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Popes, emperors, and kings chartered the first universities in twelfth-century Europe; teachers recruited students and taught Christian doctrine through lecture, debate, and reasoning. After the Renaissance, the curricula became secularized and specialized encouraging independent thought and research. European colonialism spread the university system around the world, and countries retained and modified the systems after their independence.
Universities originated in medieval Europe when groups of teachers and students attained special privileges and a corporate identity through charters from popes, emperors, and kings. University students and teachers governed themselves, electing rectors and other officers to manage their affairs. Teachers charged students a fee for attending their lectures, and over time pious donors financed special college buildings where students and faculty lived and ate. Classrooms and libraries later supplemented the earliest buildings. Books were still rare and expensive in Europe at that time, and unavailable to ordinary people, so oral presentation and argument prevailed.
Christianity and Universities
The University of Paris, founded between 1150 and 1170, specialized in trying to untangle Christian doctrine. The university took direction from the work of a famous teacher named Peter Abelard (1079–?1142), and it became a model for other European universities. Abelard was decisive in establishing the idea that apparent contradictions in the Bible and among the early Christian fathers could only be resolved by logical reasoning. He compiled a book of quotations from sacred and revered Christian texts, titled Sic et non (Yes and No), setting conflicting views side by side so no one could doubt that there were important questions to be answered. Organon, a work of the third-century-BCE Greek philosopher Aristotle, was already available in Latin translation; it offered Abelard and those who followed him a convenient tool to try to resolve such differences by logical reasoning.
Translation of the rest of Aristotle’s writings in the thirteenth century CE enlarged the impact of his philosophy among Parisian teachers, leading them to supplement theology with the study of physics and other subjects Aristotle had written about. But arguments about Christian doctrine remained central. When books became more accessible, a teacher in Paris named Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) published a book titled Summa theologiae, which gives his answers to most of the questions that centuries of debate had raised. It eventually became the official and authoritative repository of Catholic teaching, although Aquinas’s views were disputed in his own day, and in 1277, soon after he died, some of them were formally condemned as heretical by teachers of the University of Paris.
Rise of Secularism and Specialization
Disputation and new views on theological and other questions were encouraged within European universities by competition among professors, whose income depended on how many students they attracted. Challenging established ideas was a good way to gain their attention, and doing so kept debate alive for generations, even when popes, rulers, and elderly professors tried to impose uniformity and agreement. Since translations of Aristotle’s writings were soon supplemented by the discovery of other pagan texts—literary, historical, as well as philosophical—and since new information about the rest of the contemporary world kept pouring into European cities, the subject matter of university teaching kept expanding as well.
To be sure, there were ups and downs in the intellectual vigor of every university, and many important intellectual developments took place outside their classrooms. Self-styled “humanists” of the Renaissance (mid-fourteenth through seventeenth centuries), for example, seldom worked in universities where sacred texts took precedence; it took a long time for classical literary studies to get access to university lecture halls. Then the Reformation and Counter-Reformation (both in the sixteenth century) imposed a Protestant or Catholic identity after 1517 on every European university, whereupon angry defense of rival doctrines embittered and narrowed university education. Consequently, early modern science flourished mainly within new institutions like the Royal Society of England, founded in 1660, though the English physicist and mathematician Sir Isaac Newton (1642–1727) was a professor at Cambridge University for most of his life. Later, in the eighteenth century, the French Enlightenment, which consciously repudiated Christianity, arose among a circle of literary men. But in Germany, universities played an active part in the parallel secularization of thought without ceasing to train Protestant and Catholic clergymen.
This dual role was due to the fact that German university education assumed new forms after Frederick III, Elector of Brandenburg, founded the University of Halle in 1694. Its professors abandoned Latin and started to lecture in German. They taught students to seek private contact with God through prayer and to disregard old arguments about theological doctrine. Instead they prepared students for careers as government officials, largely by the study of classical Greek and Roman texts. In short, personal piety supplanted theological disputes, and secular themes and ideas engaged more attention, while geographical exploration and scientific discoveries kept on supplying new information that had to be fitted into older ideas somehow. A generation later, another new university at Gottingen (1737) followed a similar path, broadening emphasis on science and statistics. Other German universities gradually did likewise, capped by the establishment of the University of Berlin in 1809, which became a model not just for Europe but for much of the world across the next century.
