What is the Academic Life? 2. The Idea of the University

by Steve McCarty

Professor, Osaka Jogakuin College and University

President, World Association for Online Education

Original Source: Education India Journal, 1 (4), 52-65 (November 2012)
[reprinted at this permanent URL by permission of the Editor]


The first article in this series ventured general answers to questions definitive of the academic life. This article spirals back to the first question about the nature of the academic life, what a university is or should be. But universities today are under siege, threatening to compromise the ideals that scholars have upheld for generations if not millennia. Recently the direction of universities is constantly being contested, so only some representative arguments can be presented here. This article will also turn to other authors to characterize the classical idea of the university that is always worth reconsidering.

The Mission of
Universities Contested

It will be seen that the article by R.P. Sharma in the inaugural issue of this journal reflects similar struggles East and West to defend the original idea of the university from unscholarly societal pressures:

To what extent and measure can we allow the cosmos of knowledge to be inhabited by positive sciences and technologies only costing a pervasive impact on the lifestyle, attitude and values… eclipsing the very survival of humanity based disciplines? The pitch is queered by the market forces which call all the shots. Social sciences, with the exception of economics have to adorn the mantle of sciences to acquire respectability, with an articulate disdain for disciplines which raise questions of the first order, such as philosophy which has and in its essence still can, mother natural sciences. Aristotle has upstaged Plato and Socrates. (Sharma, 2012)

The first article (McCarty, 2012) expressed quite similar concerns. Academia and particularly the humanities are threatened from without by market forces and in a way from within by positivism, reductionism, a quantitative turn in both studies and evaluation, ethical relativism, business models, and vocationalization of higher education.

Positive (or positivist) analysis or theories only attempt to describe how things 'are', as opposed to how they 'should' be. Positive means also 'value free'. In this sense, the opposite of positive is normative … Positive statements are also often referred to as descriptive statements. (Wikipedia, 2012c)

One can accept descriptive studies without placing normative values off limits. While Aristotle narrowed the intuitive scope of Plato, his teacher, to a more empirical approach, Aristotle was an ethicist as well as a scientist (MIT, 1994). Academic ethics must also be unapologetically normative, though scholars of goodwill can disagree on some gray areas.

Higher education [in the U.S.] faces stark challenges: the ravaging of public universities’ budgets by strained state and local governments; ever rising tuition and student debt; inadequate student achievement; the corrosive impact of soaring inequality; and the neglect by some elite institutions of their core mission of teaching undergraduates.

[John] Dewey had a different vision [of] what education is primarily for: the cultivation of freedom within society. We should not think of schools as garrisons protecting us from enemies, nor as industries generating human capital. Rather, higher education’s highest purpose is to give all citizens the opportunity to find ‘large and human significance’ in their lives and work. (Roth, 2012)

The purposes and goals of universities have been expressed in many ways by educationalists of every era, yet the universality of the university shines through them all. Dewey is echoed from India in terms of humanistic psychology:

Useful learning is that which pervades the whole person and which is relevant to one’s personal style, needs, and human development. Teachers have the major responsibility of helping students to become more fully developed human beings. (Kasinath, 2012, p. 94)

Humanists … contend that it is far more important for the student to learn how to find new knowledge and to cope with a changing world than merely to absorb the information of yesterday and today. Here the focus is on creating the kind of emotional and intellectual climate in which the student can grow intellectually and affectively. (Kasinath, 2012, p. 95)

But there are also many ways to undermine the distinct mission of universities where they interface with a contemporary society and are thus vulnerable, for instance, through the need for funding in an economic system. However, it is on a level of ideology beyond necessity where the mission of universities can be legitimately contested. Somehow the stakes have grown higher, perhaps as opportunities diminish for many just as their expectations are raised by higher education. Market forces leave many educated people feeling exploited or excluded. As the rich press their advantage, the mainstream mass media outlets seem to side with their fellow elite class, leaving especially struggling young educated people with a sense of betrayal.

