Address Delivered at Oxford University by Rev. John I. Jenkins, C.S.C.


Let me begin by saying what a tremendous personal honor it is for me to be here and deliver this lecture. Oxford and Campion Hall are my alma mater, and speaking at this great university under the sponsorship of Campion Hall has special meaning for me personally. Moreover, to have the chancellor and my good friend Chris Patten here, along with his wife, Lavender; and to have the current vice-chancellor, Louise Richardson, a more recent friend, here, deepens my delight and honor to speak to you. My thanks go to Father James Hanvey, S.J., the rector at Campion, and to each one of you for your attendance.

Despite the ambitious public title of this address, “The Idea of a University Today,” I will not try to compete with John Henry Newman’s classic work. I will try to grapple a bit with the nature of these institutions we call universities in relation to certain pressures in the current landscape. We hear regularly that universities are “ripe for disruption” (to use the jargon of today’s entrepreneurs), that they are overpriced and less relevant, that governments or families are unwilling to bear the costs, and that universities merely serve to guard the privileges of the privileged.

Rather than attempting a definitive answer to these and other questions, I will try to shed some light on some current questions about universities by considering the origin of this institution, the world’s second-oldest university. It came into existence in the 13th century, the time at which a number of the world’s first universities sprang up in Europe. As someone whose scholarly interest is in medieval philosophy and theology, I have always been intrigued by questions about why these institutions appeared at this time and what their character was. Reflection on the origin and character of these institutions can provide a useful perspective on questions of our time. Or so I will argue.

"The longevity of Oxford and other universities is significant, for they must possess something of lasting value to survive through so many dramatic changes in society."

In this regard, it is important to remind ourselves that universities are among the most enduring of humankind’s institutions. Oxford was founded roughly 800 years ago and continues to thrive today. (The Catholic Church—a body for which some of us here have a particular affinity—is the only institution in the West that has been around longer, though, many of us believe, it had the advantage of special divine assistance in ensuring the gates of Hell did not prevail against it.)

I learned much in my study at Oxford, yet simply walking in this city and contemplating its history itself had an intellectual impact on me. To pass the places where Duns Scotus, William of Ockham, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke studied and worked; to stroll by the building where Robert Boyle, the father of modern chemistry, lived and worked; to be in the city where John Wycliffe taught and John Henry Newman wrote his tracts; to visit the pub where J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis and the Inklings met on Tuesdays—simply to walk in the city instilled a sense of reverence for the learning, scholarship and inquiry to which Oxford has been the host. Since its founding, it has been to the site of scholars, discussions and education that have truly shaped the course of human history.

The longevity of Oxford and other universities is significant, for they must possess something of lasting value to survive through so many dramatic changes in society. If we can articulate that character a bit better we will perhaps be in a better position to say what is valuable about these institutions and how they might incorporate and adapt at a time of great changes in society and technology.

Oxford Emerges

In the twelfth century, on the verge of the origin of this institution, it was unlikely that Oxford would become Oxford. It was unlikely, that is, that this medium-sized town in the British midlands would become the site of the institution that is Oxford University. As the renowned medieval historian R.W. Southern points out in his essay in The History of the University of Oxford, the continental schools had a head start, established reputations and more prestigious scholars. Moreover, if there were to be a great university in England, it seemed that cathedral cities, such as London or Winchester, had a natural advantage in attracting leading minds. Finally, in the twelfth century, on the verge of the founding of the great universities, Oxford could not boast of a large academic presence. Although there is evidence of scholars and students in Oxford, Northampton, just 40 miles away, seems to have had more robust academic activity.

Oxford, nevertheless, had a central location and was a key crossing point of the river Thames. Perhaps because of this location, it became--at the end of the twelfth century--a center for ecclesiastical courts and, as such, for leading jurists and consequently for those who wished to pursue a career in law. Oxford also had several prominent monasteries and parish churches, and was a center for clergy. The war between the kings of England and France from 1193-1204, moreover, made travel to the Continent difficult, so more talented scholars and students were looking for a place to study and teach in England at the dawn of the 13th century.

