The current reorganisation of universities is part of a European policy aimed at strengthening Europe’s position with regard to the emerging global knowledge economy. The transformations in view of this overall goal are hardly accompanied by a critical discussion about the function or role of universities within and for society. The common assumption that universities offer a specific ‘general education’ by linking teaching to research, goes back to the modern university idea as conceived by Wilhelm von Humboldt. This article intends to show that philosophical attempts to restore the modern university model as a normative standard for criticising actual developments at European universities, have become problematic for contextual reasons that beg the basic assumptions of this model. Instead of answering the question of the ‘public role of universities’, the article rather attempts to clarify the problems with which this question is connected, from a political–philosophical perspective. It is argued that the difficulties in which the contemporary discourse about universities constantly becomes entangled, reflect more fundamental impasses and even contradictions that the modern democratic project is experiencing today.
Idea of the modern universityWilhelm von HumboldtPolitical philosophyLink research-educationMarcel GauchetDemocracy