The Handmaiden of Leviathan

I have often heard it said that the word university indicates the offering of universal knowledge.  Like a great many things I have often heard said, this is not true.  The word university means and always has meant a corporation, since a university is nothing more or less than a corporation of learned men.  The collective knowledge of these learned men may be patchy and partial, but the learned men are unified.

That is the unity indicated by the word university.

We have this word from the medieval universitas magistrorum et scholarium, which may be fairly translated as “corporation of masters and scholars.”  The masters were the learned teachers (hence the Master’s degree) and the scholars were the less learned students (from the Greek scholastes, or persons freed from the need to toil for their bread). When a collection of pedants united in a body, the corporation was called a university.

The word college likewise meant a body of men incorporated for some purpose.  We see this in cognate words like collegial and colleague.  We also see it in archaic titles such as College of Cardinals, College de Propaganda Fide, and Electoral College.  When that purpose is (or is to simulate) the life of learning, we have a college in the modern academic sense of the word.  But there is at bottom no real difference between a college and a company.  A college is just scholars who work in company with one another.

Colleges and universities were inventions of the Roman Church, and one can still catch a whiff of things ecclesiastical and Roman in some of their titles and ways.  The title of dean, for instance, comes from a sort of platoon sergeant in the Roman army. A dean was originally the leader of ten men, but the title eventually passed to the head of the chapter, or governing committee, of a monastery or cathedral.  When a title was needed for the head of an academic college, dean was therefore an obvious choice.  My College naturally has its Dean, although it does not have a beautiful gothic chapter house in which she and the department heads meet.

Corporations of learned men have the strengths and weaknesses of other corporations, and this is why the learning produced in universities so much resembles the food produced in chain restaurants.  Both are dependable but rather dull.

This is why art historians use the adjective “academic” to denote a period in which painters converge on a standard of “uniform mediocrity.”  As Fuseli put it:

“Indiscriminate imitation must end in the extinction of character, and that in mediocrity—the cypher of art” (Lectures on Painting, 1801).

It must be remembered that mediocrity was not a pejorative word in 1801, and meant only average or middling.  Because they imitate each other, academic artists and thinkers necessarily converge on a uniform standard of mean or average quality.  Adherence to academic rules elevates the performance of the plodding dullards, but it at at the same time hobbles and retards the geniuses.  As was said in a different context,

“Every valley shall be exalted,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low.”

I have elsewhere opined that academic writing is mostly “butt sniffing,” a vulgarism suggesting just what Fuseli suggested with the words “indiscriminate imitation.”  You should not let my vulgar image obscure the fact that, for half of the scholars in the corporation, this butt sniffing is a salutary and improving education.

The mediocrity of Edward Gibbon’s Oxford professors caused the great historian to call them “academical bigots,” and to say that the fourteen months he spent at Magdalen College were “the most idle and unprofitable of my whole life.”  We should not think too harshly of those long-dead dons, since corporate academics are bigoted by design.  University men think as a unit.  Confronted with an extraordinary character like Edward Gibbon, they therefor naturally set to work grading this mountain down to the dead level of their uniform mediocrity.

That is what a university does.  That is how it achieves unity.  That is why it is a handmaiden of Leviathan.



9 thoughts on “The Handmaiden of Leviathan

  1. Pingback: The Handmaiden of Leviathan | @the_arv

  2. Pingback: The Handmaiden of Leviathan | Reaction Times

  3. David Solway in today’s American Thinker: “The academy cannot be reformed, despite a decent government’s best intentions. It must be abolished or gradually phased out and replaced by schools and universities and online delivery programs founded on the traditional mandate of moral accountability, exacting scholarship, discipline-specific authority, open debate, and responsible instruction.”

    • The established universities are just rotten cartels. If there were a real market in ideas, your Sunday Symposium would be able offer classes in the back room of Oswego’s Old City Hall, just like Plato in his Academy.