[Among] institutions that are intended to safeguard against this ease of inducing blind trust in and obedience to authorities[, the] most obvious one is journalism, which, at its best, serves as a check against political authority by subjecting its pronouncements to skepticism and scrutiny. [Another] is academia, a realm where tenure is supposed to ensure that authority's most sacred orthodoxies are subjected to unrelenting, irreverent questioning. (Greenwald, 2012)

The above American lawyer seems to imply that academics are also following the path of least resistance and selling out to authoritarian power in their society. While it may be true of faculty members who are not really committed to the academic way of life, tenure itself is one of the pillars of Academia being undermined by market forces and administrative business models. Part-time teachers have increasingly replaced professors and are among the ranks of the working poor. One embittered American part-timer, an anonymous whistle-blower, makes a cogent argument in the following passages:

[In the 1960s] universities were the very heart of intense public discourse, passionate learning, and vocal citizen involvement in the issues of the times. It was during this time, too, when colleges had a thriving professoriate, and when students were given access to a variety of subject areas, and the possibility of broad learning. The Liberal Arts stood at the center of a college education, and students were exposed to philosophy, anthropology, literature, history, sociology, world religions, foreign languages and cultures.

From the 1970s until today, as the number of full-time faculty jobs continued to shrink, the number of full-time administrative jobs began to explode. As [the] faculty was deprofessionalized and casualized, reduced to teaching as migrant contract workers, administrative jobs now offered good, solid salaries, benefits, offices, prestige and power. In 2012, administrators now outnumber faculty on every campus across the country.

[T]hey have not saved money by hiring adjuncts — they have reduced faculty salaries, security and power. The money wasn’t saved, because it was simply re-allocated to administrative salaries, coach salaries and outrageous university president salaries. There has been a redistribution of funds away from those who actually teach, the scholars – and therefore away from the students’ education itself — and into these administrative and executive salaries, sports costs — and the expanded use of ‘consultants’, PR and marketing firms, [and] law firms.

Academia once celebrated itself as an independent institution. Academia is a culture, one that offers a long-standing worldview which values on-going, rigorous intellectual, emotional, psychological, creative development of the individual citizen. It respects and values the contributions of the scholar, the intellectual, to society. It treasures the promise of each student, and strives to offer the fullest possible support to the development of that promise. It does this not only for the good of the scholar and the student, but for the social good. Like medicine, academia existed for the social good. Neither should be a purely for-profit endeavor. (The Homeless Adjunct, 2012)

Such an exposé in an anonymous blog post by a downtrodden academic is not ordinarily publishable, but it basically rings true. The search for truth has to go wherever the facts lead, however uncomfortable to established parties, not merely shining light where the terrain is already bright. Many scholars have expressed similar concerns about bloated administrations that may sacrifice educational excellence by hiring adjuncts and using PhD candidates to teach or interface with undergraduates. “The PhD used to be about offering a unique research contribution to the field; now it's about paying tuition and being exploited as a TA” [Teaching Assistant] (Downes, 2012).

In Japan some similar trends have been observed, with most foreign full-time teachers on one to three year contracts, often not renewable, and the percentage of classes taught by part-time teachers or even outsourced is growing. Many Japanese as well as foreign lecturers are evidently struggling amid shrinking budgets and institutional inequities. At some point the quality of education also begins to suffer, and various stakeholders including the general public increasingly lose sight of the raison d'être of higher education.

Thus it behooves each generation to reexamine the classical idea of the university and see why it has stood the test of time. If academic ideals had been discarded every time they proved inconvenient for social acceptance or career advancement, then today the qualitative difference between academic degrees, or between education and training, would be indistinct. Instead, in every generation, mostly unsung heroes have upheld the academic standards and ethics that make the university universal.