Evidence of the numbers of teachers and students at Oxford and other towns is not available to us, but it seems that, because of these factors, Oxford gradually grew as a center for study at the end of the twelfth and beginning of the 13th centuries. A crisis was precipitated in 1209 when a student killed a woman, presumably his mistress, and fled. The mayor and townspeople searched for the killer, found two other students (who denied knowledge of the killing), seized them and hanged them. This tragic event led to a dispute about jurisdiction in the case of students, which in turn led to scholars and students departing from Oxford, some to found that other place on the river Cam (which will go unnamed). Eventually the resolution of that dispute through the intervention of a papal legate led to the return of the scholars and the first steps toward the creation of a corporate structure for the institution in distinction from the city, Church and crown.

It was, then, a conspiracy of a number of independent, contingent factors that led to the establishment of the university in this place. For this reason, then, as Professor Southern puts it, Oxford University “was not created; it emerged."

So we could imagine an alternative history in which another city might have become the site of the first great university in Britain. Once established, however, Oxford University has endured for eight centuries. What, we might ask, was established in the 13th century? What contributed to its staying power after such a precarious start?

Several factors seem key. First, of course, is that a sufficient collection of superior scholars and students were gathered in this place. Initially, Oxford’s most distinguished scholars and practitioners were lawyers, but theologians and scholars of the arts soon followed. The best scholars, in turn, attracted the most talented and ambitious students.

Second, is the creation of some rudimentary self-governing structure. The crisis of 1209 led to the first steps toward such a structure, but that would be developed and strengthened over time. Because the evidence for the existence of an identifiable self-governing structure is somewhat nebulous and it seems to have taken shape only gradually over time, the date when we declare Oxford University to have been established is somewhat unclear. Still, the existence of some identifiable self-governing structure is the critical factor.

A third element, I contend, is also essential: it is the establishing of practices of common inquiry at the highest level that serve both to advance knowledge and understanding and to train the minds of students through participation in such inquiry. From its earliest days, Oxford followed continental schools in establishing a course of studies that would enable a student with the talent and persistence to complete it to participate in the common inquiry of the university community. In the Arts and Theology faculties—the largest and most prestigious faculties of the time—that common inquiry was conducted through the disputed question. In this academic exercise, the master (i.e., a faculty member) would pose a question. More advanced students would formulate objections to problems arising from the position the master was to adopt. The master would then respond to the questions with the appropriate distinctions and clarifications, drawing from authoritative works. He would then respond to the objections posed and resolve any problems.

The course of studies at Oxford and the other medieval universities was intended to prepare a student to become a full participant in such communal inquiry. He—of course, the students were all men at this time—would begin with three or four years of sitting in required lectures on key texts from the tradition. Having completed that sequence and having become a bachelor, he could take a role in disputed questions. The attainment of the degree of master required that he satisfactorily conducted a disputed question himself. Completing such a “determination,” as it was called, was a matter of great prestige and it would admit the student to the faculty of the university.

"For essential to the creation of a university is the establishment of practices of communal engagement with questions at the highest level that served both to advance knowledge and to train students in such inquiry."

The Summa Theologiae of St. Thomas Aquinas, with its series of questions, objections, “respondeo” and replies to objections reflects this form of inquiry. Although it is not a record of actual public disputations, it is clearly derived from the practice of public disputations and reflects this form of inquiry. The same is true of the works of Duns Scotus, William of Ockham and other great medieval masters. The point I wish to emphasize here is that, even when these great thinkers wrote their own works, the form of writing expressed the communal nature of inquiry that characterized the medieval university. The communal exercise was undertaken primarily to broaden knowledge and deepen understanding, but it served at the same time to train students in conducting such inquiry themselves.

To sum up, three components were critical in the emergence of Oxford as a great university: 1) a concentration of superior scholars and students who, in reality and reputation, were preeminent; 2) the establishment of offices and structures for the self-governance of the institution as distinct from the city, Church and crown; and 3) the development of accepted practices of common inquiry at the highest level that served at the same time to extend knowledge and deepen understanding and train students in such inquiry.

The necessity of the first two of these is obvious. You do not have a university unless you have scholars and students and have some offices and governing structures to guide the teaching and learning. Oxford and other universities are thought to have come into existence as such when there is some recognizable self-governing structure. It is important to see, however, that these are not enough. There were at the time schools in many cities with scholars who individually instructed students in Latin literacy and numeracy. We could imagine them coming together to form some sort of a corporate body that set standards for teaching and evaluation of learning. You would then have some sort of association, but you would not thereby have a university. For essential to the creation of a university is the establishment of practices of communal engagement with questions at the highest level that served both to advance knowledge and to train students in such inquiry. Universities arose and flourished in the medieval world not simply because scholars and students gathered in a place and structures of corporate governance took shape, but because such communal practices of inquiry arose and students were trained in these practices.

