In his newest book, Preparing for the Twenty-First Century,1 New York: Random House, 1993. Paul Kennedy documents his understanding of massive transformations underway in international relations and speculates about their implications for global security and for the human and economic welfare of the developed and the developing world regions. The theme running through Kennedy’s analysis is that a complex skein of interrelated transnational influences—changes in population dynamics, in biotechnology of food production, in manufacturing technologies, and in world trade—is rapidly reshaping the scheme of international affairs.

The world Kennedy portrays is a transnational one in which the sovereignty of nation states—even the United States—is challenged if not undermined, and where the driving forces of change for any nation often lie well outside its own borders. Nations appear to possess diminished powers to guarantee the welfare and security of their citizens. Multinational corporations, fundamentalist religious movements and diasporas, non-governmental interest groups, as well as national governments, each contribute to defining the focus and issues of global and national affairs.

“It seems to me that we cannot presume that progress is an inevitable handmaiden of more education.”

The unfolding post–Cold War world possesses new, subtle, and perhaps even volatile interdependencies: between humankind and its environment, and between the developed North and the developing South. For example, population pressures on global land resources and uneven benefits of new agricultural biotechnologies—often developed in American university laboratories—potentially open wider cleavages between South and North. Adopting new technologies into developing nations of Africa, for instance, could actually accelerate the outmigration of displaced agriculturalists and other manual laborers into the lands of the “rich,” even as food production capacity is rising in the “poor” regions. And the resolution of such complex dilemmas of human existence in these regions seems feasible only by the most creative approach to collective, cooperative problem solving on a global scale.

In such a vision of the twenty-first century, it seems to me that we cannot presume that progress is an inevitable handmaiden of more education, per se. So what does society need from higher education in the context of America’s place in an increasingly transnational world?


Our college and universities must prepare us—as a nation and as individuals—for a new form of international citizenship in which neither progress nor our own national leadership is guaranteed. This is a challenge that our nation’s universities may be hard pressed to realize as they are now structured.

“If public education was the cornerstone of this bold experiment in nation-building, then higher education was the keystone of our national progress.”

Why? One reason is that we may already ask our universities and colleges to do too much; we have come to expect too much from them. Historically, the founding of American higher education drew its justification from two objectives: to offer liberal education to generations of future leaders of a democratic nation, and somewhat later, to offer a pathway of upward social mobility to intellectually talented and motivated sons (and even later, daughters) from humble estate. In contrast to Europe, where higher education was justified as intrinsically worthwhile and ennobling, Americans emphasized utilitarian and instrumental value in founding public colleges and universities and many private ones as well. If public education was the cornerstone of this bold experiment in nation-building, then higher education was the keystone of our national progress—it was a bridge to individual advancement, and it buttressed the nation economically and politically through path-setting scholarship and technical and scientific innovation.

These goals are no less compelling or worthy for the twenty-first century than they were in the eighteenth century. But the capacity of colleges and universities to attain these goals may have gotten worse. At least their current performance is far from laudable, judging from appearances. With regard to the liberal education of future leaders, one is shocked and baffled by all-too-common incidents of racial and ethnic intolerance—even violence—on even the most “liberal” and prestigious of our campuses. And while matriculation into some form of higher education is typical for about half of our high school graduates, rates of matriculation for youth from less economically and culturally advantaged backgrounds are not relatively better than a decade or more ago. Indeed, in some case they are even worse. Educators and employers alike are appalled by what students—even baccalaureates in the Ivy League—do not know. Students and parents alike are astonished by the rising costs of higher education and agonized by the declining guarantee of full employment and premium wages that once came with the diploma.

“But are colleges and universities to blame?”

But are colleges and universities to blame? Insofar as they exercise some control, they must stand accountable. And therein lies the rub. To exercise control one must have both understanding of cause and possess agency to alter the status quo. The fact is, higher education lacks both in many instances where it is held to account. Take racial violence and insulting verbal abuse. Is this a failing of higher education to develop capacities for deeper moral or ethical self-insight as a basis of community and the toleration of differences? Or, is it a consequence of more pervasive anxieties in the wider society about racial and ethnic competition, inequities, or even alleged unworthiness? Or, does the basis lie in still other factors? If any social scientist or educator ventured forward to offer the definitive explanation for these incivilities, that person would be stepping well beyond available research and data.