The Origin of Universities

Universities trace back at least to Plato’s Akademia, founded about 2,400 years ago. Less well known in the world is
Nālandā, the “greatest center of Buddhist scholarship in medieval India” (Harris, 2000, p. 918), founded over 1,500 years ago:

Nalanda was one of the world's first residential universitiesit accommodated over 10,000 students and 2,000 teachers. The university was considered an architectural masterpiece, and was marked by a lofty wall and one gate. Nalanda had eight separate compounds and ten temples, along with many other meditation halls and classrooms The subjects taught at Nalanda University covered every field of learning, and it attracted pupils and scholars from Korea, Japan, China, Tibet, Indonesia, Persia and Turkey. (Wikipedia, 2012b)

What made
Nālandā a university was that it “covered every field of learning” then known. Starting around the same time, Benedictine “monastic schools were designed for the religious training and general education of students” (Turner, 2000, p. 1131), a tradition that continued through, for example, “the foundation in the mid-17th century of the University of Salzburg” (Turner, 2000, p. 1131) in Austria.

The word university is derived from the Latin universitas magistrorum et scholarium, roughly meaning community of teachers and scholars. The term was coined by the Italian University of Bologna, which, with a traditional founding date of 1088, is considered the first university. The origin of many medieval universities can be traced to the Christian cathedral schools or monastic schools which appear as early as the 6th century and were run for hundreds of years as such before their formal establishment as university… (Wikipedia, 2012a)

From the above examples it can be seen that the development of universities historically has been inextricable from religious aspirations.

The Idea of the University

Thus in the 19th Century Cardinal John Henry Newman could conceive of

the university as a place of 'universal knowledge', in which specialized training, though valid in itself, was subordinate to the pursuit of a broader liberal education. These ideals, later developed by other Victorian apostles of culture like Matthew Arnold, became the basis of a characteristic British belief that education should aim at producing generalists rather than narrow specialists, and that non-vocational subjects - in arts or pure science - could train the mind in ways applicable to a wide range of jobs. (Anderson, 2010)

These are points that seem to have stood the test of time.

The phrase 'idea of the university' was not invented by Newman, but goes back to a seminal period in modern university history, the reforms of Wilhelm von Humboldt in Prussia. Starting with the University of Berlin, founded in 1810, the 'Humboldtian' university became a model for the rest of Europe, and by 1914 German universities were generally admired as the best in the world. It was the Humboldtian model that shaped the research universities of the United States, which head the international league today. The Humboldtian university can be seen as the characteristic form of the university idea until the growth of mass higher education in the late twentieth century. It had a number of interlocking features, some new, some inherited from the past, and was inevitably marked by the deep forces of the age, including nationalism, secularization, the growth of the modern state, and the shift of social power from aristocracies to the middle classes, on the basis of merit, intellectual expertise, and professionalism.

The central Humboldtian principle was the 'union of teaching and research' in the work of the individual scholar or scientist. The function of the university was to advance knowledge by original and critical investigation, not just to transmit the legacy of the past or to teach skills. Teaching should be based on the disinterested search for truth, and students should participate, at however humble a level, in this search. Hence the classic view that the university was a 'community of scholars and students' engaged on a common task. Humboldt's influence is still felt in the assertion that research must be an integral part of every university's activities. (Anderson, 2010)

Harking back to the Socratic method, Karl Jaspers also represented the classical view of the university, with a focus on the process of education (the pronouns “his” and “himself” presumably refer to women as well):

[T]he university does not have a mere teaching function; the student must also ‘learn from his professors to engage in personal research and therefore acquire a scientific mode of thought which will colour his whole existence’ …  Communication with the researcher and participation in the research process can stimulate a scientific attitude in the student himself which Jaspers characterizes as ‘objectivity, a devotion to the subject, reasoned balance, investigation of contrasting possibilities, self-criticism’… It is ‘education in reason’… (Horn, 1993, pp. 7-8)

Without agreeing with such authors in every respect, amid the complexity of changing times, these passages can still serve as a beacon of ideals to shed light on the idea of the university in the contested arena of education today. For example, there are ample reasons to maintain university autonomy and academic freedom (Anderson, 2010). While the particulars of studies change, a look at the heritage of Academia can inoculate readers against the conceit that the latest trends in society are the greatest ever for education. To eclipse these academic ideals would mean uprooting the universality that serves as a North Star guiding the direction of academic enquiry.

