The first European universities

The first European university is often considered to be the University of Bologna, founded in 1088, although some dispute this statement based on the intangibility of the definition of “university.” In addition, the concept of the University of Bologna as the “mother of European Universities” was created as a symbol for Italy’s national unity, which detracts from the legitimacy of its being considered the first If the term "university" requires that a single corporate body be made up of students and professors of different disciplines, rather than that a corporate body simply exists, the University of Paris, founded in 1208, can be considered the first university; however, the University at Magnaura Palace was founded much earlier, in the 9th century. The University of Magnaura can be defined as a university because it brought prominent scholars together to create a “focal point of medieval Greek science and culture”.
Representation of a university class, (1350s).
Representation of a university class, (1350s).

Traditional medieval universities are thought to have arisen from schools in churches, which began to require more structure as a result of their increasing popularity. This need, along with the advancing complexity of society, which required specialized training for administrators, lawyers, doctors, notaries, and ecclesiastics, and the rediscovery of ancient knowledge, such as new translations of Aristotle and Roman law, led to the development of student guilds, or universitates, and eventually the definitive university. Early universities, according to Professor of sociology and general editor of A History of the University in Europe Walter Rüegg, were meant to allow people to develop “knowledge for the sake of knowledge;” however, around the 16th century, knowledge was seen to be valuable as a part of the civil community. Universities at this time aimed to train clergymen, lawyers, government officials, and doctors. At the same time, according to Rüegg, people studied in order to further scientific investigation and attend to the demands of society. Science during the 16th century was an essential part of university curriculum, incorporating “openness to novelty” and the search for the means to control nature into the course of study.

The structure and spread of early European universities

The European University proliferated in part because groups decided to secede from the original universities to promote their own ideals; the University of Paris fostered many universities in Northern Europe, while the University of Bologna fostered many in the South. Some leaders also created universities in order to use them to increase their political power and popularity. For example, Frederick II, Holy Roman Emperor founded the University of Naples in 1224 to train lawyers and administrators who could rival the University of Bologna's influence, which served the hostile Lombard League.

The structure of these early classes involved a master reading from texts and commenting on the readings, as well as students learning by teaching other students. Masters also offered disputed questions to their classes for discussion. Moving into the 18th century, professors became less focused on simply training university teachers and more focused on “forming the minds of the elite” of a larger society.

Philosophical and external influences on universities

While humanistic ideas of the 14th-16th century Renaissance were slow to catch on, they eventually spread from France, to Germany, to England during the 16th century Reformation. Under the influence of the increasingly popular humanist mode of thought, university education began to include the preparation of students for lives of civility, civilization, and culture, along with a response to social concerns. Important to the medieval university curriculum were the trivium and quadrivium, two classifications of the liberal arts intended to prepare students for further learning, usually in the areas of theology, law, or medicine. Trivium included the three verbal disciplines: grammar, rhetoric, and logic, while Quadrivium included the four mathematical disciplines: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. The discovery of the New World in 1492 prompted additions to the European University curriculum, as subjects such as human rights and international law became relevant to current times (Rüegg v.2, 22). Newly conquered Spanish territories raised questions about aboriginals’ rights, and discussion stemmed from the Bible, medieval natural law theories, and humanistic ideas of toleration. Rüegg links the idea of the ‘New’ World to the idea of ‘new’ knowledge as opposed to the old works of the ancients. In the mid-16th century, scholarly and scientific journals became a popular way to “spread innovations among the learned,” and by the 18th century, universities were publishing their own research journals. Enlightenment in the 18th century also encouraged the transition from the “preservation and transmission of accepted knowledge” to the “discovery and advancement of new knowledge,” although newer universities more quickly adapted ideas of Enlightenment and Absolutism than older ones.

European university models in the 19th and 20th centuries
Wilhelm von Humboldt
Wilhelm von Humboldt

Moving into the 19th century, the objective of universities evolved from teaching the “regurgitation of knowledge” to “encourag[ing] productive thinking.” Two main university models, the German and the French, arose and gave rise to other models such as the British and Russian. The German model, conceived by Wilhelm von Humboldt, was also known as the Humboldtian model. In 1810, Humboldt convinced the King of Prussia to build a university in Berlin based on Friedrich Schleiermacher’s liberal ideas; the goal was to demonstrate the process of the discovery of knowledge and to teach students to “take account of fundamental laws of science in all their thinking, ” thus, seminars and laboratories started to evolve.
Old College at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth.Established in 1872 it is one of the oldest and most prestigious Intitutes of Higher Education In Wales
Old College at the University of Wales, Aberystwyth.Established in 1872 it is one of the oldest and most prestigious Intitutes of Higher Education In Wales

[20] Freedom was an important concept in the German university model, and the system of professors was based on competition and freedom: although professors served as state functionaries, they had the freedom to choose between several states, and their identity and prestige arose from the specialization of scientific disciplines.

