A few weeks ago, I wrote a blog claiming that we need to put the “public” back into the public university. My own vision for the future of the public university is one of radical change, but any responsible transformation of the university, radical or otherwise, should be built upon an understanding of our history. This blog presents my own (biased) review of the history of the university before the public land grant institutions were created in the U.S.
While the university as an institution is less than 1000 years old, the ancestors of university faculty go back to 2500 BC. The tablet writers of ancient Mesopotamia were the earliest recorded class of intelligentsia. These court scribes had great political influence as they handled the correspondence, records of taxes, and other affairs of state for the rulers of the day. While the record is incomplete on these early scholars, there is little doubt they were an elite class of men devoted to study, learning and influence.
More is known about higher education in classical Greece beginning around 500 BC. The Greek sophists were the first full-time, paid, teachers. These men gave “sample” lectures in public places to attract students, and then charged large fees to continue with a standard curriculum of prepackaged lessons. Over time, the sophists became known for their superficial and costly teachings. Unlike the sophists, the philosopher Socrates believed that wisdom would not be gained from prepackaged lessons, but had to be earned through critical reflection and dialogue. This controversy between the value of standardized lessons versus critical reflection was a harbinger of later debates such as that between professional training and personal learning during the early 20th century.
The Early Academy
Neither Socrates nor the sophists carried on their teaching and learning in any particular physical place. Plato, a student of Socrates, was the first to have a school at a preset location, a grove dedicated to the Greek folk hero Academus (the first “academy”). For Plato, the purpose of learning was the development of a class of educated rulers or “philosopher-kings.” Plato’s student Aristotle, on the other hand, believed knowledge should not be pursued to develop society’s leaders, but for its own sake. Thus, the debate between knowledge for social purposes and knowledge for its own sake began 2500 years ago.
Throughout this period schools grew up around individual scholars, but only took root when they became associated with storehouses for scholarly manuscripts, or libraries. The first known library was the museum at Alexandria, the Temple of Muses, on the Egyptian coast. Here, beginning around 250 BC grew a museum library that had more than 500,000 manuscripts. This resource for study attracted the great scholars of the period, like Archimedes and Euclid, who came to do full-time research and learn from each other.
Foundation of the Early University
During the Roman period, schools of lesser quality sprung up as minor businesses. Most of these schools disappeared during the Middle Ages when the only institutes of higher learning were devoted to religious studies. During the 11th century, Europe began to emerge from the dark ages, with education becoming more open and available again. The major cathedral church colleges in Bologna and Salerno in Italy, and Paris and Montpelier in France, added new courses to traditional clerical studies and began to attract larger numbers of students. This marked the beginning of the modern university.
Medieval university instruction was in Latin and students entered at age fifteen or sixteen. The baccalaureate or “beginners” degree followed about four years of study and acceptance as a “master” took one to three more years. Many of those students working toward masters degrees were also teachers in the lower level courses, much like graduate students today. Students of the day took time for leisure, often as drunken evenings sometimes growing into riots. One of the most famous was a 2-day brawl in Oxford that began as a tavern fight between students and “townies.” Several scholars were killed, books were destroyed and classrooms were burned. Sound familiar?
By the end of the 13th century most of the foundations of the modern university had been established including ornate college structures, competitive recruitment practices, standardized teaching methodologies, entrenched administration, examinations, degrees, and academic regalia. Little has changed at universities since the 13th century and that which has changed has done so very slowly.
Universities are Slow to Change
The major social upheavals associated with the Italian Renaissance in the 16th century and the scientific and technical revolution in the 17th century did not affect the traditional universities, at least at first. Florence became the center of Italian humanistic studies under the patronage of the Medici family, and other centers of learning emerged as alternatives to the unexciting studies at the university. The leading families of the day were business and political leaders who preferred to send their children to popular academies or private tutors rather than the major universities.
Exploration of new continents and new areas of scientific and technical study marked the business and cultural environment of the 17th century, but had little impact on the universities. Francis Bacon, in the early part of the century challenged colleges and universities to look beyond their ancient teachings. Nevertheless, universities largely ignored the growing scientific movement of the era, much as they had ignored the humanistic movement of the previous century. By the 18th century, older European universities were in a serious state of decline. Struggling institutions progressively lowered their standards to attract students, becoming the diploma mills of the era. Edward Gibbon described the impressive buildings that had been built for universities as “masking the dry-rot within.”
Universities in America
By this time colleges had been built in America, mostly under the influence of various church denominations to train clergy and political leaders. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Brown, Rutgers and Dartmouth were supported partially by colonial governments and mostly by student tuition. Enrollment was from a few dozen to a few hundred students, at most. These were elite institutions that offered traditional training in medieval studies such as Greek, Latin, logic, rhetoric, ethics and theology.
Westward expansion and denominational rivalries contributed to the rapid proliferation of colleges in the later part of the 18th and early 19th centuries. Generally small, these new colleges offered training in geography, languages, law, mathematics, geology, history, ethics, natural philosophy, literature and biology. There was a growing tension between classical training and an emerging scientific and professional training.
President Jeremiah Day of Yale College believed that universities should build character among the young men of leading families and not concern themselves with the needs of the masses. Even then, the major academic institutions of the time were out of touch with the needs of the nation. By the mid-19th century there was a public call for a more utilitarian education available to more people. The result was a national investment in the public land grant universities.
The publicly funded land grant universities represented a radical departure from earlier American and European colleges. Even so, today many characteristics of universities “before the land grants” endure, for example: the elitism of the faculty much like the tablet writers of Mesopotamia; the continuing debate about education for social purposes (Plato) or for knowledge itself (Aristotle); the “research” library like the one at Alexandria; the drinking parties such as those at Oxford; and finally the failure of the accepted curriculum to address the needs of society during periods of major social change as in Italy during the Renaissance, most of Europe during the first stage of the scientific revolution, at Yale in the early 1800’s, and perhaps even among public universities today.
This history was influenced by “American Higher Education: A History” by Christopher J. Lucas. St. Martins’s Griffin, NY. 1994. My next blog will focus on the future of the public university.
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