The other evening, I met up with a good friend and former colleague from Wilfrid Laurier University at one of my favourite haunts in Waterloo. It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening as it had been some time since we had last seen each other. Surrounded by exposed brick and artificially distressed wood, I was reminded of why I loved the academic life so much even though as a contract faculty member I was underpaid and underemployed during my career and often at the hands of the tenured faculty.
Our conversation was sparkling and intellectually engaging and as often happens when you have more than one academic in the room, the conversation turned to the subject of the fate of the institutional university. Much of what we discussed has been explored in minute detail in different forums (Stefan Collini’s articles in the London Review of Books on the conditions universities in the UK face are harrowing and worth the read). However, my friend made a point that I found to be quite insightful.
Years ago during a conversation with his former PhD advisor, he had mentioned some of the growing realities of the modern university. After listening, the advisor compared the university to medieval monasteries on the eve of their collapse during the Reformation of the 16th century.
As a historian of early modern Europe who slummed in the medieval era, such a comparison makes considerable sense. Even at the dawn of the Reformation which helped see off a millennia old culture throughout northern Europe, there was little sense that the monastic enterprise would come to an end. Of course, there had been complaints and social trends which began to undermine the privileged position that monastic movement enjoyed throughout medieval Europe, but there had always been complaints about monastic laxity or abbatial abuses, but the orders were too powerful and too protected to be really concerned that they would truly ever be displaced. Furthermore, after an existence of nearly 1000 years, it is difficult to conceive that things would change so drastically.
And yet change came and the monasteries were displaced. In England, when Henry VIII turned his canons on the religious orders during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, leaving little more than the haunting ruins that now dot the Yorkshire landscape,
he demolished more than the Gothic religious heritage of England, he torn down the religious and intellectual structures which had
supported the monasteries and convents, forever altering England’s religious landscape. However, the initial stages were less dramatic than that. In 1535, Thomas Cromwell led a commission to determine the spiritual state of England’s monasteries. There was no question as to the outcome of the investigation and by 1536, Cromwell and his agents presented a picture of a monastic world dominated by loose morals, gluttonous monks, illiterate abbots, and centres of blasphemy. An image mostly of Cromwell’s imagination. No matter, within a few years England’s monastic heritage crumbled under Henry’s onslaught.
In Germany where the Lutheran Reformation took hold, monasteries were closed down and many of their inhabitants were married off or left to their won devices anticipating developments in Revolutionary France nearly 300 years later. Even the regions of Europe where Catholicism maintained its primacy, the popularity of cloistered monasticism also waned in popularity.
So what does this have to do with the modern state of the university? Quite a bit, I think. First of all, the modern day university can trace its origins to the monastic and cathedral schools of the late 11th and early 12th centuries. Hence, monasteries and universities share a long standing common tradition even as the university evolved over time. And even through this evolution, universities for the most part maintained their basic structure and function for nearly 800 years. And like the monks in 1500, we have assumed that the university would continue forever. And as with the monasteries, so too the universities are under threat of disappearing.
To be fair, they are not being bombarded with cannonade, but something more insidious is at play. For the past 30-40 years the raison d’etre of the university has come under attack in the guise of criticism of the value of the liberal arts and humanities. Considered irrelevant to the needs of the 21st century, History, English, Literary Studies, Art History are not seen as useful skills for the job market and colleges of Arts throughout the Anglo-Saxon world have been on the defensive, fighting a largely lost rearward movement trying to mount a defense of our existence by emphasizing “skills” such subjects provide.
The relevance of the humanities has been further eroded by the emphasis put on STEM subjects, again with the claim that graduates need to be ready for the jobs of the future. There is nothing wrong with the idea in principle and the more money available for the sciences should be welcomed, but that funding has come at the expense of the humanities. For example, at Wilfrid Laurier University where I used to teach, a multi-million-dollar state of the art building is going up to house the Business and Math departments while the College of Arts will get the outdated and worn out hand me downs. We are the ugly red-headed stepchild of the university community.
And just like the monasteries, we become complacent and failed to recognize our dependency on the good will of the society in which we operated. While there were many defenders of the old monastic world, the fact is for a greater number of people, the monasteries had outlasted their value. Anyone who doesn’t think that is happening now only needs to read the comment section of any local paper to see how unsupported universities are by the general public.
With massive increases in university enrollment in the 1950s and 1960s, we assumed that our work was done. This was something the late Jane Jacobs understood. The overturning of progressive victories achieved during the post-war period happened largely because we assumed the value and social benefits of those accomplishments, whether they be publically funded roads, or the strengthening of the social safety net, would be self evident to all – requiring little effort on our part to constantly remind the larger public of their value.
Instead, what we needed to do was to refight those battles constantly. Barry Goldwater’s 1964 campaign was the first warning that progressive policies, often informed by the liberal arts, would be seen as frivolous luxuries, or even worse – dangerous. The Reagan – Thatcher decade was the warm-up act for what was to come in the subsequent 25 years.
Of course other challenges to the existence of the university come from the same developments that have disrupted other sectors of the economy.
The rise of MOOCS (Massive Open Online Courses) and advances in technology brings with it many exciting opportunities (image the possibility of inexpensive VR technology to recreate a historical event that students could experience) as well as dangers. MOOCS have provided more people more opportunities to engage in continual learning, but have also exerted downward pressure on wages of university instructors, for example.
This is no cri de coeur, but rather a sobering acknowledgment that we might be witnessing the end of the university as we know it. But unlike the monasteries, we can still do something about what is happening and work t preserve the mission of the university while adapting to cultural, technological, and political forces that will always be with us.
Jason Sager is a professor of French history. You can find him at facebook.com/jasonbsager, or on twitter @drjasonsager