Modern institutions of higher education trace a more direct lineage from the medieval leading universities
Colleges and universities seem to defy the maxim that only highly rationalized institutions can succeed in the modern world. Higher education has done more than survive; it is in many ways a pivot of key developments in the social structure and culture. It is central for the generation of research and technological innovations. It is also central in the selection, training, and credentialing of young men and women for higher-level positions in the occupational structure. Among the most important questions surrounding higher education are the following:
(1) To what extent have advanced industrial societies become based on a ‘‘knowledge economy’’ closely related to university research and training? Related to this question is another: To what extent do we see the rise of a ‘‘new class’’ of ‘‘knowledge workers’’ with advanced training— differing in interest and outlook from both business elites and earlier aristocracies of labor?
(2) To what extent do institutions of higher education reproduce social inequalities by certifying the cultural advantages of children from the upper classes, or reshuffle the social hierarchy by rewarding intellect and ability independent of students’ social- class background?
(3) Do institutions of higher education, with their traditions of collegial control and tenure, represent an alternative model to corporate forms of organization? These issues can be addressed only after examining the historical development, the existing organizational structures, and the contemporary pressures on higher education.
It is necessary to define the dimensions of higher education. Formal educational systems are conventionally divided between primary (the first six years), secondary (the next four to six years), and postsecondary education. Some postsecondary schools offer courses of study that are narrowly vocational and very short in duration. These institutions (including secretarial, business, and vocational–technical colleges) are not usually considered to be part of higher education. Institutions must award degrees that are recognized by baccalaureate-granting colleges and universities to be considered part of higher education. Also, there are a vast array of colleges, universities, and specialized institutions (for example, seminaries and art schools) that constitute the core of the higher education sector in all contemporary societies. Levels in this institutional hierarchy are structured, most fundamentally, by the type of credentials offered. In most of the developed countries, for example, levels are marked by movement from the associate to the baccalaureate to the master’s to the doctoral degree.
The distant relatives of today’s institutions of higher education go back in the West to the Greek academies of the fourth and fifth centuries B.C.E. In these academies, young men from the governing classes studied rhetoric and philosophy (and lesser subjects) as training for public life. In the East, the roots of higher education go back to the training of future government bureaucrats at the feet of masters of Confucian philosophy, poetry, and calligraphy. In both East and West, a close relationship existed among social class, high culture, and preparation for public life.
However, modern institutions of higher education trace a more direct lineage from the medieval studium generale (leading universities). In the first European universities of the twelfth and early thirteenth centuries, students and masters came together to pore over the new knowledge discovered in ancient texts and developed by the Arab scholars of Spain. These gatherings of students and teachers were a product of the revival of scholarly inquiry in what has been called the ‘‘twelfth-century Renaissance.’’ The medieval universities were similar to modern higher education in that they were permanent institutions of learning with at least a rudimentary formal organization. Courses of study were formally organized, lectures and examinations were given at scheduled times, administrative officials presided, graduation ceremonies were held, and students lived in lodgings near the university buildings. The leading universities, were recognized as such because they housed at least one of the ‘‘higher faculties’’ in law, medicine, or theology in addition to faculties of the arts. Courses in the arts, typically with an emphasis on logic and philosophy, were common preparation for study in the three learned professions.
Thus, from the beginning, a certain vocational emphasis is evident in the university. Degrees awarded on the completion of professional studies certified accomplishments that made their recipients worthy of entry into professional life. Nevertheless, the spirit of inquiry was equally important in the medieval universities. Civic competition led to a proliferation of universities. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the fortunes of colleges and universities waned. The causes for decline are numerous, including the attractiveness of commercial over scholarly careers, the interference (in some places) of religious and political authorities, and the insularity of faculty who jealously guarded their guild privileges but resisted new currents of thought. During this period, colleges and universities became places concerned with the transmission of ancient texts rather than the further advance of knowledge.
Professional training moved out of the universities: into Inns of Court, medical colleges, and seminaries. New elites interested in technical and scientific progress established entirely new institutions rather than allying with the colleges and universities. Napoleon, for example, founded elite professional training institutions, the grandes ecoles, and the early investigators in the natural sciences created separate elite societies to encourage research and discussion. The revived university is the product of nineteenth-century European reform movements, led in the beginning by intellectually oriented aristocrats and eminent philosophers and theologians. The University of Berlin, founded in 1810, was the first reformed university, and others shortly followed in its wake. The new university was founded on the principles of the unity of teaching and research (meaning that both functions were performed by the professoriate) and the freedom to teach and learn without fear of outside interference.
The development of new academic components, such as the research seminar and the specialized lecture, created an environment in which path-breaking researchers, such as Leopold Ranke in history and Justus von Liebig in chemistry, emerged. By midcentury, the German research universities had become a model for reformers throughout Europe and from as far away as the United States and Japan. The first research university in the United States, Johns Hopkins University, founded in 1876, was explicitly modeled on the German research university.
Higher education’s current emphasis on training for a wide range of applied fields has an equally important history. Universities also cooperated closely with professional associations to raise educational training standards. Connections between university and state were extended, particularly in the sciences, during World War II and the Cold War, when government grants for university based scientific research became a very large source of support. These developments encouraged a new view of higher education. The utilitarian approach of American educators was resisted for some time in Europe and Asia, where access to higher education was strictly limited to those students who passed rigorous examinations and where higher degrees had long served as important badges of social status linked to cultural refinement. However, by the last quarter of the twentieth century, the entrepreneurial multiversity had become an important model throughout the developed world.
Institutions of higher education rarely shed their earlier identities completely; instead, they incorporate new emphases through reorganizing and adding new components and new role expectations. Today, all major historical stages of university development remain very much in evidence. Much of the nomenclature, hierarchy, and ritual of the medieval university remains and is in full display at graduation ceremonies. Although the major fields of study have changed dramatically, the underlying liberal arts emphasis of the ancient academies has remained central in the first two years of undergraduate study.
The nineteenth-century emphasis on specialization is evident in the second two years of undergraduate study and in graduate and professional programs. The nineteenth century emphasis on research remains an absorbing occupation of faculty and graduate students. The twentieth-century emphases on ancillary training, service, and advisory activities are organized in separate components (as in the case of university extension programs, agricultural experiment stations, university-based hospitals, and collegiate sports teams) or performed by research faculty in their capacity as consultants and lecturers in the community.
(Author is a Research Scholar)