift (“a snake-like procession” as David Riesman, to whom the book is dedicated, calls it), and its self-organized autonomy—supported by many philanthropists without the limiting control of a few state bureau-crats—will find this analysis illuminating. Embedded in civil society, “vigorous self-government is the historic design contribution of the American university” (p. 209)—and an achievement that must be guarded in an era in which university autonomy is at risk. In concluding, Meyer’s American opti-mistic and laudatory tone shifts back to Germanic critique and foreboding, identifying challenges and the contemporary struggles that threaten the unintentional masterpiece of institutional learning and diversity. Such justified hopes and fears must now give way to empirical studies of the extraor-dinary outputs in terms of scientific production and societal capabilities and well-being brought about by the continuous process of university Bildung—in Germany, the United States, and around the world. [1] David Labaree (2017), A Perfect Mess: The Unlikely Ascendancy of American Higher Education. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Research center :
- Education, Culture, Cognition & Society (ECCS) > Institute of Education & Society (InES)
Disciplines :
Sociology & social sciences
Education & instruction
Author, co-author :
POWELL, Justin J W  ;  University of Luxembourg > Faculty of Language and Literature, Humanities, Arts and Education (FLSHASE) > Education, Culture, Cognition and Society (ECCS)
External co-authors :
Language :
Title :
Review of Meyer, Heinz-Dieter (2017): The Design of the University: German, American, and “World Class”. Abingdon: Routledge
Publication date :
Journal title :
Comparative Education Review
Publisher :
University of Chicago Press
Volume :
Issue :
Pages :
Peer reviewed :
Peer Reviewed verified by ORBi
Reviewed work :
Meyer, Heinz-Dieter (2017): The Design of the University: German, American, and “World Class”. Abingdon: Routledge
Focus Area :
Educational Sciences
Name of the research project :
R-AGR-0221 - IRP14 - EDRESGOV (20140901-20180930) - POWELL Justin J W
Available on ORBilu :
since 25 April 2018


Number of views
240 (9 by Unilu)
Number of downloads
113 (9 by Unilu)


Similar publications

Contact ORBilu