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"How many angels can stand on the point of a pin?" [...]

"The primary danger of this system of education--very properly qualified as Latin--consists in the fact that it is based on the fundamental psychological error that the intelligence is developed by the learning by heart of text-books. Adopting this view, the endeavour has been made to enforce a knowledge of as many hand-books as possible. From the primary school till he leaves the university a young man does nothing but acquire books by heart without his judgment or personal initiative being ever called into play. Education consists for him in reciting by heart and obeying."--The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (1895) by Gustave Le Bon

Libri quosdam ad scientiam, quosdam ad insaniam deduxere ― Francesco Petrarca, epigraph

"There is no idea so stupid that you can’t find a professor who will believe it."--H. L. Mencken, epigraph to Is links gewoon slimmer? (2023) by Andreas De Block

"Much of what needs saying today is already implicit in William Morris' well-known dissent from the establishment of a chair of English Literature at Oxford. It dates to the eighteen-eighties when Morris spoke, and to the late eighteen-sixties when Farrar edited the Essays on a Liberal Education and Matthew Arnold produced his Culture and Anarchy. We must look there for the assumptions on which faculties of English Literature were founded. " --"To Civilize Our Gentlemen" (1965) by George Steiner

Mundus Intellectualis illustration from Utriusque cosmi maioris scilicet et minoris metaphysica, page 217 by Robert Fludd, depicting a diagram of the human mind
Mundus Intellectualis illustration from Utriusque cosmi maioris scilicet et minoris metaphysica, page 217 by Robert Fludd, depicting a diagram of the human mind

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A university (Latin: "universitas", "a whole") is an institution of higher education and research which grants academic degrees in a variety of subjects. The word "university" is derived from the Latin universitas magistrorum et scholarium, which roughly means "community of teachers and scholars."


Medieval universities

Although there are antecedents, the modern university is generally regarded as a formal institution that has its origin in the Medieval Christian tradition. European higher education took place for hundreds of years in cathedral schools or monastic schools (scholae monasticae), in which monks and nuns taught classes; evidence of these immediate forerunners of the later university at many places dates back to the 6th century. In Europe, young men proceeded to university when they had completed their study of the trivium – the preparatory arts of grammar, rhetoric and dialectic or logic–and the quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy.

The earliest universities were developed under the aegis of the Latin Church by papal bull as studia generalia and perhaps from cathedral schools. It is possible, however, that the development of cathedral schools into universities was quite rare, with the University of Paris being an exception. Later they were also founded by kings - but with prior papal approval. In the early medieval period, most new universities were founded from pre-existing schools, usually when these schools were deemed to have become primarily sites of higher education. Many historians state that universities and cathedral schools were a continuation of the interest in learning promoted by The residence of a religious community. Pope Gregory VII was critical in promoting and regulating the concept of modern university as his 1079 Papal Decree ordered the regulated establishment of cathedral schools that transformed themselves into the first European universities.

The first universities in Europe with a form of corporate/guild structure were the University of Bologna (1088), the University of Paris (c. 1150, later associated with the Sorbonne), and the University of Oxford (1167). The University of Bologna began as a law school teaching the ius gentium or Roman law of peoples which was in demand across Europe for those defending the right of incipient nations against empire and church. The University of Bologna, or Alma Mater Studiorum, is widely recognized as the oldest university that is independent of any direct authority, such as kings, emperors, or religious organizations. Bologna's claim to being the oldest university is based on its unique characteristics, such as its autonomy and its ability to grant degrees.

The conventional date of 1088, or 1087 according to some, records when Irnerius commenced teaching Emperor Justinian's 6th-century codification of Roman law, the Corpus Iuris Civilis, recently discovered at Pisa. Lay students arrived in the city from many lands entering into a contract to gain this knowledge, organising themselves into 'Nationes', divided between that of the Cismontanes and that of the Ultramontanes.

All over Europe, rulers and city governments began to create universities to satisfy a European thirst for knowledge, and the belief that society would benefit from the scholarly expertise generated from these institutions. Princes and leaders of city governments perceived the potential benefits of having a scholarly expertise develop with the ability to address difficult problems and achieve desired ends. The emergence of humanism was essential to this understanding of the possible utility of universities as well as the revival of interest in knowledge gained from ancient Greek texts.