[S]ince their earliest days universities have been international institutions. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they did not escape the powerful force of nationalism, and politicians looked to them to shape national identity and serve national interests. Yet the cosmopolitanism of science and learning survived. This would not have happened if the model did not possess some inner vitality.

[I]ndividual scholars and scientists should be free to pursue the truth, and to teach and publish their findings; objective science, following rigorous intellectual criteria and subject to what is today called 'peer review', would immunize universities from religious or political interference. The professionalization of science and scholarship, and the organization of knowledge through specialized disciplines, created internationally accepted standards and gave scientists and scholars wider loyalties. In democracies, academic freedom came to include the right of academics to be active citizens, and to pronounce on political questions, making universities the home of public intellectuals, and a creative and independent cultural force. (Anderson, 2010)


In order to understand the academic life, the initial question examined in the first article was, what is a university? This article has provided more specifics and historical depth. The academic standards and ethics constitutive of the academic life, but contested in societies today, are reflected in the heritage of universities, demonstrably worth preserving.

While scholars aim for objectivity, and academic standards are scientific, constantly tested, and hence generally agreed upon worldwide, it is in ethical issues where controversy tends to arise. If academic ethics can encompass the kinds of realizable ideals or best practices alluded to above, then the way is clear to define the mission of the university in terms of upholding universal standards and academic ethics.


, R. (2010). The 'Idea of a University' today. History & Policy. Retrieved from http://www.historyandpolicy.org/papers/policy-paper-98.html#S3

Downes, S. (2012, August 27). New forms of assessment: Measuring what you contribute rather than what you collect. Half an Hour. Retrieved from http://halfanhour.blogspot.ca/2012/08/new-forms-of-assessment-measuring-what.html

Greenwald, G. (2012, August 26). Film highlights the temptations and perils of blind obedience to authority. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2012/aug/26/compliance-authority-failure

Harris, I. (2000). Nālandā, India. In W.M. Johnston (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Monasticism, Vol. 2, pp. 918-929. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn.

The Homeless Adjunct (2012, August 12). How the American university was killed, in five easy steps. Retrieved from http://junctrebellion.wordpress.com/2012/08/12/how-the-american-university-was-killed-in-five-easy-steps/

Horn, H. (1993). Karl Jaspers. Prospects: the quarterly review of comparative education (Paris, UNESCO: International Bureau of Education), vol. XXIII, no. 3/4, pp. 721-739.

Kasinath, H.M. (2012). Teaching strategies based on humanistic psychology. e-Reflection, Volume I, Issue III, pp. 93-104. Retrieved from http://www.edupublication.com/e-Reflection_3rd_Issue.pdf

McCarty, S. (2012). What is the academic life? 1. General answers to essential questions. Education India Journal, 1 (3), 6-12.

MIT (1994). Nicomachean Ethics by Aristotle (W.D. Ross, trans.). The Internet Classics Archive. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Retrieved from http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/nicomachaen.html

Roth, M. (2012, September 5). Learning as Freedom. New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/06/opinion/john-deweys-vision-of-learning-as-freedom.html

Sharma, R.P. (2012). Some thoughts on the idea of a University. Education India Journal, 1 (1).

Turner, D. (2000). Schools and Universities, Benedictine. In W.M. Johnston (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Monasticism, Vol. 2, pp. 1131-1134. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn.

Wikipedia (2012a). List of oldest universities in continuous operation. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_oldest_universities_in_continuous_operation

Wikipedia (2012b). Nalanda. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nalanda

Wikipedia (2012c). Positive sciences. Retrieved from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Positive_sciences

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Education India Journal, 1 (3), 6-12 (August 2012)

Next article: "What is the Academic Life? 3. Upholding Professional Standards and Ethics"
Education India Journal, 2 (2), 4-14 (May 2013)

Updated 28 May 2013
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