• Detached: Disinterested scholar
  • Ceremony
  • Association of scholars ( early period) – not place
  • Connection with city – later period
  • Faculties and subject specialisation
  • Teaching not research focus
  • Cosmopolitan
  • Passion for truth
  • The origin of the idea of the university

On the front cover of Pierre Bourdieu’s Homo Academicus, a seminal text about life in modern French Universities published in 1984, is a reproduction of a medieval miniature of the Bibliotheque National Paris. The print shows medieval scholars in full ceremonial dress gathered in a collegiate setting with opened books before them engaged in animated debate. The image conveys, in a very powerful way, the influence of the idea of the medieval university on the universities of today. This scene is reproduced in graduation and matriculation ceremonies in many British universities. This influence is further emphasised by the Latin title of the book, Homo Academicus, drawing further attention to the ancient traditions on which the modern university is based. As Scott puts it: ‘the most important product of the medieval university was clearly the idea of a university’ ( Scott 1984: 26).

The modern university emerged from the European cities of Oxford, Bologna and Paris in the 13th century, representing the ‘prehistory of higher education’ ( Scott 1984; Hyde in Bender, 1988; Delanty 2001 ). While the medieval university came to be closely associated with the cities within which they were situated, the first universities were not defined by reference to any geographical location, but were based on a particular set of intellectual activities, for example, editing, collating and the creation of bibliographies ( Scott 1984).

In fact the word ‘university’ did not describe the institutional form it has now become, but is derived from the latin ‘universitas’ which means a legal association or corporation or guild (Fuller 2001; Minogue 2006 11 – 12 ). The revolutionary feature of the universitas was that it granted legal recognition for citizens to engage in intellectual activities. The key issue about these groups was that they were able to study subjects that they themselves felt were inherently worth pursuing. Added to this ability to pursue their own intellectual interests was the fact that these groups were made up of people with a range of social identities and affiliations, creating networks of associations that lay beyond their restricted and more customary social circles that were based largely on tradition ( Fuller 2003 129).

These activities developed later into sites of learning which, on account of the fame of those engaged in these scholarly activities, could attract other scholars and students from the world of Christendom ( Bender 1988; Minogue 2006 11). It was this sense of transnational engagement that provided this new institution with a sense of what is now referred to as internationalism or cosmopolitianism ( Delanty 2001 27).

The explanation for the emergence of the medieval university is provided by the nature of feudal society and the peculiar way in which political power, spiritual authority and intellectual endeavour were divided. The rise of the medieval university was based on the idea that knowledge can be separate from power and, indeed, that ‘science is only possible when knowledge has been freed from the constraints of political expediency’ ( Scott, 1984 25). In this way knowledge becomes isolated from the rest of society, and remained the property of the those who have access to ‘the great manuscripts of antiquity’ ( Delanty 2001 27).

These first universities were not concerned with research but were essentially teaching institutions. Their role was to pass on the ‘authority of theology…and a wide range of political, economic and proto-scientific speculations [ to the] next cohort of intellectuals and administrators in a pedagogical style dominated by scholasticism and the analytical tools of the ancient world, which included Roman law and rhetoric’ (Scott 1984 23).

In so far as the relationship between teaching and research is concerned Barnett reminds us that the medieval university was arranged as a Socratic dialogue between students and teacher – that transcends the crude distinction within which we have become used to thinking about the activities of universities in terms of teaching and research ( Barnett 1990 27).

It was these activities that formed the basis for the organisation of universities into discrete areas of intellectual activity, i.e., faculties, each with their own customs and traditions, but housed within the same institution, and fixed in particular cities, many of which they are still located in today.

Long after the end of the medieval period this Idea of the University is clearly defined in Immanuael Kant’s Conflict of the Faculties written in 1789. In this book Kant provides his idea of the University, which he describes as the protector of critical reason ( Delanty 2001 22), and ‘the site in society where truth can be pursued within a disciplinary structure of knowledge’ ( Delanty 2001 32).

It is this sense of detachment and disengagement with the rest of the social world, pursued by a select group of adherents in a specific location that provides us with the powerful image of the medieval university as an ‘ivory tower’.

Minogue (2006) in The Concept of the University, argues that universities need to retain this sense of detached intellectual mission. Minogue constitutes an important strain of thinking within contemporary universities. This sense of real detachment is part of an important culture of disinterestedness, or ‘non-instrumental passion for the truth’ that provides universities with their sense of real mission and purpose and which ‘constituted the moral basis of their authority’ ( Minogue 2006 xi and xv; Filmer in Smith and Webster).

All of this is reflected in the architectural forms of the medieval university. As Temple (2007) reminds us:

‘Little is said in the literature on medieval universities about their design from an educational perspective, but it is surely conceivable that, in the minds of the creators of these buildings, there was a link between outward expressions of grandeur and the importance of the learning that was to go on within. It is certainly the case that the principal craftsmen employed on the construction of Oxford and Cambridge colleges in the Middle Ages were the equivalents of today’s famous architects, having often worked on major projects for the Crown…. The design of medieval college quadrangles, borrowed by Oxford and Cambridge from monastic and other religious buildings, and used at other universities such as St Andrew’s (founded in 1413) and later at Durham, sought to encourage interactions in a limited space and had a community-building function: they offered “the enclosure of community but also protection from change’ (Darley, 1991 – quoted in Temple 37)

Further reading

Bender, T. ( ed) (1988) The University and the City: From Medieval Origins to the Present, Oxford University Press, Oxford

Bourdieu, P. (1988) Homo Academicus, Polity Press and Basis Blackwell, Oxford and Cambridge

Delanty, G. ( 2001 ) Challenging Knowledge: The University in the Knowledge Society, The Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press, Buckingham and Philadelphia

Filmer, P. ( 1997) Disinterestedness and the Modern University in A. Smith and F. Webster (eds) The Postmodern University? Contested Visions of Higher Education in Society, The Society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press, Buckingham and Philadelphia

Fuller, S. (2002) Knowledge Management Foundations, Butterworth-Heinemann, Massachusets

Kant, I. ( 1979) The Conflict of the Faculties, Abaris Books, New York

Minogue, K. (2006) The Concept of a University, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, London