And suppose we had more data? Would college and university administrators and faculty possess agency to change? Probably in some cases, but in many, not. Sociologists and economists have studied enrollment and graduation statistics for decades, despite the limitations of these data. Only a few studies and federal data series are based on large enough samples to characterize the educational opportunities of “minority” youth or to assess the degree of limitation of opportunity by economic background, race, gender, and region. Indeed, this nation should be ashamed at the insufficiency of its data on educational matriculation. Other nations do much better than we.

Notwithstanding these limitations, however, the social science about attendance, matriculation and the contributing influences of social, economic, and cultural factors is substantial. But what agency is available to higher education, per se, to stem the high dropout rate from secondary schools—indeed, the often tragic loss of youthful talent into lives of crime or drugs? And what can or should universities and colleges do to overcome the disequilibria of supply and demand for college graduates, even PhDs, that have driven down their relative wage and employment prospects? Can they or should they limit their enrollment levels—or the ratio of “foreign” to “native” students in high enrollment fields—and thereby restrict supply? Can they influence the marketplace for their graduates, even in this country, as some industries and firms recruit from an international labor pool?

“Could it not be that the deficiencies of our colleges and universities are a sign of that very loss of effective agency in America as a nation state?”

Perhaps we do expect too much from our colleges and universities. And perhaps, as well, American higher education—and its counterpart institutions of higher education throughout the world—may be less well positioned to be the engines of individual and national progress in the twenty-first century than up to the recent past. If Paul Kennedy is right in concluding that nations are less sovereign today than in midcentury, and that the twenty-first century will see even further erosion in nations’ capacities to guarantee the security and the economic and social welfare of their peoples, does it not follow that national institutions, like systems of higher education, might also be affected by globalization, by various transnational influences, and by the weakened sovereignty of the surrounding nation state? Could it not be that the deficiencies of our colleges and universities are a sign of that very loss of effective agency in America as a nation state?

Preliminary approaches

If our colleges and universities are to prepare us and our children for a transnational world in the twenty-first century, what would they do differently?

First, we must reexamine the sufficiency of discipline-based training and the concept of disciplines as the basic building blocks of knowledge. In both the sciences and humanities—and even to a considerable extent in the arts—we continue to rely upon “disciplines” for our fundamental knowledge, a practice well established by the seventeenth century. (At an earlier time, knowledge about human, social, and natural phenomena was less divided and was integrated under the general rubric of philosophy.)

We can expect no less specialization of narrowly focused expertise in the twenty-first century, as the existing disciplines further subdivide and, in some instances, recombine at their boundaries with second disciplines into third-order hybrids. (A good example of this structural recombination and hyper-specialization are the subfields of biology, which over the past decade have vastly reconfigured what once was a unified field in most research universities. The shifts are so profound that a current study of changes in the quality and output of graduate research programs in the United States since the early 1980s, carried out by the National Research Council, may not be able to include the fields of biology, owing to the lack of comparable departmental entities in the 1990s.) And yet, intensification of discipline-based specialization leads to a balkanization of knowledge and to great difficulties of communication, even in some cases between specialists in subfields of their own nominal discipline.

While no sensible scholar would recommend a reunification of all of today’s or tomorrow’s knowledge under a single rubric, we academics and academic administrators need to address the many divisions in our expert knowledge systems that far exceed the two cultures of C.P. Snow’s concern.2 “Literary intellectuals at one pole—at the other scientists, and as the most representative, the physical scientists. Between the two a gulf of mutual incomprehension—sometimes (particularly among the young) hostility and dislike, but most of all lack of understanding.” C.P. Snow, The Two Cultures and a Second Look (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1959, p. 4. Cited in David L. Sills and Robert K. Merton, eds., Social Science Quotations. New York: Macmillan, 1991).

