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As someone whose scholarly interest is in medieval philosophy and theology, I have always been intrigued by questions about why the University of Oxford and similar higher education institutions appeared in the 1200s and have endured for eight centuries. They must possess something of lasting value to survive through so many dramatic changes in society. What has contributed to their staying power?

If we can articulate that character, we will perhaps be in a better position to say what is valuable about colleges and universities today and how they might adapt at a time of great changes in society and technology. What does the 13th century have to teach us in the 21st century?

Several factors seem key to the longevity of those early institutions. First, of course, is that a sufficient collection of superior scholars and students were gathered in such places. The best scholars, in turn, attracted the most talented and ambitious students.

Second, such institutions created self-governing structures. In 1209 at Oxford, a crisis occurred when a student killed a woman, presumably his mistress, and fled. The mayor and townspeople searched for the killer, found two other students (who denied knowledge of the killing), seized them and hanged them. This tragic event resulted in a dispute about jurisdiction, which was eventually resolved through the intervention of a papal legate. It led to the creation of a corporate structure for the institution distinct from the city, church and crown.

Third, these 13th-century universities established practices of common inquiry at the highest level that served to advance knowledge and understanding, as well as to train the minds of students through participation in such inquiry. From Oxford’s earliest days, that common inquiry was conducted through the disputed question whereby the master would pose a question and more advanced students would formulate objections to problems arising from it. The master would then respond to the question with the appropriate distinctions and clarifications, drawing from authoritative works -- addressing the objections and resolving any problems.

The course of studies at Oxford and the other medieval universities was intended to prepare a student to become a full participant in such communal inquiry. He -- of course, the students were all men at this time -- would begin by sitting for several years in required lectures on key texts from the tradition. Having completed that sequence and having become a bachelor, he could take a role in disputed questions. The attainment of the degree of master required that he satisfactorily conduct a disputed question himself. Completing such a “determination,” as it was called, was a matter of great prestige, and it would admit the student to the faculty of the university.

Over time, of course, these practices of inquiry evolved and were adapted. For the empirical sciences, inquiry was not a matter of citing authoritative texts and the dialectical give-and-take of a disputed question. It was rather a process of observation and induction, the formation of hypotheses and the development of theories with explanatory power, and the testing of such hypotheses and theories through experiments. That was a different method, but it was a form of inquiry that also had a communal character.

The forms of inquiry and delineations of disciplines changed over time. Whatever they were, however, these three factors remained present: 1) a community of scholars and students, 2) structures of corporate governance, and 3) the establishment of communal practices of inquiry. We have universities when these three components are present.

Yet another critical factor led to the rise of universities in the 13th century: the need for highly trained men to serve church and king, in commerce and in estates. As medieval historian R. W. Southern writes, “The most effective stimulus to the growth of the schools (in the 13th century) came from the demand in government for a growing army of educated officials. King, bishops, monasteries and all great landowners needed the services not only of literate but also of scholastically highly trained men for the conduct of their affairs.” According to Southern, “no single cause had so much influence” on the development of studies in the schools as this one. The training students received at the university was seen to be of great value in preparing talented men for a range of high-level professional responsibilities. And it has remained so for centuries.

The training and advancement of students at the university borrowed from the framework that the various medieval trade guilds established. The professions of, for example, carpenter, stonemason, glazier or metal worker organized into fraternities called “guilds” that set standards for professional competence and trained young aspirants in the trade. The terms that the universities used and we retain even today in degree titles, such as “bachelor of arts” or “master of science,” were taken from levels of training and mastery in the trade guilds. The guilds, like the university, established times for aspirants to be trained at each stage and defined levels of competence that would allow the trainee to progress to the next level.

Within the medieval framework, universities could be thought of as a guild of scholars, set alongside the guilds of carpenters or stonemasons. From the very start, however, the university had one striking difference from the trade guilds. The trade guilds gave the successful aspirant the knowledge and skills to practice the guild’s trade and become one of its members. The university, in contrast, trained students in the disciplines of scholars, but most did not seek to join the ranks of scholars. The great majority went on to work in a wide range of professions that demanded a high degree of intellectual sophistication.

We can only conclude that the curriculum of the 13th-century university effectively trained its students to take on any one of a wide variety of professional positions. Otherwise, it would not have attracted students and not have survived. So it was in the 13th century, and so it has been in subsequent centuries up to today.

An Enduring Relevance

This characteristic of university education helps explain the power and enduring relevance of universities over centuries that have seen so much change. We can find the successors of the medieval trade guilds in trade associations of various kinds. Yet those associations have survived or not depending on the fate of the particular occupations which they practiced and for which they trained. Universities, however, provided a training not tied so much to particular occupations and trades, but one that prepared students for a range of occupations requiring a high level of intellectual acumen. Thus, they survived dramatic changes in technology and the economy that destroyed some professions and created others.

We often hear that education at universities is not particularly relevant to this or that profession, or that what someone needs to know for a particular profession could be delivered more efficiently. To some extent, this kind of objection argues for training for a particular occupation similar to that of the medieval trade guilds, perhaps at a higher level of sophistication.

Yet the bet that universities and their students have made for centuries is that training in the practices of inquiry by faculty at a high level in their discipline will give a student the knowledge and intellectual skills to flourish in a wide range of professional careers. Such training remains valuable even as the demand for a particular trade waxes and wanes. It is an investment that has proven to be sound over many years, and I would wager that it will prove to be so for years hence.

