Is the University Centered on The Learner or the Professor?


The aca­d­e­m­ic ethos of uni­ver­si­ties has changed very lit­tle since the Mid­dle Ages until the present. How­ev­er, there is a sig­nif­i­cant dif­fer­ence between the ori­gin of uni­ver­si­ties as social insti­tu­tions and con­tem­po­rary uni­ver­si­ties. At first, their struc­ture was more infor­mal and, con­trary to what one might think, more flex­i­ble. It was stu­dents who sought out pro­fes­sors on the basis of their epis­te­mo­log­i­cal and deon­to­log­i­cal author­i­ty. The uni­ver­si­ty struc­ture was built upon the studi­um gen­erale or par­tic­u­lare, which was gov­erned or run by a rec­tor-stu­dent who, as in the case of Bologna, was from the Coun­cil of Schol­ars or con­gre­ga­tion of stu­dents. That is, teach­ing was based on the indi­vid­ual who learns. There­fore, uni­ver­si­ty insti­tu­tions were basi­cal­ly cen­tered on that per­son, that is, the student.

Sub­se­quent mod­i­fi­ca­tions were part of a move towards the fac­ul­tas or ensem­ble of per­sons who had the ‘fac­ul­ty’ of teach­ing and the ‘fac­ul­ty’ of admin­is­trat­ing teach­ing on the basis of their epis­te­mo­log­i­cal author­i­ty. One of the most rel­e­vant aspects of the peri­od is the uni­ver­si­ty as a uni­ver­sal, Euro­cen­tric insti­tu­tion, with a com­mon lan­guage, Latin, and with a coher­ent cul­ture – which was not nec­es­sar­i­ly the best – based on Aris­totelian prin­ci­ples influ­enced by Chris­tian­i­ty and aimed at orga­niz­ing coex­is­tence in soci­ety, more in accor­dance with the sys­tem of prin­ci­ples than with the prac­tice. This Medieval cul­ture pre­scribed behav­ioral norms through the author­i­ty of the Church, but also by means of uni­ver­si­ties. Let us not for­get Stephen Lang­ton, the Eng­lish priest and coun­cil­lor of the Uni­ver­si­ty of Paris who root­ed out tyran­ny at the Uni­ver­si­ty in the ear­ly thir­teenth cen­tu­ry, was lat­er rad­i­cal­ly opposed to King John of Eng­land and was to be one of the authors of the bill of rights, the Magna Carta.

From the four­teenth cen­tu­ry onwards, the evo­lu­tion of the sov­er­eign state and the con­se­quences of the West­ern Schism weak­ened the transna­tion­al per­cep­tion of uni­ver­si­ties and led to more nation­al­ist mod­els, such as those of the uni­ver­si­ties of Vien­na, Hei­del­berg and Prague. That cen­tu­ry marked a new peri­od for uni­ver­si­ties. Their struc­ture was mod­i­fied and they began to depend more heav­i­ly on the state. In edu­ca­tion­al terms, there was a move away from med­i­ta­tion on the theme of nature to a util­i­tar­i­an edu­ca­tion. The tran­si­tion was, how­ev­er, pro­tract­ed and com­plex. For exam­ple, surgery and com­mon law remained out­side the scope of uni­ver­si­ties for many years, and phys­i­cal, chem­i­cal and min­er­al research, which was large­ly respon­si­ble for indus­tri­al devel­op­ment, took place out­side uni­ver­si­ties, in the sci­ence col­leges that exist­ed at the time.

Uni­ver­si­ties in the Mid­dle Ages lat­er gave rise to mod­els that were increas­ing­ly rigid, which had three focal points: the Eng­lish mod­el or res­i­den­tial uni­ver­si­ty sys­tem, such as that of Oxford, the French mod­el of the “grandees écoles” (the so-called Napoleon­ic sys­tem) and the Ger­man mod­el of research, which orig­i­nat­ed at Hum­boldt Uni­ver­si­ty. Mixed mod­els appeared some­time lat­er, includ­ing the Chica­go mod­el, which fol­lowed the Eng­lish sys­tem but with an empha­sis on the lib­er­al arts. Uni­ver­si­ties as we know them today are sim­i­lar, in a greater or less­er mea­sure, to one of these mod­els or a com­bi­na­tion of sev­er­al of them. Among all of them, the fac­ul­tas or fac­ul­ty have been the cen­ter of the uni­ver­si­ty struc­ture and have been the quin­tes­sen­tial col­le­giate authority.

The schools, depart­ments, insti­tutes and sec­tions are basi­cal­ly orga­nized around the pro­fes­sors and the teach­ing con­tent that they design, often on an indi­vid­ual basis and in iso­la­tion. That is, uni­ver­si­ties are today cen­tered on the indi­vid­ual who teach­es and this is mak­ing way for anoth­er mod­el tak­en from the pri­vate cor­po­rate sys­tem in which edu­ca­tion is cen­tered on the indi­vid­ual who admin­is­ters. Both mod­els are in some mea­sure author­i­tar­i­an, in detri­ment of the indi­vid­ual who learns, whether this indi­vid­ual is a stu­dent, pro­fes­sor or admin­is­tra­tor. The back­drop to many uni­ver­si­ty crises has been pre­cise­ly these dichotomies: the cri­sis of the rela­tion­ship between the indi­vid­ual who teach­es and the indi­vid­ual who learns, between the mem­ber of the ‘aca­d­e­m­ic ethos’ and the mem­ber of the ‘social ethos’ and also between the indi­vid­ual who teach­es and the one who administers.

Between uni­ver­si­ties and soci­ety, would it not be nec­es­sary to replace the aca­d­e­m­ic ethos with an ethos of learn­ing and not by an admin­is­tra­tive ethos? If any­one in soci­ety requires con­tin­u­ous learn­ing, it is the uni­ver­si­ty com­mu­ni­ty, and par­tic­u­lar­ly pro­fes­sors, giv­en the fact their teach­ing depends on their con­stant­ly learn­ing and renew­ing their knowl­edge. This is the objec­tive jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for devel­op­ing an ethos of learn­ing. But uni­ver­si­ties, as we shall see in future posts, have been mov­ing in a dif­fer­ent direction.

Miguel Angel Escotet, Ph.D., is a Psy­chol­o­gist, Philoso­pher, Researcher, and the Dean of the Col­lege of Edu­ca­tion of the  Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas at Brownsville. ©2011 Miguel Angel Escotet. All rights reserved. Revised excerpt from M.A. Escotet (2009) Uni­ver­si­ty Gov­er­nance. In High­er Edu­ca­tion at Time of Trans­for­ma­tion. New York: Pal­grave Macmil­lan, 126–132. Per­mis­sion to reprint with appro­pri­ate citing.

About SharpBrains

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SHARPBRAINS es un think-tank y consultoría independiente proporcionando servicios para la neurociencia aplicada, salud, liderazgo e innovación.

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