Why the Medieval Idea of a Community-Oriented University is Still Modern
Educational Change (Spring 1995)
Introduction: This essay examines the medieval concept of the university, explores applications and lessons for contemporary institutions, and attempts to show how the maxim “publish or perish” is both a legitimate goal and a dangerous limitation of an enlightenment-oriented university. The modern university runs the risk of falling into “confusion and a cultural chaos which invites new dogmatic creeds of a lower level to bring discipline into life and education.” The university is in a conceptual and financial crisis. This crisis can be overcome by a return to some of its origins. In particular modern institutions of higher education — if they are to survive — must rediscover some very old principles regarding the “public” role of the university. It would be vain to attempt to surpass such historical studies as Hasting Rashdall’s The Universities of Europe and the Middle Ages. However, to hold on to the values of the original university might allow to cope with the current crisis.
crisis of the university is one of the perennial problems of this century. Views which assert that history has come to an end and that the West is in decline have fueled this crisis. Such “post-post-isms” make a common assertion — all claims have lost their value. The search for originality seems to have stopped; decadence seems to be cherished; history of philosophy has replaced active philosophy; the search for truth has been widely succeeded by the search for funding and money, and the distance between scientific research and life seems to be growing. The more specialized research becomes, the less its results become accessible to the public. Cultural pessimism has become one of the few common attitudes of Western society and its universities. Not even the agreement that we disagree seems possible. The crisis is not in the university, but in Western society itself. The foundation of the university, which tries in vain to identify the core of its teachings, and the foundation of society, which equally lacks orientation or commonly accepted values, seem to both slip away. The expression of the crisis of the university as an institution no longer takes the form of a student revolt as in the sixties of this century — or the twenties of the thirteenth century. Those who set fire on the tires in 1968 (in Germany or France) very shortly after set fire to their ideas. Assimilation transformed some of the European university revolt leaders into party leaders, show stars, or even conservative professors. In the U.S., Mario Savio e.g. turned into a mail clerk. Yesterdays revolutionary idealism seems to have achieved little for the challenges of tomorrow. Today’s financial crisis, linked with a deep crisis of confidence and credibility, urges all universities to reflect on their role in and for communities which are increasingly unable or unwilling to pay for their development or maintenance.