And in doing so, we may want to examine the knowledge systems of other cultures. David Easton and Corinne S. Schelling, in reporting on a series of exchanges between the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and the Chinese Academy of Science, describe a certain bemusement of the Chinese with our Western penchant for atomized specializations. Easton quotes one Chinese scientist as suggesting we are “looking at the sky from the bottom of the well.”3 David Easton and Corinne S. Schelling, eds., Divided Knowledge: Across Disciplines, Across Cultures (Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1991). How do we take advantage of our capacity for specialized knowledge while retaining the expertise for reassembling the pieces into wholes?

“At a moment when many of the most pressing problems of our transnational era call for a ‘skydown’ view and comprehension, how will our universities prepare u to ascend from the ‘bottom of the well?’”

Our current institutional practices at the most prolific research universities militate against cross-departmental, cross-discipline, cross-college synthesis. At a moment when many of the most pressing problems of our transnational era call for a “skydown” view and comprehension, how will our universities prepare u to ascend from the “bottom of the well?” The answer must entail some rethinking about the structure of universities and of academic research careers as we prepare for the twenty-first century.

Second, we must develop—as early in the educational careers of students as feasible—an appreciation for multi- and interdisciplinary analysis, together with the skills that will enable them to engage in it. One promising strategy for combining specialized expertise with capacity for synthesis is the interdisciplinary approach. For the past seventy years, the Social Science Research Council has promoted interdisciplinary research among the social sciences and between them and the humanities and natural sciences. Each year we award hundreds of predoctoral, doctoral, and postdoctoral fellowships and seed grants for projects that address topics from a multi- and interdisciplinary vantage. We organize workshops and conferences on thematic topics (e.g., the human dimensions of global environmental change, and on methodological approaches that expand the technical repertoire and conceptual boundaries of economists, political scientists, geographers, and others). Some see this work as subversive, as undermining the integrity of the standing disciplines. We are held to account, as the Council always should be, for enticing the next generation of scholars to practice a craft for which there may not be jobs in the current scheme of tenure-track, discipline-centered assistant professorship.

We at the Council—indeed, all of us in higher education—face a fundamental dilemma: how do we instill the capacity to analyze and to recommend tractable solutions for the complex problems of the twenty-first century if the most important step is problem finding? As early as 1971, a report in Science magazine concluded that the most intellectually path-breaking and practically useful research was most frequently based on a pooling of disciplinary knowledge.4 K.W. Deutsch, J. Platt, and D. Sengbaas, “Conditions Favoring Major Advances in the Social Science,” Science.  171 (1971), pp. 450-459. The authors concluded that in the period 1900-1929, nearly one-half of the “major advance in social science” had their source in interdisciplinary work, and in subsequent years, two-thirds were interdisciplinary contributions. This research more typically rejected the tendencies of individual disciplines to define solutions for a problem in term of extant disciplinary paradigms  (i.e., conventional theoretical and methodological frames of reference). Instead, the pooling of disciplines permitted—indeed, required—a first step of finding the problem, an iterative phase of problem redefinition from a variety of perspectives that set the tone for a series of broadly conceived solutions.

Within our discipline-based departments and laboratories, how do we make it possible for our graduate students, even our postdoctoral fellows and scientists, to learn this rather novel approach to problem finding and problem solving? How should we design our universities and our curricula in higher education in order to bring the skills of analysis, problem finding, and problem solving more in alignment with the problems and solution strategies that will be encountered and required in an increasingly transnational world?

Third, we should expand the opportunities for collaborative analysis and the recognition of team-conducted research. One possible new approach to scholarship, ever more common in several of the sciences, is team research. In keeping with the view that problem finding and solving capacities should align optimally with the presumed nature of a phenomenon’s complexity, I suggest that these teams be multidisciplinary and intensely collaborative. Our universities still celebrate the model of the individual scholar pursuing his or her curiosities; a peer-review process regulates and sanctions the quality and direction of individuals’ work. There is nothing inherently wrong or unproductive about that model, but when it excludes or diminishes the flourishing of other approaches to organizing inquiry, we need to ask if we are getting the most from it.

In a transnational world, it is unlikely that any discipline, any one university, or the scholars from any single nation will be able to make great headway against the problems of the twenty-first century by going it alone. We need to ask if, as a first step, we might need to rethink the training of our graduate students in skills of research collaboration, team organization, and cross-disciplinary cooperation. Perhaps another model of research that should be explored—in addition to the current individual PhD dissertations that “test” for individual research capacity within a “peer” (doctoral faculty) system of review—is one that embeds individual scholars within a team with some cross-disciplinary diversity.

