Leading historian outlines the essence of universities

Wednesday 2 September, 2015

Scientia Professor in the UNSW School of Humanities and Languages, Professor John Gascoigne, emphasised the importance of a general education and the humanities in universities when he spoke at Warrane on Wednesday 2 September 2015.

Professor Gascoigne also stressed the advantage of college life in institutions like Warrane and the function of a college in broadening university education.

“Every time I come here I am impressed by the esprit de corps and the sense that you guys are getting something out of the College,” he said.

Professor Gascoigne, whose fields of interest include the History of Science and History of Ideas, and who will take up the position of Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser Chair of Australian Studies at Harvard University next year, said he valued his own time in colleges.

“It might not be studying subjects formally, but just having dinner with people who are doing other things was an insight into the way in which other disciplines, other professions work,” he said.

“So it is very valuable indeed being in a College setting, having a sense of the range of the disciplines that a university has to offer and having a sense too of being part of a university...

“So make the most of your time in this very hospitable environment. When you are studying, a sense that this is a privilege, being part of such a long-lasting institution as a university.”

Professor Gascoigne said that even though the university was such a “long-lived institution”, in  some ways it was fragile. In other ways, however, it was “very capable through the ups and downs of history of reinventing itself”.

“It is a great privilege to be part of a university and ongoing tradition. a privilege which is now being extended to a broader and broader part of the population.

“One doesn’t have to go back very far when only a very small number of people went to university. Well, rightly that is something that governments are trying to change.”

Professor Gascoigne gave an overview of the history of the university as an institution, pointing out that it was the creation of the church, something he said was often forgotten.

“A lot of people have in their heads that what we know as a university was a creation of the ancient pre-Christian world,” he said. “Well, that is not the case. It was a creation of the church. “Originally, university involved having a document from the Pope, a charter saying you were entitled to teach… So the universities had various privileges granted by the Pope. They were responding in the 12th and 13th centuries to things that were happening in Europe at that time. “Europe had been through the fall of the Roman Empire. It was in chaos, but it was starting to rebuild itself...

“The Friars were a response to the towns and a lot of the universities were at first staffed by the Friars - Dominicans or Franciscans or whatever...

“There was now a whole body, particularly of Aristotle’s philosophy, that provided the foundation. So it was the church embracing secular learning, bringing it into the orbit of Christian theology, and the great fruit of that was the work of Thomas Aquinas, who comes from Italy, but it was at the University of Paris that he draws together the work of Aristotle and Christian theology.”

Professor Gascoigne said right from the start universities were places for general learning. Their very title “university” went back to “universal” learning.

Within universities there was always the notion that you should have an essential foundation, largely of philosophy, but also building on what had been going on in the Cathedral schools - the seven liberal arts:

“So right from the start the universities always had the idea that you might go on to specialised study, but you should start with something pretty general,” he said. “So it is the seven liberal arts, the philosophy of Aristotle. Then you would go on to postgraduate study and professional training.”

Professor Gascoigne pointed out that this approach was returning with universities like the University of Melbourne going over to the “Bologne system” with general education being followed by professional training.

“The University of Melbourne led the way,” he said, “but other universities are doing similar things. Before you go on to study medicine, law, commerce, whatever it may be, you would do a general education.

“That pattern of education continues right up to the 17th and 18th Century. In Europe, for various reasons, particularly the advance of the state, it comes under some sort of challenge.”

In the 19th century one of the great defences of the notion of the university was supplied by Cardinal Newman.

“He writes these lectures - ‘The Idea of a University’. And that was all about the foundation of a university in Ireland. He was a bit afraid that it would become too narrow, too concerned with just professional education. And he defends the idea of the university as a place for learning of all kinds - learning for its own sake.”

In the United States of America, the same idea took root at institutions like Harvard University where the basic institution, Harvard College, was established on the model of Cambridge University as a college of Arts and Sciences offering a general degree, before postgraduate degrees were taken in medicine, law, commerce and so on.

Professor Gascoigne said the humanities were about trying to understand human nature, “trying to understand the fruits of the imagination”, but doing so in the disciplined manner that a university requires. That meant using forms of evidence, using forms of argument, in order to bring understanding to the way in which our society works.

He pointed out that UNSW had tried over the years to go at least some way towards the traditional university ideal by instituting general education courses.

During a question-and-answer session Professor Gascoigne was asked if he thought there was a tendency in today’s universities to “discount the achievements of the middle ages”.

He agreed, pointing out that “you want to say something derogatory you would say it is ‘medieval’”.

“There is a tendency of anti-clericalism in our society to try to downplay the middle ages and build up the classical tradition,” he said.

“Most people, if they have any interest at all, if you asked them where the universities came from they would most probably say the ancient Greeks. But it’s not the case because the idea of a chartered corporation is a medieval creation. It goes back to the whole structure of feudalism.

“The idea of parliament is very much a medieval creation. Okay, the Greeks had a form of democracy but it was really nothing like ours …the idea of electing representatives in a parliamentary system was a medieval creation and so much of our whole way of life was a medieval creation.”

Another example of an enduring contribution from medieval society was the common law, a growth from the middle ages that was encouraged “in all sorts of ways” by the church.

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