  4. All modern institutions are corrupt – universities are no exception.

    Contrary to popular belief, the first universities were primarily professional schools – the first was a Law School (Bologna), and the later ones were either medical (Padua) or theological (Oxford, Paris) schools.

    Even in my student days, most students at English universities were aiming at vocations – mainly at becoming specialist school teachers (in English, History, Biology, Mathematics, Geography etc) at Grammar Schools.

    US university mass education was historically a substitute for high schools – and the students consequently began attending early-mid teens – as they also did in Scotland. The subsequent changes to late teen entance has no real educational function, and only happened in the late 19th century. The delay was related to a notion of student life as primarily an extracurricular experience – clubs, sports, societies etc.

    eg in Aberdeen University, Scotland, in 1860 students began (often coming from Parish schools) age 15; by 1890 the age was 17 or 18. This change corresponded with a new ideal of communal ‘student life’ based on the example of German universities. (A couple of generations earlier, Carlyle started to Edinburgh, living in lodgings, age 13 as I recall!).

    Similarly, the Harvard of RW Emerson (born 1803, at Harvard age 14) was much like an English boarding school (public school) in terms of the administration and level of work. By contrast, in England, the Grammar and Public Schools did this level of academic work, and Oxford and Cambridge were de facto postgraduate level institutions.

    The idea of universities as generic ‘higher’ education (unrelated to the specific content of dgrees) is essentially false – and to the extent it does apply, it is merely based on the selectivity of the institutions acting as an expensive and time-wasting proxy for some combination of high intelligence and/ or high conscientiousness… when these are controlled-for, the non-specialist benefits of higher education (on earnings etc) are abolished and a degree has no discernable effect on outcomes.

    • The first American colleges were, of course, modeled on Oxford and Cambridge. They were residential colleges primarily directed at production of “Christian gentlemen.” In the case of Harvard, that at first meant Calvinist, and then later Unitarian. (Incidentally, I recently read that self-identified homosexuals now outnumber self-identified Christians at Yale.) Owing to the great size and low population of this country, we could not cluster colleges into a university, as you did at O and C, so the American university became a single undergraduate college with professional schools devoted to the three learned professions. As you say, theology, medicine and law were the original substance of truly higher education. It was only in the nineteenth century that a “graduate school” and “PhD” were added. I’d guess that the vast majority of PhD’s believe that their degree is older than the JD, MD, and DD; but it is, of course, a johnny-come-lately and upstart. There were many dire predictions in the late nineteenth century of what the “graduate school” would do to the undergraduate college. As far as I can see, all of them came true. In this R1 university, status is largely measured by exemption from contact with undergraduates. And, of course, the minutiae of graduate education seeps down into the undergraduate classes. I was talking with a freshman yesterday, and he told me that the first lecture in his construction science class was devoted to the theme “gender is a social construct.”

      I didn’t get round to it in this post, but what set me off on universities was reading that my employer now has the most profitably football program in the country, with profits last year over 400 million dollars. Our new football coach has a guaranteed basement income of 75 million dollars over the next ten years, this almost certainly to be engrossed by bonuses, endorsements, and whatnot. When football became part of American college life around 1900, it was justified in the same way games were justified at the pubic schools of England. The educated class is always in danger of degenerating into weakling and wimps. Getting knocked about on the football field was supposed to keep them tough. But the corporation has naturally corrupted this enterprise and turned it into a spectacle for weaklings and wimps.

      Since we are on the topic of universities, I’ll mention one last thing. I recently looked in on my two younger children and found them watching the movie version of Putnam’s Golden Compass. I couldn’t take very much of that nasty anti-Christian propaganda, but in the little bit I did watch, I was struck by the irony of them exploiting the beautiful vistas of Oxford. Those were Christian buildings raised by Christian scholars to produce Christian gentlemen. Why not show us vistas of the buildings that have been raised by Putnam and his ilk. I suppose it is because they look like factories and minimum security prisons.


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