U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Glory and the Vision

“What then is our inheritance from the oldest of universities?  In the first place, it is not buildings or a type of architecture, for the early universities had no buildings of their own, but on occasion used private halls and neighboring churches….

“Neither does the continuity lie in academic form and ceremony, in spite of occasional survivals, like the conferring of degrees by the ring or the kiss of peace, or the timing of examinations by the hour glass as I have seen it at Portuguese Coimbra….

“It is, then, in institutions that the university tradition is most direct. First, the very name university, as an association of masters and scholars leading the common life of learning. Characteristic of the Middle Ages as such a corporation is, the individualistic modern world has found nothing to take its place.  Next, the notion of a curriculum of study, definitely laid down as regards time and subjects, tested by an examination and leading to a degree, as well as many of the degrees themselves—bachelor, as a stage toward the mastership, master, doctor, in arts, law, medicine, and theology. Then the faculties, four or more, with their deans, and the higher officers such as chancellors and rectors, not to mention the college, wherever the residential college still survives. The essentials of university organization are clear and unmistakable, and they have been handed down in unbroken continuity. They have lasted more than seven hundred years – what form of government has lasted so long? Very likely all this is not final – nothing is in this world of flux – but it is singularly tough and persistent, suited to use and also to abuse….Universities are at times criticized for their aloofness or their devotion to vocationalism, for being too easy or too severe, and drastic efforts have been made to reform them by abolishing entrance requirements or eliminating all that does not lead directly to bread and butter; but no substitute has been found for the university in its main business, the training of scholars and the maintenance of the tradition of learning and investigation. The glory of the mediaeval university, says Rashdall, was ‘the consecration of Learning,’ and the glory and the vision have not yet perished from the earth.”

— Charles Homer Haskins, The Rise of Universities (1923)