Over time, of course, these practices of inquiry evolved and were adapted. A great intellectual revolution occurred with the advent of the empirical sciences. For these sciences, inquiry was not a matter of citing authoritative texts and dialectical give-and-take of a disputed question. It was rather a process of observation and induction, the formation of hypotheses and the development of theories with explanatory power, and the testing of such hypotheses and theories through experiments. This was a different method, but it was a form of inquiry that had a communal character. Similarly, for the various social sciences, each developed a method within their own area of study.

The forms of inquiry and delineations of disciplines changed over time. Whatever they were, however, these factors remained present: a community of scholars and students, structures of corporate governance and the establishment of communal practices of inquiry. We have universities when these three components are present.

A further point is relevant not only to the emergence but to the continued existence of these institutions: once these three factors were in place, they became a magnet that attracted other scholars and students of superior ability to the institution. Because of the communal character of inquiry and training, anyone with talent and ambition wanted to be part of the community where the best inquiry and training went on. Anyone with even a passing familiarity of universities knows that they are built on the talent of scholars and students, and the quality and reputation of this group matters tremendously. Once a community with such practices is established, there is a magnetic pull to others of talent, and a virtuous circle is created—a talented community of scholars attracts more talented scholars. A great British university might have arisen in a town other than Oxford, but, once established in this city, the institution pulled in superior scholars and it became an even stronger center of learning. It then became difficult for competitors to emerge.

Graduates and Their Careers

There was another critical factor that led to the rise of universities in the 13th century. It was the need for highly trained men to serve Church and king, in commerce and in estates. As Professor Southern writes, “the most effective stimulus to the growth of the schools (in the 13th century) came from the demand in government for a growing army of educated officials. King, bishops, monasteries and all great landowners needed the services not only of literate but also of scholastically highly trained men for the conduct of their affairs." According to Southern, “no single cause had so much influence” on the development of studies in the schools as this one. The training students received at the university was and is seen to be of great value in preparing talented men for a range of high-level professional responsibilities. So it has remained for centuries.

The training and advancement of students at the university borrowed from the framework established by the various medieval trade guilds. The professions of, for example, carpenter, stonemason, glazier or metal worker of various sorts organized into fraternities called “guilds” that set standards for professional competence and trained young aspirants in the trade. The terms bachelor and master that the universities used and we retain even today in degree titles, such as “Bachelor of Arts” or “Master of Science,” were taken from levels of training and mastery in the trade guilds. The guilds, like the university, established times for aspirants to be trained at each stage and defined levels of competence that would allow the trainee to progress to the next level.

Within the medieval framework, universities could be thought of as a guild of scholars, set alongside the guilds of carpenters or stonemasons. From the very start, however, there was one striking difference between the university and the trade guilds. The trade guilds gave the successful aspirant the knowledge and skills to practice the guild’s trade and become one of its members. The university, in contrast, trained students in the disciplines of scholars, but most did not seek to join the ranks of scholars; the great majority of university students went on to work in a wide range of professions that demanded a high degree of intellectual sophistication.

"If universities did not provide education that prepared a student for such a range of professional occupations, they would not have attracted students, and would not have survived."

We can only conclude that the curriculum of the 13th-century university effectively trained its students to take on any one of a wide variety of professional positions. If it did not, there would not have been the demand from prospective employers, and students and their families would not have been willing to invest the time and expense for study at the university. If universities did not provide education that prepared a student for such a range of professional occupations, they would not have attracted students, and would not have survived. So it was in the 13th century, and so it has been in subsequent centuries up to today.

It is worth pausing over this characteristic of university education, for it helps explain the power and enduring relevance of universities over centuries that have seen so much change. We can find the successors of the medieval trade guilds in trade associations of various kinds. Yet these associations have come and gone, survived or not, depending on the fate of the particular occupations which they practiced and for which they trained. Universities, however, provided a training not tied so much to particular occupations and trades, but prepared students for a range of occupations that required a high level of intellectual acumen, so they survived dramatic changes in technology and the economy that destroyed some professions and created others.

