One of the most remarkable developments in the 20th century is the way modern education has become accepted as the norm throughout the world. All those who regularly attend meetings on education would be encouraged to believe that we are heading towards one-world universalism; that it is only a matter of time before the unity of mankind will make the world a peaceful and safer place.
There are reservations about this optimistic view. The resurgence of nationalism emphasises the immediate needs of states, in which leaders guard against any kind of cosmopolitanism that would dilute the national spirit. Universalist standards in education would work against that goal. At the same time, the growing importance of cities in the global economy encourages a kind of international metropolitanism. Cities tend to lead the way in universalist education. One of the reasons for this is that they are the sites for most universities.
Universities not only produce educated and skilled personnel, but also leaders of the community. Some of their students may be activist and rebellious, but they are also likely to be creative and constructive in preparing for a civil society. Their understanding of issues such as the environment and ecology, class and welfare, minority rights, cultural and political pluralism, and their outward world view not only make many of them able civil servants and business executives, but also leaders of non-governmental organisations.
In the Asia-Pacific region, the universalism in education has been strongly endorsed in the cities, especially in the universities. This is despite the fact that national leaders know how much it is based on Western ideals. Although many Western intellectuals are questioning the future of universities in their countries, the region itself has not so far joined in the chorus of doubt. It remains confident that universities have a vital role to play. Why is that?
The universalist ideals of the Enlightenment brought to the rest of the world by the modern university have been used to determine the way modern education was shaped in most countries. It was the university that first embodied the idea of educational excellence. On top of the high standards of technical and professional skills needed for the industrial revolution, universities also added the ideals enunciated by philosophers and religious leaders for cultural, moral and intellectual quality.
The scepticism about the future of the modern university in the West, if anything, confirms the continual quest for excellence. The measures of excellence may be subject to change, but the efforts to refine them are still widely respected. This is particularly true where science and technology are concerned. It was always doubtful whether the measures that touched on culture and value systems would be readily transferable. The tension between concepts like "region" and "universalism" stems from competing cultural values. For example, countries in Asia may each claim distinctive needs that challenge the validity of universal ideals, Each may insist on the superiority of its Confucian, Islamic, Hindu, or Buddhist value systems and resist the idea that their cultures could eventually be replaced by the excellence of the modern and the secular. Here is where the university comes in. Most are expected to serve their countries' expanding needs. Their international experience in the past five decades shows a sharp contrast between being restrictive and being open.
Two examples would suffice to illustrate this. Most universities in the post-colonial world have retained their cultural and economic links with their metropolis, The English-speaking and the French-speaking areas are the obvious ones. The Association of Commonwealth Universities enabled a particular model of university to be widely established in former British territories. The countries that remain in the system are not uniformly enthusiastic about following the British models, but habits are hard to change and the ties remain strong. This suggests that the universalist claims of modern knowledge have been accepted. Without an external reference point about quality, it is feared the universities will sink into provinciality and irrelevance.
Although alternative models from the United States are gaining influence, a common rhetoric about excellence is still shared among the Commonwealth universities. In contrast, educational institutions in Asia that were products of the Cold War have not worked together. Ideological and practical concerns had divided those leaning towards the West from those linked to the Soviet bloc and those who claimed to be neutralist. Their access to development aid for educational institutions opened them up to some universalistic standards of excellence.
But the apparent existence of common political ideals was not enough for a shared sense of educational excellence to emerge. There were a number of reasons for this. First, the US consciously tilted towards the Atlantic. Although US education influence in Asia grew rapidly in the Philippines, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan, the main penetration in universities has been in medicine, the natural sciences and technology. In the arts and social sciences, the impact was cerebral and instrumental, but never held moral and emotive authority.
Second, Japan could have played the role of bridge, but it had recently been an enemy and could only be an ally as a junior partner. Also, differences in cultural outlook have restricted the use of US standards of excellence in non-science fields of learning. There have been calls in Japan for internationalisation and foreign students have been welcome. But the openness has so far been limited to science and technology.
The third reason is more hopeful: the Cold War produced the divide between the peripheral states of East Asia (mainly the island states plus South Korea and Thailand) and the hinterlands of China, North Korea and parts of the Southeast Asian mainland. This ideological divide had a profound impact on cultural and educational exchange, even though it can be argued that science and technology standards remained comparable on both sides. Cambodia and Laos).
Thus comparable standards of excellence in universities based on a common political ideology did not get very far. Now that the political divide has been removed, the new openness should enable similar standards of excellence to be extended from the periphery to the reforming hinterland states like the People's Republic of China and Vietnam (and eventually Burma.
The experience confirms that universities are most dynamic when they are as open as the modern cities that connect the global system of liberal capitalism.
Japan and the "four tigers" in East Asia not only drew the US deeply into the region's economy, Their cities and universities also ensured that universalist standards, beginning with science and technology, made a lasting impact on their cultures and societies.
Wang Gungwu is chairman of the Institute of East Asian Political Economy at the National University of Singapore.