As Abelard had set the tone and agenda for the University of Paris in the twelfth century, Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767–1835), then serving as minister of education for the Kingdom of Prussia, and himself a student of Basque and other obscure languages, made research and the discovery of new truths the central task for professors at the University of Berlin. They were expected to share their discoveries with undergraduates through lectures, and also to offer seminars to graduate students, showing them how to do specialized research. Within a decade Georg Wilhelm Hegel (1770–1831) was teaching his own personal philosophy at Berlin. It became in effect a substitute for Christianity among his followers. His example provoked other German philosophers to disagree with him, much as the teacher at Paris had disagreed about theological questions centuries before.
Natural sciences, linguistics, history, philology, and Christian theology (soon subjected to the so-called higher criticism) all had their place in Humboldt’s university alongside secular philosophy. Specialization prevailed. Each professor and student and each separate discipline was free to go its own way. This, and the notion that teachers ought to prove themselves by doing research and discovering new truths, proved infectious, not only within Europe but in much of the rest of the world, so that in the twenty-first century, thousands of universities aspiring to expand as well as transmit knowledge exist in most countries of the world.
University Education around the World
France and Great Britain had different educational traditions and implanted second-rate replicas of their universities in most of their colonial possessions during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. At home they disregarded the German ideal of university-based research at first. They embraced it with variations only after the 1880s, and so did the United States. But Adolf Hitler’s Third Reich (1933– 1945) demoralized German universities; in the twenty-first century, university-based research, as pioneered in Germany and subsequently paralleled in the United States, France, Britain, and Japan, does much to shape contemporary science and other disciplines.
Modern universities have also arisen elsewhere, even though each of the world’s civilizations had its own established forms of higher education. All of them sought changeless religious truth; yet despite that hope, all adjusted teaching across time to take account of new information and new conditions of society. Europeans did the same, as this article has suggested. But when Europe’s wealth, power, and prestige surged suddenly after 1750, due to the Industrial Revolution and associated changes in technology and society, the impact of newly expanded and secularized European practices on older, religiously shaped educational traditions was often disruptive.
Indian higher education was radically Westernized by the English after 1834 when the writer and politician Thomas Macauley organized a new system of education conducted in English and designed along liberal lines. Independent India after World War II made no changes, since its leaders had been schooled to take Western ideas and even the use of the English for granted. In China, age-old Confucianism was officially abandoned in 1905, whereupon European missionary colleges and Chinese-managed universities both began to propagate Western learning. When Communists took power in 1949, efforts to enforce Marxist orthodoxy prevailed until 1976, when new leaders opened the country to the outside world with spectacular economic results and allowed teachers and students limited but widening freedom to study Western learning, with special emphasis on natural science.
Among Muslims, resistance was greater, even though the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 brought a vehemently secular regime to power in Turkey that imported German professors to create European-style universities. But traditional religious teaching survived in Arab lands and beyond. Even though European administrators after 1920 protected Christian missionary universities in Beirut and Cairo, Western learning had slight impact on most Muslims. When the Arab lands achieved full independence from European control before and after World War II, resistance to European forms of higher education intensified. Ironically, armies and military schools thereafter became the main bearers of European secular and scientific learning in most Muslim states.
Elsewhere the withdrawal of European empires from Africa and Southeast Asia left recently founded colonial universities behind, and local rulers almost always allowed them to persist. In Latin America, universities date back to the sixteenth century; independence from Spain and Portugal, when it came after 1807, did not change these countries’ initial Catholic identity. Since then, most Latin American universities have remained marginal within their own countries and little known abroad.
Everywhere, the fundamental issue remains unresolved between those who seek revealed, unchanging, and authoritative truth and those who are content with what human reason can achieve in the way of truths that are subject to revision whenever new evidence or insights may arise. The question is unlikely ever to disappear. The enlarged scope universities gave to human reason from their inception in medieval Europe was exceptional then, and it remains precarious because so many anxious human beings still desperately seek certainty and salvation. Doubtless they always will. And patterns of higher education will continue to differ among human societies and change over time, just as they have done hitherto.
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