Saturday, September 24, 2011

The University's Progress Report

Every once in a while someone asks me if I've seen students get dumber over the years. As long as there have been students, I think some people have thought that the younger ones were dumber than the ones from a generation back. But I'm not one of those people; if anything, I've seen the incoming classes at my university get smarter over my twenty-three years here. I've seen some other interesting changes, too, though. For instance, students now have less time than they did in the 80s; I consider the internet the greatest cause, but an increase in the number of students who have to work also plays a part. I also see today's students as more isolated and self-absorbed, less aware of others around them. Self-indulgent technology again contributes heavily here, but the culture of self-esteem has raised a generation of young people each so busy thinking that he's special and excellent that he has little room left in his thoughts for others.

Those are changes I've seen in the past twenty-five years. But I've recently had the chance to compare today's students with those of nine hundred years ago: in my yearly reading of Durant, I've some to a section on education and the rise of universities in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. The comparisons run the gamut: in some areas, students of today come out looking better, while in others the first university students take the prize, and in yet others, the two groups seem very similar.

Early university students definitely rise above ours in devotion to their studies. The word "student" comes from the Latin studere, which means "to be eager for," and the early students appear very eager as Durant paints them. The only entrance requirement for many of the first universities was a knowledge of Latin. Any person who had given several years of his life to the study of the language of education and then showed up asking to be taught knew what he wanted, and so he was admitted. Apparently, the word "university" first referred to associations of students who asked for professors, because they wanted to hear lectures. Hundreds begged Abelard to begin teaching again after his humiliation in his affair with Heloise. And his lectures weren't easy. The Church considered Abelard's mind one of the best -- even if one of the most frightening -- minds in Europe. St. Bernard refused to confront Abelard on his almost-heretical thinking because he knew he would be bested by the scholar who had studied logic for forty years. But crowds of teenagers sat and listened to him carefully cite Scriptures and passages from the Fathers to support opposing answers to various theological questions. (According to Durant, Abelard virtually always ended up with the orthodox answer; it was his dependence on reasoning that worried the Church.)

Students of today look better than their medieval counterparts when it comes to interacting with the people and businesses of their college towns. Oxford students seem to have murdered townsfolk on a fairly regular basis. Today's student, raised in a (mostly) less violent culture and in possession of more cash, has less inclination to kill local shopowners and more inclination to make them more prosperous shopowners. On the other hand, the first students at Bologna, Paris, Oxford, Cambridge, and elsewhere seem to have been no more fascinated with sex and beer than those of today. They paid a steep price for their vices, though: undergraduates went through a comprehensive examination before graduation then, and more failed on moral grounds than were denied on the basis of poor scholarship.

My last comparison has to do with those first student congresses called "universities." Durant reports that they used their money and teachers' public rankings to determine which professors received and retained posts. Soon afterwards, the term "university" began to apply to guilds of professors banded together to determine the fates of students. I can't help but wonder whether Durant didn't smile at the original power structure as a quaint idea that, soon corrected, got buried under 800 years of proper order. But the old ways are coming back. What would Will Durant have thought of the student protests in the 60s? What would he have thought of!

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