Collaboration Boosts Knowledge: The Birth of Universities

Perhaps, the most primitive invention of humanity had been the notion that collaboration always increases the possibilities of survivance in any given circumstance. The joint effort by itself wouldn't be a reviewable invention; however, the collaboration for the aim of transmission of knowledge and encouraging learning, is one of the most peculiar characteristics of the human being. Today, it's surprising to see both the speed of the individual learning process and the capacity of the disciples to surpass their masters. There's a very old and popular quote that says: "the accumulation of knowledge produces more knowledge".

Laurentius de Voltolina - University of Bologna (14th cent.)




The civilizations categorized as the oldest (those which date back to 5,000 years ago), China in the Eastern End, Mesopotamia in the Fertile Crescent and the Egyptian civilization associated to the Nile river, they all disposed of social organizations which promoted the learning of knowledge in different areas, such as arithmetic, astronomy and medicine. It is known that to do that labor they counted with influential social groups, organized as officials in the public institutions who gained their knowledge by different strict learning systems based on the reiteration of, for example, arithmetic problems on the distribution of lands or grains. Who doesn't know the figure of the seated scribe of the 5th Dynasty in ancient Egypt, that is preserved in the Louvre Museum? The cultural explosion in the Mediterranean Sea with the Greek and Roman cultures, based on the polis, transformed that stiff and strict learning system. The divulgation of the alphabets, the circulation of manuscripts (known by historians as libros or biblios), their accumulation in deposits, the first libraries, the construction of the first schools like the ones of the Athenian Sophists, the Plato Academy and the Aristotle Lyceum (which were already places for training public officials of the State or of the polis) consolidated the idea that the exchange of knowledge makes easier the production of it. The most prestigious school in ancient times was in Alexandria, which with its library, became the reference place for learning and gaining knowledge for six centuries. Most of the popular names in the science field back then were associated with different schools: Euclid, Eratosthenes, Archimede, Hero, Ptolemy, Galen, and Hypatia, to mention the most relevant ones.

The dismantling of the Greco-Roman world meant the decadence of those large Greek schools which continued to be present in some way in the so-called House of Wisdom, founded in Baghdad by the Abbasid Caliphs in the 9th century of our time. There, it was taken the "Alexandrian idea" of designing an important institution for the cultivation of wisdom, which would store thousands of books and welcome sages dedicated to the mathematical, astronomical, medical and natural sciences. This institution possessed its own creativity: there, the algebra started to take shape as a new mathematical branch, despite the fact that sometimes we don't do justice to its name and exclusively, we recognized it for the merit of having served as a bridge for the influx between the Greco-Roman culture and the emerging Western world.

Actually, the House of Wisdom encouraged the knowledge in algebra, astronomy and medicine in such an original way that three centuries later, it was created in Western Europe a new way of organization for the divulgation of knowledge which ended up being one of the most important and influential institutions in Western culture: The university, which emerged at the beginning of the 11th century in Western Europe, and became an institution that assured the transmission of knowledge for centuries, because it showed its ability to adapt to the different phases of evolution of European science.

As one can imagine, the first universities were not the result of a brilliant idea from the political and religious powers, but they evolved from urban schools associated with existing cathedrals where the novices learned how to write and read in a rudimentary way. In the beginning, universities weren't a complex of buildings or heritage places of libraries and valuable objects, but just a bunch of people, a guild of professors and students who pursued the same goal, education. That was, without a doubt, the invention: the association to pursue such an intangible good as the transmission of knowledge and the consolidation of subjects which were not necessary for the most elemental subsistence. At first, three subjects were taught at the university: Medicine, Law, and Theology.