It is becoming more or less commonplace to hear that universities like Oxford and the University of Notre Dame are soon to be disrupted by digital technology that, in its various manifestations, will create more efficient, less expensive and more creative institutions of learning. When I was working on my D.Phil. at Oxford, I would sometimes get a break by taking the train to London, visiting a few bookstores, shopping at the huge Tower Records store on Piccadilly Circus for some CDs -- then the really novel technology -- and perhaps watching a film at a movie theater. I now confess that I have not been in a bookstore in a long time, as I buy books from Amazon; Tower Records went bankrupt in 2006, and young people today would only vaguely know what a music CD is; and I have not darkened the door of a movie theater in years, as I watch films through Apple TV or Netflix. Will Oxford and Notre Dame be the Tower Records of the future?

It would be a mistake for those of us in traditional universities to smugly dismiss that suggestion. Digital technology has changed and will continue to change the ways in which we do our work at universities. Online courses and flipped classrooms are becoming more common. In lectures, digital technology allows professors to call up a video clip in the classroom or enhance pedagogy in other ways.

Could the disruption be even more radical? Could online communities -- in which instruction is exclusively delivered digitally, tests are taken and papers submitted online, assessment made at a distance -- ultimately replace universities? It was the concentration of scholars and students in a particular place, the city of Oxford, that gave rise to Oxford University. Why do we need the expense of physical proximity of a university community when we can do it all less expensively and on perhaps a larger scale online?

I count myself a skeptic about such prophecies of radical disruption. Certainly, creative use of digital technology can enhance the pedagogy we deliver. It can be used to make certain kinds of instruction more efficient and less expensive. For those forms of instruction that are simply the dispensing of information in a given area in a clear and accessible way, and the assessment of how the information has been learned and assimilated, online learning may be satisfactory.

Yet a central feature in the emergence and endurance of Oxford as a great university was the establishing of communal practices of inquiry. With those practices, the community of scholars and students addressed questions at the highest level and expanded and deepened knowledge and understanding.

At the same time, moreover, the students’ observation of and participation in such practices gave them a high level of intellectual training that would serve them in many occupations. It is hard for me to imagine how this inquiry and training could be replicated in an online environment. Such inquiry, at its most consequential, does not proceed by the development of observations and reasoning that moves in a straight line. Objections give rise to conundrums, which, through conversations and reflection, generate insights, and those insights in turn generate a new, illuminating perspective on the question that had not been anticipated.

Moreover, students learn not just by acquiring and mastering information. The most valuable learning is often of a tacit sort, when a student observes how a seasoned scholar addresses a problem, wrestles with an objection, formulates a creative solution. So much of learning is simply being in proximity to those who do the activity at a very high level, observing astutely and incorporating those observations into one’s practice.

Robert Boyle, the father of modern chemistry, for example, came to Oxford neither as a teacher nor a student but simply to conduct his inquiries in the community of scholars gathered here. John Locke, while a student at Oxford, was unimpressed by the philosophy he was taught in his classes, but his philosophy was greatly influenced by his conversations with the experimental scientists there, such as Boyle. Oxford’s impact has come not so much through information disseminated in lectures but as a host for conversations that are part of communal practices of inquiry.

One may object: “Your arguments are based on the limitations of current digital technology. But future generations of digital technology will make possible the sort of observation, relationships, spontaneous conversations and tacit learning that you claim can only happen in communities with physical proximity. Moreover, people will become more and more accustomed to interacting digitally, and new kinds of communities will be created.”

I must admit this objection has plausibility to me when I walk across a quad at my university and dodge young people thoroughly engrossed in the screens of their smartphones, oblivious to the actual scenery and embodied people around them. Perhaps they, or their children or grandchildren, will find it as natural and illuminating to be part of a virtual community of the digital world rather than with other people in physical proximity. But I still have my doubts.

At our recent graduate school commencement exercises, Louise Richardson, vice chancellor of Oxford, delivered an address. She articulated well some of the common criticisms of higher education, including that institutions like Oxford and Notre Dame are overpriced, irrelevant to today’s needs and unfairly privilege a few. She rightly called on all of us to engage the communities around us and strive to “persuade the public of the value of what we do … to our society, and our economy,” and ensure that access to the education we offer is “fair and seen to be fair.”

She also described the kind of education offered by universities well: “Our teaching has been designed to produce intellectual self-reliance, to teach people how to learn, how to take charge of their thoughts and how to direct them in an independent, analytical and creative manner.”

For centuries, universities have offered this kind of education by preparing students for and inviting them to participate in the communal practices of inquiry that are at their heart. When successful, their graduates can become, in their own inquiries in various fields, capable of learning, analyzing, developing their own perspectives and of finding creative resolutions to questions and challenges.

Many criticisms of higher education today arise from a general anxiety brought about by globalization, technological innovation, and the social and economic shifts these developments have wrought. The critical attention that our institutions now receive arises not from a decline in the value of the education they offer, but, on the contrary, from an increase in such value, and from concerns about how it will be delivered in the future and who will have access to it. This increase has led to concerns about access to this kind of education and the influence of these institutions. We must, of course, consider those criticisms, respond to them and make changes that are warranted. Yet, at the same time, we must ensure that our institutions preserve the characteristics that gave them such enduring value.

It is perhaps natural that, at a time of social, economic and technological change, long-established institutions should be questioned. But we should not allow questions and criticisms arising from anxieties about change, nor the dazzle of the new, lead us to slacken our efforts to preserve and enhance the particular power and value of what universities offer. G. K. Chesterton once said, “To spend one’s last earthly money on the newest hat is to condemn oneself to the old-fashioned.” The particular character of Oxford or any great university is that the riches it offers us transcend any time, trend or particular professional career. Let us be wary of trading something so precious for the passing attraction of the newest hat.

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