Cover: Empires of Ideas: Creating the Modern University from Germany to America to China, from Harvard University PressCover: Empires of Ideas in HARDCOVER

Empires of Ideas

Creating the Modern University from Germany to America to China

Product Details


$37.95 • £33.95 • €34.95

ISBN 9780674737716

Publication Date: 07/05/2022

Academic Trade

504 pages

6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches

35 photos, 3 illus., 2 tables

Belknap Press


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Timely…he makes a powerful argument about what it takes to be a leading university dedicated to the creation of new knowledge… Kirby’s book shows how catalytic is the combination of strong nations and universities that advance knowledge and foster critical and creative thinking. Now more, perhaps, than ever.—Michael S. Roth, Wall Street Journal

Substantive on virtually every page, the author actually understands how universities work… An impressive performance.—Tyler Cowen, Marginal Revolution

What factors make research universities great—and, conversely, what variables threaten these institutions’ eminence? [Kirby’s] case studies are highly revealing… [A] fascinating book.—Steven Mintz, Inside Higher Ed

Although Empires of Ideas is nominally about the rise of the research university from its origins in 19th-century Germany though America’s global leadership in the 20th, it will probably be what Kirby has to say about China in the 21st that will generate the most interest… Rigorous in its arguments, Empires of Ideas is also well-written.—Peter Gordon, Asian Review of Books

Kirby weaves together traditional historical analysis with personal narratives and experiences with German, American, and Chinese higher education systems… Offers a genuine insider’s glimpse into the inner workings of these universities.—Ryan M. Allen, Hansa Review of Books

Rather than offering an overview of the university landscape, Kirby adopts the case-based approach employed in the curricula of the Harvard Business School. He traces the history of eight institutions whose trajectories he views as exemplary… There are advantages to Kirby’s case study approach. Tracing the history of an individual institution offers the reader a vivid sense of the interplay of historical contingency, policy mandates, and individual actors.—Robert Frodeman, Issues in Science and Technology

A masterful account of higher education in Germany, the United States, and China.—Lee Trapanier, University Bookman

William Kirby’s new book is unique. I know of nothing else on higher education that resembles it in breadth, scope, and sheer comparative information and analysis. He has plotted the rise and evolution of the modern university in three major societies—Germany, the United States, and China—in a way that illuminates the strengths and weaknesses of each model. Anyone interested in the nature of universities during the past two centuries will want to read this volume.—Neil L. Rudenstine, President Emeritus, Harvard University

Kirby is in a unique position to tell this story, since nobody else can equal his extensive knowledge of the subject. His insights take us behind the scenes and beyond the university rankings. Fascinating and compelling.—Yingyi Qian, Professor and Dean Emeritus, Tsinghua University

This superb and compelling book is both a vast scholarly achievement and an essential guide to the future of universities under conditions of increasing global competitiveness. It places contemporary trends in their historical context and draws on Kirby’s unique personal experiences of engagement with some leading universities in three countries. It is essential reading for everyone interested in the future of higher education and research as a global phenomenon.—Sir Malcolm Grant, Chancellor, University of York

This timely and important book by one of the world’s leading historians on global higher education makes the compelling case that the center of innovation and creativity is and always has been moving within the highly competitive global landscape of universities. Kirby cogently argues that in recent decades we witness a shift of the dynamics to China. Government backing and incentives have greatly enhanced China’s innovation potential in higher education. The growing success of Chinese universities discredits the idea that only the West is amenable to innovation. A must-read!—Klaus Mühlhahn, President, Zeppelin University

This book takes off from the simple if little explored idea that no country has emerged as a great power without also developing great universities. But what feature of universities have allowed them to play this role, and how might the answer change over space and time? To answer this question, Kirby sets off on a comparative history of emerging models of higher education ranging from Germany in the early nineteenth century through twentieth-century United States to the China of this very day. With his extraordinary breadth of curiosity and equal ease in the histories and cultures of these countries, only Bill Kirby could have written this book. It is must-reading for everyone who cares about universities, a thought-provoking lesson in the strange mix of durability and vulnerability that defines this key modern institution.—Richard Brodhead, President Emeritus, Duke University

Empires of Ideas offers deep insights on the practical achievement of institutional excellence, as well as the relationship between power and learning. The book raises profound questions about the outlook for America’s public universities as state governments continue to cut educational budgets, and the country’s ability to compete globally with other institutions in Europe and China. This learned work is a tour de force in the art of academic governance.—Wen-hsin Yeh, University of California, Berkeley

A lively and insightful analysis of modern research universities in three key countries. Kirby is the perfect author—he brings personal experience of each country, academic expertise, and an analytic framework. Empires of Ideas provides an unparalleled perspective on the origins and contemporary challenges of research universities.—Philip G. Altbach, Center for International Higher Education, Boston College

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