It is very difficult to establish the exact dates and to claim with absolute accuracy when those guilds, which often moved from one city to another, settled definitely on specific locations. Cities like Bologna, Paris, and Oxford offered them privileges and thereby were founded the first stable universities, sedentary and urban. Two centuries later, they spread throughout Europe. The first cities where these guilds settled were Bologne, in 1150; Paris, in 1200; Oxford, in 1220; Cambridge, in 1225, and Salamanca, in 1230. Even though the dates mentioned before are not very accurate, they show us that the settlement of these kinds of centers spread very rapidly throughout Europe, from east to west. Universities managed to form a network which covered the Medieval Europe, from eastern Poland to Portugal, and from Scotland to southern Italy. The university set a unique cultural space without any precedents in the continent, based on two features: the first one, their independence from the local powers of the cities, as they only looked for the patronage of eminent and distant powers, like the Pope or the Emperor; the second one, the uniformity of the studies' timelines, in such a way that both the students and the professors could enter any university. Mobility and autonomy were the two pillars on which the university settled till the 16th century when in the times of the Lutheran Reformation, the first cultural division in Europe broke out.

Despite all convulsions of the 16th century, universities had already formed an institutional scheme that accumulated knowledge and transmitted it to the successive generations of students who populated the classrooms. Medicine and law, the two civil branches which were taught at the time, and theology, as a science associated with the ecclesiastical knowledge, were being preserved and they developed in their wombs. The idea of adding together different knowledge sources, of transmitting them through a regular and unified system, seemed to have been a success and, in fact, it was. The university has been the most effective institutional invention of the Christian Western world, not only because it helped to create a cultural network, but also because it managed to survive in the bad times.

The Renaissance was a period where knowledge exploded and a lot of ancient Greco-Latin ideas were abandoned, while at the same time their main artists and thinkers became the main source of inspiration for these new scientists and artists of the Renaissance. What was abandoned and what was rescued? On one hand, the world was no longer represented as the center of the universe, as philosophers of the Classical Age claimed and, on the other hand, philosophical institutions like the Plato Academy were preserved, considered as kingdoms of freedom. Moreover, atomistic ideas were starting to gain importance, in the mathematical field Archimede was rescued, and in medicine, it was felt the influence of Paracelsus and Vesalius. But universities didn't adapt well to these innovations, they were not good transmitters of innovation. The new urban society invented then other institutions less related to education in a pedagogical or teaching sense, and more related to knowledge itself. These new urban societies were baptized as "academies" or "scientific societies". The principle that boosted them had something to do with the universities but wasn't exactly the same. They weren't founded to educate, to divulge and spread knowledge, for this aim were the old institutions, but their objective was to welcome people interested in the new empirical sciences and to boost their development. Although some academies were founded in the 16th century, the explosion of these institutions took place in the Baroque, and its zenith came during the Enlightenment. Throughout this period, the universities were losing prestige and influence. Most of them didn't know how to welcome the new sciences and their vitality, and some of them disappeared; but, despite their misery, they kept being the educational institutions by reference. Universities and scientific societies divided the knowledge space in Europe but were the latter ones which favored a new classification of knowledge, leaving behind the old medieval trivium and quadrivium. Thanks to them, people started to talk about mechanical philosophy, chemistry, mathematics, celestial mechanics, pneumatics...

The most prestigious new institutions of knowledge were l'Accademia del Cimento in Florence, the Royal Society of London and the Académie Royale des Sciences of Paris. Although the pioneer was the Italian academy, the other two soon surpassed it in both prestige and influence. In fact, the Royal Society and the Parisian Academy developed very different models of association. In London by own initiative, a group of men who were interested in the new empirical sciences founded a club, which was financed by them, used sometimes as a gathering place and it contained a large library and some cabinets of sciences. They were the ones responsible for admitting or excluding each one of their members, setting the annual fees and keeping track of the finances of the institution. They only asked for royal protection to defend themselves against the hostility from other institutions, like the English universities which didn't want to lose privileges or influence. On the contrary, in Paris, it was founded an institution that emanated from the Crown's power that also financed it. The sages were appointed by the court for being at its disposal, they earned pensions from the royal budget and they were subjected to the king's influence and to the necessities of the government. This way, science became a courtesan activity.