We often hear that education at universities is not particularly relevant to this or that profession, or that what someone needs to know for a particular profession could be delivered more efficiently than it is at universities. To some extent, this kind of objection argues for training similar to that of the medieval trade guilds, perhaps at a higher level of sophistication. Such training directs the trainee to a particular occupation. Yet the bet that universities and their students have made for centuries is that training in the practices of inquiry at the highest level, by faculty at a very high level in their discipline, will give a student the knowledge and intellectual skills to flourish in a wide range of professional careers. Such training remains valuable even as the demand for a particular trade waxes and wanes. It is an investment that has proven to be sound over many years, and I would wager that it will prove to be so for years hence.

The Prospect of Disruption

I have reviewed several features of this university in its earliest days. What does the 13th century have to teach us in the 21st century?

It is becoming more or less commonplace to hear that universities like Oxford and Notre Dame are soon to be disrupted by digital technology that, in its various manifestations, will create more efficient, less expensive and more creative institutions of learning.

When I was working on my D.Phil. at this institution, I would sometimes get a break by taking the train to London, visiting a few bookstores, shopping at the huge Tower Records store on Piccadilly Circus for some CDs—then the really novel technology—and perhaps watching a film at a movie theater. Now, in 2018, I confess that I have not been in a bookstore in a long time, as I buy books from Amazon; Tower Records went bankrupt in 2006, and young people today would only vaguely know what a music CD is; and I have not darkened the door of a movie theater in years, as I watch any films I want to see through Apple TV or Netflix. Will Oxford and Notre Dame be the Tower Records of the future?

It would be a mistake, I think, for those of us in traditional universities to smugly dismiss this suggestion. Digital technology has changed and will continue to change the ways in which we interact with one another, learn, gather information, form communities and do business. It has and will continue to influence the way we do our work at universities. Online courses are becoming more common. Many professors find attractive what is called a “flipped classroom”: this the practice of recording a lecture or other material for students to view on their own prior to coming to class, and then using class time to solve problems, respond to questions or engage in discussion. In lectures, digital technology allows professors to call up a video clip in the classroom or enhance pedagogy in other ways.

Could the disruption be even more radical? Could universities be replaced by online communities in which instruction is exclusively delivered digitally, tests are taken and papers submitted online, assessment made at a distance? It was the concentration of scholars and students in a particular place, the city of Oxford, that gave rise to Oxford University. Why do we need the expense of physical proximity of a university community when we can do it all less expensively and at perhaps a larger scale online?

"It is hard for me to imagine how this inquiry and training could be replicated in an online environment."

I count myself a skeptic about these prophecies of radical disruption. Certainly, creative use of digital technology can enhance the pedagogy we deliver. It can be used to make certain kinds of instruction more efficient and less expensive. Yet, I have argued, a central feature in the emergence and endurance of Oxford as a great university was the establishing of communal practices of inquiry. With these practices, the community of scholars and students addressed questions at the highest level and expanded and deepened knowledge and understanding. At the same time, moreover, the students’ observation of and participation in these practices gave them a high level of intellectual training that would serve them in many occupations. It is hard for me to imagine how this inquiry and training could be replicated in an online environment. Such inquiry, at its most consequential, does not proceed by the development of observations and reasoning that moves in a straight line. Objections give rise to conundrums, which, through conversations and reflection, generate insights and these insights in turn generate a new, illuminating perspective on the question that had not been anticipated. Moreover, the students learn not just by acquiring and mastering information; the most valuable learning is often of a tacit sort, when a student observes how a seasoned scholar addresses a problem, wrestles with an objection, formulates a creative solution. So much of learning is simply being in proximity to those who do the activity at a very high level, observing astutely and incorporating those observations into one’s practice.

Certainly, for those forms of instruction that are simply the dispensing of information in a given area in a clear and accessible way, and the assessment of how the information has been learned and assimilated, online learning may be satisfactory. What made Oxford a great university, however, and the activity that is at the heart of a great university, is not this sort of instruction. The heart is the communal practices of inquiry by those at the highest levels of their discipline, engaging in open-ended inquiries, grappling together with objections and further questions, creatively resolving questions and forging a new perspective. The most important learning that goes on at such institutions, in turn, is the observing and being tutored in the craft of conducting such creative inquiries oneself.

