What fascinating places these modern Universities are! They’re something I have never seen before! Not only do the sons of non-aristocratic families have access to them, but also their daughters! However, the way of learning is so rigid, that each student can only focus on one area. And I am afraid that many of them get so worried with papers and exams that they miss the joy of knowledge.
Imagine for a moment that Aristotle attends the same lecture as you, taught by Professor Plato. Would they not find many aspects of University life quite astonishing? The University, as an institution of research and higher education has changed in many ways from its origins.
Plato’s Academy in Athens (4th century BC) is considered as the beginning of the University in the Western world. It was not a school with teachers and students as we understand nowadays, but a “club” where its members would gather to discuss different topics, especially on philosophy and culture. Here learning proceeded as a dialogue between two people, each trying to persuade the other that their view was correct. If Plato came back to University as a lecturer today, he would find it awkward to speak for an hour without hearing any views from his students. Aristotle would also have problems as a student attending Plato’s lecture today, as he would try to speak for longer than his modern contemporaries would expect from a student in a lecture hall.
Not only that, I am also sure that the topics covered in a degree program would be too limited for him. Moreover, the idea of studying a degree on only one topic would feel strange, as Aristotle studied and wrote on a wide range of subjects, from physical science (anatomy, astronomy, economics, geography, meteorology etc) to philosophy (aesthetics, ethics, politics, theology etc). Do not think that Aristotle was a unique case during his times. Other men such as Socrates and Hippocrates also possessed great knowledge on a wide variety of topics; very different from the specialization of the degrees we have now at University.
Another characteristic that all these men have in common is their family origin. Plato was born into an aristocratic family, Aristotle’s father was a personal physician to King Amyntas of Macedon and Hippocrates learned medicine from his father and grandfather. Higher education was an opportunity limited to a few people from privileged backgrounds. I guess at that time a daughter of a hairdresser like me would not have any chance to study a BA at all!
One of the positive aspects of university nowadays is that thanks to the efforts of many people and governments, access to higher education is becoming less difficult – in some parts of the world at least – despite the struggle that many have with loans and part-time jobs.
But the biggest change, at least from my point of view, would be the award achieved at the end of the degree. The first degree-granting university in Europe was the University of Bologna, in 1088, which means that Aristotle and his contemporaries were not awarded with a document at the end of their studies, which recognised their achievements. Nowadays, most of us are at University to get a degree, a piece of paper which will open up a pathway to education of a higher level or a graduate level job, and the desire of knowledge, let’s be honest, is a secondary aspect.