”Knowledge and communication increasingly are globalized.”

Fourth, and perhaps most important, we should facilitate and encourage wider cross-cultural training, research, and team-based international collaboration in testing our collective academic knowledge against the practical realities, challenges, and dilemmas of a transnational world. Knowledge and communication increasingly are globalized. But as with many features of a transnational world, from the beneficial impacts of multinational corporations on rates of economic activity to the limiting effects of rapid population growth on human flourishing, the depths of knowledge and the flow of information are unevenly distributed. Scientific knowledge and scholarship in the twentieth century have been globalized, but the domination of the West is clear. English, for example, is the international language of science, accounting for about 80 percent of all citations in electronic retrieval system.5 Joel Kotkin, “Enrolling Foreign Students Will Strengthen America’s Place in the Global Economy,” Chronicle of Higher Education, February 24, 1993. And in the social sciences, some have estimated that at least two-thirds of published research originates in the West. In the social sciences and humanities, as well as the natural sciences, America, especially, has exported the major theoretical frameworks, methods of research design and analysis, and with them, our disciplinary form of codifying and organizing scientific knowledge systems. Global diffusion of intellectual and scientific information from the West also has put forward the view that “it is both natural and desirable for knowledge to accumulate, as it were, into one international [dominated by Western; American] pool of ideas and methods that is freely accessible to all.”6 Easton and Schelling, eds., Divided Knowledge, p. 25. (Insertion is mine.)

America’s universities and research centers should be rightly proud of their role in fostering this globalization of advanced and technical knowledge. By the end of the eighteenth century, migration of European scientists and intellectual to the United States established the human foundations for unparalleled technological leadership and accomplishments. Higher educational institution in America still receive some of the best and most productive of the graduate students from abroad. By the late 1980s, Asian-born students—mainly from China, Taiwan, Japan, India, and Korea—comprised about half of all foreign students, and contributed even larger fractions in doctoral programs in natural sciences and engineering.

Many of these foreign students, more than five out of every ten, choose to remain in the United States and contribute productively to our economic competitiveness worldwide. Those who return to their homelands, of course, also accelerate the global diffusion of US scientific and intellectual knowledge. We need to make more effective use of the large and intellectually rich influx of talented foreign graduate students and research scholars to our universities and research laboratories. They are more than simply a reserve of technical labor to fill the gaps and deficiencies in our own national labor pool. They bring insights and novel constructions about their worlds and ours.

A negative impact?

Higher education and advanced knowledge may be one of our best export products in the global economy of the twenty-first century. And without gainsaying that possibility, I suggest that as we approach the next century we should ask our universities to heed the possible unintended negative impacts of the globalization of American scientific and technical knowledge.

“We should ask our universities to heed the possible unintended negative impacts of the globalization of American scientific and technical knowledge.”

One potential downside of Western, and especially American domination, is that our ways of knowing, learning, analyzing, and of storing and organizing knowledge (e.g., conceptually, into disciplines; and institutionally, into their corresponding university units) are likely to reflect considerable cultural bias. Easton and Schelling, for example, conclude from their American Academy workshops with the Chinese that non-Western cultures have not been particularly well-served by the globalization of intellectual knowledge systems arising from the West. Non-Western scholars have not been prompted to develop their own conceptual and philosophical foundations for cultural, historical, and societal analysis and interpretation, for seeing themselves through their own eyes rather than through lenses provided by Western epistemology, as it were. And we in the West, in turn, have constructed various formulations of “the Other” (e.g., as critiqued in Edward Said’s Orientalism7 New York: Random House, 1978.). Comparing the long history of Confucian-inspired scholarship in China, which emphasizes a more holistic construction of knowledge systems, with the Cartesian, atomistic approaches in the West, Easton and Schelling ask whether the globalization and dominance of Western intellectual epistemology fosters considerable historical and cultural blindness worldwide:

It poses the question as to whether our conceptions of methods, and of the resulting knowledge itself, as they have evolved over the last two thousand years in the West, are not, after all, just that, namely, products of a unique historical experience. In the extreme view, may they not be the singular outcome of one kind of cultural sequence? Why should we believe, except out of some cultural pride, blindness, or hubris, that our experience in the West leads to universal criteria for the production of reliable knowledge, but that the divergent experience of other cultures fall short of offering the same? May not this simply be what it is often seen to be outside the West, an arrogance or imperialism of the idea that has taken the place of (or, in the past, has accomplished) an imperialism of power?8 Easton and Schelling, eds., Divided Knowledge, p. 27.

