The modern university is approaching its 1000th birthday. The word was first used in Bologna in 1088. Universitas magistrorum et scholarium: A society of students and teachers whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
In fact, the Middle Ages had a genius for legal invention. Most fertile of their innovations was the corporation - a body with distinctive purposes and an independent legal existence distinct from the people who run it from time to time. Businesses could not exist without this fictitious legal personhood. But the corporation turned out to be remarkably adaptable. Monasteries could set rules and own property. Even the modern state is a kind of corporation. Once upon a time, if the king died, all bets were off. Contracts could not be enforced, alliances stopped - you had start again. The corporation was a legal idea that changed all that.
Universities and corporations were born at the same time. But now they seem to be on a collision course. Do the economic pressures on them still allow space for an independent scholarly community? What happens to the monastic ideal, if you want, when it clashes with the economic idea? The financial pressure on students has radically altered their university experience. Funding pressure on academics has made them increasingly susceptible to outside interests. And the pressure on universities to make a buck has made them surprisingly fragile. Look no further than the coronavirus.
It is important then to ask what it is that makes so many people suspicious of expert knowledge.
But more is at stake than technological and economic disruption. Canberra's summer of bushfires has led many of us to reassess our priorities. Not just academics but students and future students wonder if universities really matter. Wouldn't I make more working for a start-up? Wouldn't I do more as a volunteer for Greenpeace? What is a university for?
This question is particularly acute given that politics today seems so divisive and unreceptive to the knowledge and understanding that universities offer. A senator on Q&A recently declared he had an open mind on climate change, but he was not interested in evidence. Where does that leave the university? Whether you do post-colonial studies or particle physics, education and research are about evidence and reason making a difference - changing what you think on the basis of what you know.
Change is the key word. Universities have been leaders of social change for as long as they have been around. The ivory tower is a relatively recent notion. The great universities of the Renaissance were full of people who were poets and politicians and diplomats and inventors. Their intellectual life was not removed from their public life. In the 19th century, in particular, universities were powerful agents for innovation and technical development, and equally powerful tools for understanding those changes.
So universities have always been our bridge between the past and the future, between change and understanding. It is important then to ask what it is that makes so many people suspicious of expert knowledge. How can scholars and thinkers seriously engage with a wider public in the interest of solving the problems that face us?
Something profound happened not too long ago. Some people date it from 1712 (the first steam engine); others from 1945 (the first nuclear detonation). For the first time in the history of this small rock, one highly fallible species has the power to destroy or to preserve the future of every other species on it. That is an immense burden with which we have not yet come to terms: a destiny which religions and philosophies and politics have not previously had to confront. To fully absorb the implications of the new age, we will need all the thinkers and knowledge and wisdom we can muster. We will need the sciences' technique, the humanities' perspective, and the arts' passion. How best can universities change and adapt to meet this challenge? It is a question that should matter to all of us, right now.
Is the idea of the university like a dinosaur, a thousand-year-old fossil - or is it more like the birds dinosaurs turned into - smaller, lighter, and flying high enough to see over the horizon?
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