The University As A Network: Interrogating The First Universities

Whenever I speak about Universities As Networks, the idea smacks of being the 'cool new thing': I am immediately hit with the claim of tradition - that universities have been in their current form for 'hundreds of years' - with the implication that this institutional form is resilient and not going to change anytime soon.

The point is, of course, that the critical thinking that universities claim to imbibe in their learners is expected not to be applied to the institutions themselves. This claim of faux-tradition, that the universities have been around in some sort of unchangeable form for hundreds of years while everything around them changed, often goes unquestioned. So, a little scrutiny of the origins and traditions of the universities is quite useful for our conversation.

And, humbling, too: Because if anyone seriously thought that the universities as networks is a cool new concept invented for the Internet age, a quick tour of the medieval universities would quickly disabuse one of such a presumption. That is indeed what universities were, as they emerged in the middle ages, very much a network!

The most startling thing about those first European universities (universities existed in the Arab World, India and China before this), in Bologna, Paris, and later in other places, whose traditions we so fondly gloat about, is that they owned no buildings. And, because they did not really have a campus, they were often mobile - in fact, the University of Paris once decamped from Paris for several years because of a quarrel with the town authorities! These institutions rented rooms - in Churches, Monasteries and even in Brothels - and ran day-long sessions of lectures followed by disputations (modern-day seminars). 

Also notable that the term 'universities' did not arise from a reference to the Universe or Universality (or its Latin equivalent), but rather as this was a union, of students and masters, formed primarily for collective bargaining purposes. I twist this original meaning a little if I say this was a Network, but only a little - because that was what its purpose was: To be at an University did not mean being at a campus, but belonging to a network, which negotiated collectively and had a privileged status.

The history of universities is a specialist area of interest, and do not receive much popular attention. However, as I read Charles Homer Haskins and Hastings Rashdall, I am fascinated by these ancient institutions - their forms, legacies and how similar the debates were through the ages - and see that the universities were indeed formed as a network. They were not all similar - there was no central authority and no 'Bologna process' - and what happened in Paris (an institution run by the Masters) was not similar to what happened in Bologna (an institution run by its students). And, indeed, I am making no claims that the universities we build now should go back in time and replicate these institutions, though, it seems that Bologna did have a student-centred university, stealing the thunder from today's For-Profit institutions, with some pretty disastrous implications for those who taught there. And, finally, one must be aware that one must look beyond European tradition when speaking about universities in Asia, as we are no longer in the Nineteenth century that everything has to be seen through the European eyes. Yet, the lessons from the first universities are useful, not least because this is the starting point of the long tradition that the advocates of status quo usually invoke: The universities have always been a product of their circumstances, and not something that stood outside its time and context.



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