The Die-Hard University

Despite its critics now and over the ages, the university has somehow endured into its ninth century, writes James Axtell.

June 20, 2016

According to many critics and commentators, the university is in deep trouble. It is, they say, poorly run (largely by myopic faculty), resistant to change (certain kinds), curricularly ossified (or faddish) and pedagogically antiquated. Moreover, it costs too much, too many students fail to graduate or graduate in onerous debt, intercollegiate athletics are out of control, and faculties put their research ahead of teaching. In short, its priorities are skewed, its methods ineffective and its results disappointing.

And yet the university somehow endures into its ninth century, spreading rapidly around the world as well as throughout the West where it began. At last count, there were nearly 24,000 nominal universities (as opposed to colleges) worldwide -- and counting, as several countries twist their higher educational systems in order to rise in the global rankings of research universities. For unlike undergraduate colleges, complex universities seldom die -- or shrink.

Clark Kerr, former chancellor of the University of California System, once noted that, by 1520, some 85 Western institutions “still exist[ed] in recognizable forms, with similar functions and with unbroken histories.” Seventy of those enduring entities were universities, usually in the same locations with “governance carried on in much the same ways,” “professors and students doing much the same things … subject to little major technological change,” and animated by “the eternal themes of teaching, scholarship and service, in one combination or another.” The university was second for endurance only to the Roman Catholic Church, the parliaments of the Isle of Man, Iceland and Great Britain, and a few Swiss cantons.

There were earlier institutions of secular higher learning -- Plato’s Academy (c. 387 BC-529 AD) and Aristotle’s Lyceum (c. 335 BC-86 BC) -- but they, after good runs, failed to endure or to educate many. And exclusively religious schools for small numbers, often under learned bishops, sprouted in Spain and Gaul in the sixth and seventh centuries. The oldest Christian monastery in the West -- St. Athanasius -- was founded in Bulgaria c. 344 AD and is still active.

But the most durable centers of higher education have been universities, many founded in the 12th and 13th centuries and still flourishing. The University of Bologna, the first universitas operationally, dates itself to 1088 with some reason. The Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Paris were functioning as studia generalia for students mostly from Northern Europe no later -- possibly earlier -- than the 12th century. The University of Salamanca boasts a start date of 1134 and a royal charter from 1218. Europe had at least 14 universities before the 14th century, all of which are still centers of teaching and learning.

By contrast, the first life-insurance company was founded in Genoa in 1347, the first bank in 1472 in Siena. The longest traded stock on the New York Stock Exchange was New York Gas Light, added in 1824. IBM was only a 100 years old in 2015. Of the Fortune 500 companies in 1970, a third had disappeared by 1983. As today, automobile makers and oil and gas producers dominated the top 10.

Kerr’s 1982 statement that the essential activities of universities were subject to little technological change preceded the transformative digital revolution and curiously overlooked the much earlier revolution in teaching and learning caused by the invention of movable-type mechanical printing. Beginning in the mid-15th century, printed books gradually supplanted handwritten books and reduced the necessity for professorial lectures that largely dictated authoritative texts to passive (if not always quiet) students. Even the oral protagonists in formal disputations could now prepare more readily and thoroughly by reading printed books in their own increasingly affordable or institutional libraries.

Today, of course, university classrooms, offices, libraries and laboratories are home to several major technological inventions: the World Wide Web, computers, Wi-Fi, cell phones, myriad scientific instruments, electronic calculators, MOOCs, CDs, the cloud, Google, ebooks, PowerPoint, JSTOR, Artstor, flipped classes (preclass use of computers for information, classes for discussion, synthesis and, at their best, inspiration), Wikipedia plagiarism detectors (such as Turnitin), and even the humble whiteboard.

The key to understanding the major differences between the earliest universities and current ones lies less in technologies than in Kerr’s acknowledgment that the perdurable university themes of “teaching, scholarship and service” have been manifested throughout the centuries “in one combination or another.” Service is not the least changed. Medieval universities were largely schools to produce practitioners of the learned professions (medicine, law and divinity) and bureaucrats to run the church and the state. Today, employees for churches are greatly outnumbered by graduates headed for a much broader array of professions, including business, finance, health care and recreation.

Because universities come in various iterations, their combinations of themes and goals also differ and often shift over time. State teachers colleges have morphed into regional colleges and universities, and regional universities into minor or major research universities with full complements of professional and graduate schools and elevated expectations for faculty research or scholarly productivity. “Good teaching” is nearly always required (by deans, at least), but often “noteworthy” or prolific research can make up for pedagogical mediocrity (seldom for gross deficiency). Unlike their modern counterparts, medieval faculties were not expected or obliged to pursue research to add new knowledge to the known corpus of accepted learning. Experimental science was largely unknown in academe until the endowment of chairs in natural philosophy in the 18th century. At best, curious, inventive and ambitious faculty members in the Middle Ages wrote new books and tracts to resolve problems in old ones, to better explain the texts’ lessons for new generations and to apply those lessons to pressing contemporary issues.

Although the modes of teaching have not changed significantly -- lectures, whether traditional or in MOOC form, are still common ways to impart knowledge from a professor (a “sage on the stage”) to large numbers of students -- small-group seminars (12 to 15 people, at most) and one-on-one tutorials are often more effective (if more expensive) ways to teach, test and learn. Online instruction is a promising development in the education of new digitally adroit generations -- individual students can control the pace, and the institution can progressively monitor their learning comprehension. Similarly, the ability of student (and professorial) researchers to access online whole libraries, archives and databases has facilitated the preparation of papers, theses, dissertations, articles and books without simplifying the necessary organization, analysis and interpretation of the information found.

Universities have flourished for more than eight centuries because they were sufficiently adaptable and responsive (sometimes tardily) to changing circumstances and social needs. Who taught, what they taught and to whom evolved faster than the time-tested ways they taught. Curricula changed with the growth of specialized knowledge and when faculty members, students, parents and 20th-century employers decided they should. All-male faculties and student bodies made room for women, veterans, minorities, foreigners, older adults and those with handicaps. Professors came not only through the venerable (if sluggish) academic pipeline but from outside, with real-world experience and expertise.

And not least, the establishment of universities renowned for smart students and meritorious faculty members, advanced scholarship and groundbreaking research, and efforts to help solve urgent social problems (local, national and global) were sooner or later on every developing and established nation’s desiderata. As engines of economic growth, social mobility, theoretical knowledge and technological know-how, universities are indispensable to the modern world. Despite all the doomsday predictions, they are not likely to vanish any century soon.


James Axtell, Kenan Professor of Humanities Emeritus at the College of William & Mary, is the author of Wisdom’s Workshop: The Rise of the Modern University (Princeton University Press, 2016).


Back to Top