Robert Boyle, the father of modern chemistry, came to Oxford neither as a teacher nor a student, but simply to conduct his inquiries in the community of scholars gathered here. John Locke, while a student at Oxford, was unimpressed by the philosophy he was taught in his classes, but his philosophy was greatly influenced by his conversations with the experimental scientists there, such as Boyle. Newman’s fateful writing of Tracts for the Times, which shaped his thought that so influenced both the Anglican and Roman Catholic Churches, arose from hearing the St. Mary’s sermons of John Keble, a friendship with Hurrell Froude and conversations with others in Oxford common rooms. Oxford’s influence has come not so much through information disseminated in lectures, but as a host for conversations that are part of communal practices of inquiry.

One may object: “Your arguments are based on the limitations of current digital technology. However, future generations of digital technology will make possible the sort of observation, relationships, spontaneous conversations and tacit learning that you claim can only happen in communities with physical proximity. Moreover, people will become more and more accustomed to interacting digitally and new kinds of communities will be created.”

I must admit this objection has plausibility to me when I walk across a quad at my university and dodge young people thoroughly engrossed in the screens of their smart phones, oblivious to the actual scenery and embodied people around them. Perhaps they, or their children or grandchildren, will find it as natural and illuminating to be part of a virtual community of the digital world rather than with other people in physical proximity. Perhaps, but if this is our future, then many other of the communities that shape our lives will change as well. That is a future that I have difficulty imagining and would not relish, but perhaps that simply shows my age and affinity for the past and institutions with long and rich traditions. You, my audience, will need to make your own judgement on that.

The Way Ahead

At our Graduate School Commencement exercises several weeks ago, we were honored to have Vice-Chancellor Richardson deliver an address. She articulated well the criticisms of higher education that I alluded to at the start of my address—that institutions like Oxford and Notre Dame are overpriced, irrelevant to today’s needs and unfairly privilege a few. She rightly called on all of us to engage the communities around us, and strive to “persuade the public of the value of what we do … to our society, and our economy,” and ensure that access to the education we offer is “fair and seen to be fair.”

In my address this evening I have not attempted to grapple with important questions about fairness and access to our universities, nor concerns arising from public skepticism, often fueled by demagogues of various stripes, about the kinds of expertise our institutions instill and offer. Rather, by considering the origin of this great institution, I have tried to remind us of the character and particular power of this university and others like it, a power that led to its survival and thriving across centuries.

In her address at Notre Dame, Vice-Chancellor Richardson described the kind of education offered by universities well: “Our teaching has been designed to produce intellectual self-reliance, to teach people how to learn, how to take charge of their thoughts and how to direct them in an independent, analytical and creative manner.”

"The particular character of Oxford or any great university is that the riches it offers us transcend any time, trend or particular professional career."

Universities have offered this kind of education by preparing students for and inviting them to participate in the communal practices of inquiry that are at their heart. When successful, their graduates can become in their own inquiries in various fields, capable of learning, analyzing, developing their own perspectives and capable of finding creative resolutions to questions and challenges.

Many criticisms of higher education today arise, I believe, from a general anxiety brought about by globalization, technological innovation and the social and economic shifts these developments have wrought. The critical attention that our institutions now receive arises not from a decline in the value of the education they offer, but, on the contrary, from an increase in such value, and from concerns about how it will be delivered in the future and who will have access to it. This increase has led to concerns about access to this kind of education and the influence of these institutions. We must, of course, consider these criticisms, respond to them and make changes that are warranted, yet at the same time ensure that our institutions preserve the characteristics that gave them such enduring value.

It is perhaps natural that, at a time of social, economic and technological change, long-established institutions should be questioned. But we should not allow questions and criticisms arising from anxieties about change, nor the dazzle of the new, lead us to slacken our efforts to preserve and enhance the particular power and value of what universities offer. G.K. Chesterton once said, “To spend one’s last earthly money on the newest hat is to condemn oneself to the old-fashioned.” The particular character of Oxford or any great university is that the riches it offers us transcend any time, trend or particular professional career. Let us be wary of trading something so precious for the passing attraction of the newest hat.


Header photo: Tejvan Pettinger, Creative Commons