What is a university? What it has been, what it is now, and what it can be.
Also, last chance to vote on CR's course offering this Sept, and a special invitation to my conversation with Niall Ferguson and Victor Davis Hanson.
Thank you for being part of the Civic Renaissance community! This week, we’ll explore:
What is a Univeristy? What it has been, what it is now, and what it can once again be.
I’d love to hear from you! Last chance to vote on CR's course offering this Sept
Join my conversation with Niall Ferguson and Victor Davis Hanson on Aug 24th!
What is a Univeristy? What it has been, what it is now, what it can once again be.
I recently visited Italy’s University of Bologna. Founded in 1088, it is often considered the first university in Europe—followed by the Univeristy of Oxford in England (founded in 1096) and the University of Paris, known as the Sorbonne (founded in 1160).
The story of the University of Bologna—arguably the world’s first university—has a lot to offer us.
It offers us a much needed reminder today about what a university truly is.
It can help us think more clearly about the challenges to higher education in our own moment.
By recovering the original meaning of the univeristy, we can think creatively about how to revive and restore the university in its ideal form today: as a community of learners who care about the collective pursuit of truth—without need for bureaucracy, classrooms, or even buildings!
It’s no secret that today’s universities face many challenges.
Over the past few decades, there has been a massive cultural push for all high school graduates to get a college degree. This has caused “degree inflation”—seemingly everyone has a college education now!—which has meant that many students graduate college with plenty of debt but few job prospects. (As of 2020, the average borrower owed about about $37,500, and the national student debt is over a trillion dollars—there’s good reason we hear so much about “the student debt crisis”!)
This trend has resulted in a counter movement, one we’re currently living through, against college degrees. “Not everyone needs to go to college!” the rallying cry goes. Billionaires such as Peter Thiel now pay students to drop out of college to pursue entrepreneurial endeavors instead. At the same time, there is a major push at the federal, state, and local levels towards technical and vocational training instead of the traditional four year degree.
Some—such as Todd Zywicki, a law professor at George Mason University and the author of The Changing of the Guard: The Political Economy of Administrative Bloat in American Higher Education—persuasively argue that the rising expense of college education is caused by the astronomical increase in administrative costs. In short: bureaucracies and administrative costs have been growing over the last several decades without any apparent benefit to students (or faculty!), who bear the brunt of the rising cost.
Even as we see growing concern about student debt, a push toward more “practical” education, and a bloating college bureaucracy, others are expressing concern with the demise of the humanities and the liberal arts on campuses across the country. “The humanities need more funding, and more space in the core curriculum!” these arguments often go. Allen Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind, subtitled How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students, made this argument four decades ago. And many thoughtful people since have made similar arguments. Critics, however, respond that “The liberal arts and the great books are a thing for the privileged in society—who can afford to not care about getting a job after four years!”Defenders of the liberal counter that “Our society, our freedom, and our democracy depend on familiarity with the great books and the ideas of the great conversation.” And on the argument goes.
Yes, college today is facing many challenges.
But what can be done about these important and controversial issues?
As regular readers of Civic Renaissance know by this point, I believe looking to the past might be able to help us.
The university is a community of learners that help us become whole
The word “university” stems from the Latin word universitas, meaning whole, and in Late Latin, society.
The etymology of the word university gets to an important insight into what the ideal of the university is, and can once again be today. We are not born with all the the knowledge we need in life; in other words, we are born incomplete. A university education—an education in general—invites us to become part of a community of learners that pursue truth together, and in so doing, help foster the process of each of us becoming whole.
This idea—of a community of learners pursuing truth and asking big questions together—is the essence of a univeristy. And crucially, one does not need an institution, a classroom, or even a building to do this.
Lessons from the first university
We see this vision of the univeristy in the story of the Univeristy of Bologna.
Interestingly, this school—the original university—was formed by students, not by teachers or administrators.
For many years before the University of Bologna was formally established, students and professors met in homes and churches to learn together. The video above, for example, was shot in front of Chiesa di San Procolo in Bologna, a church where teachers and scholars met before there were university buildings or classrooms.
