Historians generally locate the emergence of the methods shaping the university concept in Ancient Greece where Socrates espoused the value of inquiry and thinking and their importance in attaining a “good” and meaningful life. The objective of the Socratic Method was to identify questions and methods of inquiry that lead to broad and deep understanding and not to simply arrive at an answer. “What is beauty?” “What is the right thing to do?” “What is wisdom?” “What is piety?” “How can we know when an answer is adequate? “As important as what was taught was why we should teach and why we should teach the young with special concern and attention. The young, the Greeks posited, must learn to think so that they could be and remain free. The Greeks believed that knowledge and freedom were inseparably linked.
The origins of modern higher education are best revealed in the medieval universities of Europe, beginning in Italy at Salerno (9th century) and Bologna (11th century). The word “university” comes from the Latin term universitas and means the student body. The monastic clergy respected and embraced the conviction of the Greeks that freedom is held fast by character, developed by discipline and informed by reason and that both of these qualities are essential foundations for the young. Those who founded the first universities held to the tradition that instruction is best delivered by masters who mentor their students by providing both information and scholarly example.
In 1115 the great university of Oxford assembled the priests of the Priory of St. Augustine to create a center of learning. Like Oxford, Cambridge, founded in 1209, also emerged from the spiritual community of the cathedral school. Universities like Villanova, in Philadelphia, continue to be administered by clergy and to preserve this rich history in the repository of the Augustinian Historical Institute on their campus.
Today’s public institutions, while secular, continue to embrace the “life of the mind” and the ethos of intellectual rigor and reasoned inquiry. Each installation of a new university leader reminds us of this heritage and of our obligations to protect freedom of thought and inquiry and to pursue “truth and beauty.”