medieval universityOne aspect of the so-called “High Middle Ages” that is a natural candidate for a “Why Church History is Relevant” post is the phenomenon of universities, both in the medieval period and in our world today.

You may not have ever thought about this much before, but if you did, you might have assumed that universities as we have known them have always existed in this form.  But in fact, modern universities derive from an educational development that took place in the High Middle Ages, and specifically a development in the church.  In fact, some scholars have said that universities and cathedrals are the two great legacies of the medieval period.

As you may know, there were universities in different places in Europe during this time (e.g., Oxford in England, Paris in France, Bologna in Italy, etc.), and the universities varied in their structure.  In some cases, the faculty were the power-brokers, dictating everything from the classes taught to the table manners of the students.  In other instances, the students had the real influence and could almost hold faculty hostage until they got what they wanted, whether concerning topics or hours.

In our world, the diversity comes mostly with attitude, rather than in structure.  On the surface, it would seem that faculty and administrators hold all the cards: we give lectures, we assign grades, administrators set prices, etc.  But increasingly, students have more and more power.  Just because we admit a prospective student at my university, that doesn’t mean that that student will come.  And if they decide not to come, we lose thousands in potential revenue.  So, we spend lots of resources on marketing and financial aid, partly to help students but also to convince them to come spend their own (or their financial aid donors’ ) dollars on tuition, room, board, etc.  This may sound very crass and market-driven, but it is the world in which we now live.

university of phoenix logoA second way that this conversation is relevant concerns the rise of so-called “for-profit” universities, like the University of Phoenix.  Traditional institutions are “non-profit” or “not-for-profit” – like other non-profits, the goal is not to make money, but rather (in our case) to provide higher education.  But some organizations, realizing the money that can be made in education, have established for-profit schools – some brick-and-mortar, some online.  These institutions have become controversial for a variety of reasons.  One reason is accountability – are they providing the same quality of education when there is a profit motive?  Another reason concerns student recruitment – some for-profit schools have been accused of targeting veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan, usually young people who have access to government assistance funds for education but may not be able to make fully informed decisions.  The schools claim that they will “work with” the students, helping tailor their education to a very practical end; however, some folks have found those claims unfulfilled.

oleanna1Underlying all of this is the fact that, since the Middle Ages, there has been a power dynamic in play in higher education.  When we hear the word “university,” we may have idealized images in our minds – ivy-covered walls, grassy quadrangles, etc.  But these pictures are not realistic for either the medieval period or the modern world.  However, this is not the only way we can be unrealistic about college.  Faculty can think administrators should fully support them in their “noble pursuit” of knowledge, when they actually have other interests to serve.  Students can think faculty should largely exist to serve their own educational needs, when faculty actually have their own agendas and goals.  Unfortunately, administrators, faculty, and students can all abuse the power given to them.  If you want to see an artistic representation of this issue, check out the play Oleanna by David Mamet – it concerns the complicated relationship between a female student and a male professor.

So how do we respond as Christians, or as a Christian university?  First, I hope that we all are really looking to serve one another and not just fulfill our own desires.  Second, I am reminded of the power of hope, that great Christian virtue, as we face the challenges of money and power in higher education; we can always strive to make things better.  Third, we can cultivate gratitude in this area; we can be thankful, not just to God for giving us this opportunity, but also to those who have gone before us, opening up opportunities for us to better ourselves through education.

Image credits: https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/2/24/Philo_mediev.jpghttp://cms.montgomerycollege.edu/agreements/ , and http://www.southeastern.edu/news_media/news_releases/2009/march/images/slu_oleanna.jpg

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