Another negative consequence is associated with the domination of English as the language of science and international scholarship. This fact is not likely to motivate American teachers or their students to learn foreign languages. Currently, about 15 percent of our high school students learn a foreign language and only 2 percent pursue it for more than two years.9 Jonathan Kozol, Illiterate America (New York: New American Library, 1986, p. 212, cited in Kennedy). And imposing English-language facility as a “threshold” for the participation of foreign scientists and scholars in the flows and exchange of ideas worldwide is a very limiting condition. Among its unfortunate side effects, this practice can lead to an unwarranted discounting of ideas—and an arbitrary dismissal of their proponents—when rendered without sophistication in academic English.

A reeducation

One conclusion I draw from these observations is that knowledge systems have deep historical, cultural, and institutional roots. That is an asset in a transnational world. Ironically, we must have detailed and nuanced localized knowledge if we are to penetrate the complexities of a transnational world. The emphasis in the past has presumed that the “other” has more to learn and gain than we do. But if Kennedy is right, then we need to refocus our appreciation on what we can learn and on how we can promote the development of strong indigenous scholarship as a counterpart, or counterpoint, to that which we can offer in exchange.

“Education in the larger sense means more than technical “retooling” the work force or the emergence of professional classes.”

In his concluding chapter, Paul Kennedy calls for a radical “reeducation of humankind.” When he elaborates on that educational regimen, he notes in preamble that each nation’s dilemmas are unique and will require a different set of strategies in adapting to and coping with a new world order. Moreover, each nation must develop considerable empathy and understanding with the dilemmas of other nations. As to reeducation, in these circumstances, Kennedy suggests that

education in the larger sense means more than technical “retooling” the work force, or the emergence of professional classes, or even the encouragement of a manufacturing culture in the schools and colleges in order to preserve a productive base. It also implies a deep understanding of why our world is changing, of how other people and cultures feel about those changes, of what we all have in common—as well as what divides cultures, classes, and nations […] Because we are all members of a world citizenry, we also need to equip ourselves with a system of ethics, a sense of fairness, and a sense of proportion as we consider the various ways in which, collectively or individually, we can better prepare for the twenty-first century.10 Kennedy, Preparing for the Twenty-first Century. p. 341.

Again, problem finding is an important first step in problem solving, and that step in itself requires active engagement across national, regional, and cultural settings to “see” the problem in its various manifestations and representations. America’s universities, together with research institutions with international reach such as the Social Science Research Council, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the National Academy of Science, must take the lead in promoting a more truly collaborative, co-constructed science than we have achieved hitherto. One way is to foster greater international exchanges of scholars, as well as mutual education and training projects with counterpart foreign institutions.

The attendant tasks are not easy, and they will run counter to our well-honed tendencies to export our own institutional and national expertise and to act on behalf of our own best interests. We shall have to overcome considerable cultural and intellectual “hubris,” as David Easton puts it, if we are to rise to Kennedy’s challenge for a radical reeducation of ourselves, our students and future leaders, and of higher education in preparation for the twenty-first century.

From an essay contributed by David L. Featherman to an initiative about the future of higher education, chaired by former US senator and secretary of labor William E. Brock and sponsored by the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, the Johnson Foundation, the Lilly Endowment, Inc., and the Pew Charitable Trusts.

David Featherman served as the Council’s president from 1989 to 1995. He then served as the director of the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan from 1995 to 2005. He is currently Professor Emeritus of Psychology and Sociology, as well as Research Professor Emeritus at the University of Michigan’s Population Studies Center.

This essay originally appeared in Items Vol. 47, Issue 2-3 in the fall of 1993. Visit our archives to view the original as it first appeared in the print editions of Items.