Students paid teachers directly for their lessons, and some of the most popular teachers even had students follow them across Europe as they learned and talked and studied together.
As we have seen in reflecting on other historical episodes, this story of the first university offers us both comfort and caution.
It offers us comfort because, in reminding us what the original university was, it reminds us what it can once again be. A university needs no fancy and expensive buildings or impressively-titled administrators. It simply needs a community of people eager to learn, ask big questions, and pursue truth—together.
We should remember that this can be done—and in fact was frequently done through the past—outside of institutions and classrooms.
In fact, in our educational system today it is far too common that students graduate from two or four year college degrees without having been oriented toward truth and without having had the opportunity to ask, and answer for themselves, the highest questions in life.
Questions of origin: Who are we? What does it mean to be human?
Questions of purpose: Why are we here?
Questions of action: What is the best way to live?
To the extent that students have not had the chance to ask and discover answers for, these questions, can they say they are truly educated?
But not educated.
To the extent that a university does not prioritize the collective pursuit of truth, and does not offer the opportunity for students to engage with these questions and the highest ideas, can it be said to be a university?
A degree-generating body, maybe.
But not a university.
Yet this story is also a caution to us. Brilliant minds, including Dante, Petrarch, and Boccaccio, all attended the University of Bologna.
Such students undoubtedly benefited from the university, but even they, centuries ago, recognized its weaknesses. Petrarch especially was critical of the way in which the university of his day had lost sight of what a true education was. He was discouraged by how bloated and bureaucratic it had become.
Indeed, recovering true education was part of his vision for emerging from the “Dark Ages” (as he called them), and moving into an era of renewal and re birth.
That Petrarch had the same concerns about the universities 700 years ago—that the University of Bologna had lost sight of its own mission just a century or so after it was founded— shows why it is important that we today be vigilant in maintaining an idea of what the university truly is.
Some questions for you to consider:
How does the original university experience—one that was student-led, that prioritized the relationships between students and professors, and that focused on giving students the opportunity to engage with the highest things—compare to your own experience in university, if you had one?
How important do you think this original experience, purpose, and vision of a university education is today?
Do you think a wider appreciation of this original vision of a university might inform changes to our institutions of higher education today? What might be different? What might stay the same?
I’d love to hear from you. Please write to me with your thoughts at firstname.lastname@example.org
Let’s learn together: Last day to vote!
I’ve been eager to hear from you over the last month about what we should learn together this September. I’m working really hard to create a template and curriculum for teaching an online course this fall.
I’d love the chance to get to know each of you better, and to, in a way, embody the ideal vision of a university: as a community of lifelong learners asking big questions and pursuing truth together.
I hope you’ll consider learning with us this September! I want to ensure that we are exploring content you’re interested in, so please vote on the course ideas below and let me know what you’d find most beneficial!
Here are the course ideas:
Five classic books that will change your life. This course would explore five books across intellectual history that have changed my life, and that I think offer a lot of promise to change yours, too.
The timeless principles of human flourishing. In this course, we’ll explore five historic books on civility you’ve never heard of but are essential to know. This would be a lot of fun, since this is the topic of my forthcoming book on civility from St. Martin’s Press.
Seven epic poems you absolutely must to know. What is epic poetry? Every culture has it. But why? and Why does it matter? Which poems have shaped cultures and people for hundreds of years? Why have they stood the test of time and what can they teach us today?
Send me a note at email@example.com with your thoughts on whether and why these ideas appeal to you—and also feel free to send me other ideas!
Join my conversation with Niall Ferguson and Victor Davis Hanson on Aug 24th!
I’m thrilled to be moderating a discussion between two prominent public intellectuals, Niall Ferguson and Victor Davis Hanson, as part of Classical Wisdom’s Symposium this month.
Learn more about the Symposium and how to join us here!
Below are the other speakers and moderators.
Hope to see you there. Thank you for being part of the Civic Renaissance Community!