I find myself increasingly annoyed with particular a line of rhetoric that academics sometimes use when they want to make a point. “The university is not a corporation”, they say, “it is a community of scholars dedicated to the truth – if it is not that it is nothing.” You know, the Steffan Collini-types.
Two things here. First, a modern university actually is demonstrably a corporation, which is indeed a very good thing for everyone who likes to get a steady paycheque. I’ll come back to that issue in another blog post relatively soon, but what I want to get at here is this whole notion of the “university-as-truth-seeking- community-of-scholars” thing, because it’s really only true in some parts of the world, and even there it’s not 100% true.
Let’s start with Europe. There, the first “universitas” (the word means “a whole” in Latin), was not a universitas of scholars, but rather of students. Back in Bologna in the 11th century, students basically formed a union in order to bargain collectively both with Bolognese landlords (town-gown relations being a fairly important thing at the time) and with professors (over fees and professors’ responsibility to show up to class on time – things have turned around a bit on that one). Gradually, scholars themselves started to band together, and often fought with civic or, more often, ecclesiastical patrons about the right to self-organize. And there were certainly occasions when professors themselves founded a university on their own (Cambridge, for instance). This is one of the reasons why, until quite recently, in much of Europe the governing boards of universities were entirely internal to the university, and did not include non-academics. So, close to 100% true here.
But it was a different story in North America. Here, universities were set up by local communities, and governing boards and Presidents were put in place before academics were hired. Unlike Europe, therefore, in North America professors have always been employees of universities. True, after WWII, they obtained a lot of the trappings of self-governing communities of scholars, but that’s not how they started out, and they remain to a considerable degree under the control of boards, which are either made up of state appointees or a self-perpetuating group of local worthies. So mostly true here, if not quite as much as in Europe.
Now, consider some different traditions. If you go back to the earliest precursors of higher education in Asia and the Middle East, the “community of scholars seeking the truth thing” is fairly hard to discern. The scholars at the Imperial Academies of China, for instance (which I wrote about back here), were concerned more about imparting the minutiae of Confucian ideology to future civil servants than they were about opening up these ideas to scrutiny. The great medieval Islamic universities like Al-Azhar are basically madrassas, and certainly by the late 10th century and the “closure of the door of ijtihad”, there wasn’t a whole lot of new thinking going on; the belief was that everything useful with respect to the Qu’ran and the Sunna had already been learned, and so it was simply a matter of preserving this wisdom for future generations. The great Indian “university” of Nalanda taught a broader set of courses (including very applied stuff like archery) and was more open to discussion, but it was still a community of priests rather than a community of scholars.
And those traditions continue today, to some extent. In many parts of the world, universities main functions were – and are – to provide career-oriented instruction and to perpetuate official ideologies. In Communist China, universities are very definitely under the control of the Party (if not the State), and the search for “the Truth” is necessarily somewhat circumscribed. Does that mean Chinese universities don’t deserve to be called universities? Similarly, were there no universities in Russia between 1918 and 1992? What about the many universities in the oil states of the Gulf? In none of these places would universities appear to meet the description that Western idealists claim is the bare minimum; does this mean there are no “real” universities there, either? I bet there are a lot of people in those countries who, while wishing for more academic freedom like their western colleagues, would nonetheless bristle at the claim that their universities – and hence their scholarship – is any less real than ours.
There are good historical reasons why western universities look the way they do, and we are not wrong to treasure them. But maybe, if we are going to use universalizing rhetoric about what universities are, we should have the decency to test the validity of our generalizations.