The French University model lacked the freedom of the German model, consisting of severe discipline and control over the curriculum, awarding of degrees, conformity of views, and personal habits (for example, there was a ban on beards in 1852). French university professors trained at the École Normale Supérieure, and much of their prestige depended on their schools’ reputations. By 1866, though, the German model had begun to influence the strict French model.

The German university model was also used in Russian universities, which hired lecturers trained in Germany and which dedicated themselves to science. At the same time, Russian universities were meant to train the bureaucracy in the same way as the French grandes écoles. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Russian universities underwent much variation in their degrees of strictness and control.
Arms of the University of Oxford.
Arms of the University of Oxford.

British universities also modeled themselves after the German university. They enjoyed a great deal of freedom because the state granted them an autonomy that allowed them initiative and flexibility. The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge emphasized the importance of research, arguably more authentically implementing Humboldt’s idea of a university than even German universities, which were subject to state authority.
Cambridge University coat of arms.
Cambridge University coat of arms.

Overall, science became the focus of universities in the 19th and 20th centuries. Students could conduct research in seminars or laboratories and began to produce doctoral theses with more scientific content. According to Humboldt, the mission of the University of Berlin was to pursue scientific knowledge. The German university system fostered professional, bureaucratically regulated scientific research performed in well-equipped laboratories, instead of the kind of research done by private and individual scholars in Great Britain and France. In fact, Rüegg asserts that the German system is responsible for the development of the modern research university because it focused on the idea of “freedom of scientific research, teaching and study.”

Professors and Students

University professors, according to Schleiermacher in 1956, had to “reproduce [their] own realization[s]” so that students could observe the “act of creation” of knowledge. He asserted that professors served as models of how to “intelligently produce knowledge.”Appointment to professorship was awarded to distinguished scholars who were only relieved of their positions if guilty of serious crimes. From Kansas State University president emeritus James McCain’s point of view, professors in 20th century Europe were more prestigious and well respected than those in the United States. They had a great deal of freedom while keeping to formal relationships with their students. In addition, professors shifted from being mainly lecturers, and research became "an integral part of the professor's task.
The London University as drawn by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd and published in 1827/28. This building is now part of University College London, which today is one of the many constituent colleges and institutes of the University of London.
The London University as drawn by Thomas Hosmer Shepherd and published in 1827/28. This building is now part of University College London, which today is one of the many constituent colleges and institutes of the University of London.

The accessibility of higher education slowly began to expand to the masses after 1914. A remaining obstacle to students was the high cost of a university education. Great Britain continued to offer only a costly education to aristocrats for most of the 19th century, and it was not until the early 20th century that new universities such as London University opened higher education to the masses. Universities first accepted women after the middle of the 19th century; however, women faced considerate difficulties. Lacking basic civil rights and facing strong prejudices against their capacity and right to be a part of the higher education system, women only slowly became a part of the university system. The influx of non-elite, non-aristocratic students into European universities presented challenges to the German model, because suddenly there existed a variety of students from different backgrounds and with different expectations, resulting in a less concretely Humboldtian university.

European university students in the 19th and 20th centuries were largely responsible for their own educations (McCain, 206). Professors did not take attendance, the only exams occurred at the end of courses, and students chose their own courses of study. Rüegg suggests that students’ propensity to develop student movements based on current political situations echoed their attitude of freedom and responsibility.

With new educational and political philosophies came changes in the role of religion in European universities. During the 18th century, most universities had a strong connection to the church, and both the appointment of teachers and the admission of students took into account the religious orientations of students. In the 19th century, religion ceased to be part of the “compulsory curriculum.” New universities like the University of London were non-denominational, and chapel attendance decreased at Oxford and Cambridge In France, specifically, Napoleon’s secular Université de France troubled Catholics. TheLoi Falloux of 1850 attempted to give some power back to the church, but the Université de France essentially controlled higher education. At the same time, in Great Britain, the Oxford Act of 1854 passed, getting rid of religious requirements at Oxford and Cambridge, and from that time on, the role of religion in universities declined.

The legacy of European universities

European research universities ultimately developed lasting traditions of university education that spread around the world. By the end of the 19th century, the German university model had spread throughout Europe, to the United States, and to Japan.In America, the Spanish, and then the English and French, founded universities in lands that they conquered in the early 16th century.  These universities aimed to fulfill the needs of colonists, spread religion, provide professional training to colonists, and help overseas rulers with effective administration. By the 19th century, the British had established institutes of higher learning in Canada, Australia, and the Cape Colony, all of which were modeled after European universities. Japan, the Near East, and Africa all had universities based on European models in the 19th century. These universities disseminated Western European science and technology and trained natives to develop resources.. Entering into the 20th century, higher education became available to the masses of the world as a result of urbanization and industrialization.Some of these universities promoted the aims of rulers, while others had a revolutionary impact on the power structure of the countries in which they were located. Generally speaking, the most basic structure and aims of research universities have remained constant over the years; according to author Clark Kerr, universities “are among the least changed of institutions.

 


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