The recovery of Aristotle's works – more than 3000 pages of it would eventually be translated – fuelled a spirit of inquiry into natural processes that had already begun to emerge in the 12th century. Some scholars believe that these works represented one of the most important document discoveries in Western intellectual history. Richard Dales, for instance, calls the discovery of Aristotle's works "a turning point in the history of Western thought." After Aristotle re-emerged, a community of scholars, primarily communicating in Latin, accelerated the process and practice of attempting to reconcile the thoughts of Greek antiquity, and especially ideas related to understanding the natural world, with those of the church. The efforts of this "scholasticism" were focused on applying Aristotelian logic and thoughts about natural processes to biblical passages and attempting to prove the viability of those passages through reason. This became the primary mission of lecturers, and the expectation of students.

The university culture developed differently in northern Europe than it did in the south, although the northern (primarily Germany, France and Great Britain) and southern universities (primarily Italy) did have many elements in common. Latin was the language of the university, used for all texts, lectures, disputations and examinations. Professors lectured on the books of Aristotle for logic, natural philosophy, and metaphysics; while Hippocrates, Galen, and Avicenna were used for medicine. Outside of these commonalities, great differences separated north and south, primarily in subject matter. Italian universities focused on law and medicine, while the northern universities focused on the arts and theology. The quality of instruction in the different areas of study varied, depending on the university's focus. This led scholars to travel north or south based on their interests and means. The universities also awarded different types of degrees. English, French and German universities usually awarded bachelor's degrees, with the exception of degrees in theology, for which the doctorate was more common. Italian universities awarded primarily doctorates. The distinction can be attributed to the intent of the degree holder after graduation – in the north the focus tended to be on acquiring teaching positions, while in the south students often went on to professional positions. The structure of northern universities tended to be modeled after the system of faculty governance developed at the University of Paris. Southern universities tended to be patterned after the student-controlled model begun at the University of Bologna. Among the southern universities, a further distinction has been noted between those of northern Italy and those of southern Italy and Iberia.

Academic disciplines

The University of Paris in 1231 consisted of four faculties: theology, medicine, canon law and arts. Educational institutions originally used the term "discipline" to catalog and archive the new and expanding body of information produced by the scholarly community. Disciplinary designations originated in German universities during the beginning of the nineteenth century.

Most academic disciplines have their roots in the mid-to-late-nineteenth century secularization of universities, when the traditional curricula were supplemented with non-classical languages and literatures, social sciences such as political science, economics, sociology and public administration, and natural science and technology disciplines such as physics, chemistry, biology, and engineering.

In the early twentieth century, new academic disciplines such as education and psychology were added. In the 1970s and 1980s, there was an explosion of new academic disciplines focusing on specific themes, such as media studies, women's studies, and Africana studies.

As the twentieth century approached, these designations were gradually adopted by other countries and became the accepted conventional subjects. However, these designations differed between various countries. In the twentieth century, the natural science disciplines included: physics, chemistry, biology, geology, and astronomy. The social science disciplines included: economics, politics, sociology, and psychology.

Prior to the twentieth century, categories were broad and general, which was expected due to the lack of interest in science at the time. With rare exceptions, practitioners of science tended to be amateurs and were referred to as "natural historians" and "natural philosophers"—labels that date back to Aristotle—instead of "scientists". Natural history referred to what we now call life sciences and natural philosophy referred to the current physical sciences.

Prior to the twentieth century, few opportunities existed for science as an occupation outside the educational system. Higher education provided the institutional structure for scientific investigation, as well as economic support for research and teaching. Soon, the volume of scientific information rapidly increased and researchers realized the importance of concentrating on smaller, narrower fields of scientific activity. Because of this narrowing, scientific specializations emerged. As these specializations developed, modern scientific disciplines in universities also improved their sophistication. Eventually, academia's identified disciplines became the foundations for scholars of specific specialized interests and expertise.

Academic degrees

An academic degree is an award conferred by a college or university signifying that the recipient has satisfactorily completed a course of study. Academic degrees were first introduced during Middle Ages and there were little differentiation between them. Doctoral training was a form of apprenticeship to a guild. The traditional term of study before new teachers were admitted to the guild of "Masters of Arts", was the same as the term of apprenticeship for other occupations. Originally the terms "master" and "doctor" were synonymous, but over time the doctorate came to be regarded as a higher qualification than the master's degree.

The naming of degrees eventually became linked with the subjects studied. Scholars in the faculties of arts or grammar became known as "masters", but those in theology, medicine, and law were known as "doctor". As study in the arts or in grammar was a necessary prerequisite to study in subjects such as theology, medicine and law, the degree of doctor assumed a higher status than the master's degree. This led to the modern hierarchy in which the Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.), which in its present form as a degree based on research and dissertation is a development from 18th and 19th Century German universities, is a more advanced degree than the Master of Arts (M.A.). The practice of using the term doctor for Ph.Ds developed within German universities and spread across the academic world.

See also

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