The Parisian model influenced the whole continent, whereas the English model spread throughout the northern countries of Europe, but this wasn't an equal distribution. The capital of France became the scientific center in Europe and in the entire globe. The Enlightenment had a flavor of French culture. "The Sun King", Louis the 14th transformed Paris into the center of the scientific world and the other European academies were rotating around this city because no other European court destined so much money and effort to hire and keep scientific institutions as the French did. In Berlin and Saint Petersburg, for instance, the Parisian organization was copied. The Societas Regia Scientiarum was founded in 1700 in Berlin but was later substituted by the Académie Royale des Sciences et Belles-Lettres de Prusse in 1744. The change in the name and language of the institution founded in Leibniz reflects an obvious French influence. The same can be said about the academy established in Saint Petersburg.

The scientific societies and the academies which organized the knowledge of the new empirical and mathematical sciences were an excellent institutional invention because they promoted the creation of cabinets of experimentation and spaces for public debates. Specifically, Paris encouraged knowledge by offering awards, publishing numerous international scientific works, like the measurement of the degree of the meridian in Lapland and Ecuador to solve the controversy on the Earth's shape, if it had a shape similar to the one of a melon or an apple. If universities had been useful for guaranteeing the conservation of the classical knowledge, inherited from the ancient civilizations, the scientific societies and the academies served as places for the development of these new sciences. Therefore, we can accurately call them "complementary social inventions".

But the Académie Royal des Sciences de Paris was not the only place in this city where people talked about science, where there were discussions and debates about different problems in the fields of mathematics, astronomy, physics, natural life, or about the convenience or not of cultivating those sciences. The new forms of organization of knowledge were not foreign to the growth of clubs and private lounges which, very often, had women as hostesses. The day was spent at the Academy; the evening and night, in the lounges. The mastership of the salonières to exploit the vanity of the men, their disputes, and even their enmities caused by the scientific controversies, everything was condensed in the conversations at those elegant and informal spaces, but full of creativity. Thanks to life in these saloons, today we can talk about the early interest of women in science and philosophy. Perhaps, the most popular example was the one of madame of Châtelet (her actual name was Gabrielle Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil), mathematician and physicist, who influenced the science of her days in a big way. She was the best Newtonian and bravest critic of Newton's works.

The increase in the influence of the enlightened societies coincided with a certain decadence of the universities, which spent their worst times during the 18th century. At the beginning of the 19th century, the nations adjusted their universities, each one, according to a different model. The old university of medieval characteristics lost the monopoly. In France, for instance, the university was converted into an educational institution for second-class citizens, against the new superior schools created in the image of the military academies. In Prussia, however, they had a more promising future, destined to be transformed in institutions that brought together the ancient humanistic and literary disciplines, including the new sciences too. Its archetype was built in Berlin, the capital of Prussia, and later of the emerging German Empire during the 19th century according to the ideas of the German thinker Wilhelm von Humboldt.

The University of Berlin was founded in 1810, following some guidelines that later on would be imitated by the states which hadn't followed the French educational model years back. Although the administrative foundation of this new university was designed by Wilhelm von Humboldt, actually it was his brother, Alexander who insisted on implementing the new experimental sciences. Today, it can be seen a statue of both brothers, guarding the main entrance of the Humboldt University of Berlin; we recognize as Humboldtian university, that university which adds to the literary and classical knowledge from ancient times the push of the new sciences of nature. The big science in the 19th century, which transformed our image of nature and our capacity to explore it, the science that enabled us to start talking about atoms, about chemical synthetic products, and opened the path for understanding why the sun has been shining every day for thousands of years, was developed in those universities which followed the same model of the University of Berlin. To welcome teachers and investigators, it was essential to renovate the medieval university and merging it with the scientific societies. The sciences which had flourished in the academies and other enlightened societies translated to the universities, which ended up disposing of experimental laboratories, besides the traditional libraries. The Humboldtian university was the model that was adopted by many universities of the United States, and the origin of the contemporary universities.

The idea of an institution that absorbed the knowledge and spread it, was added to the necessity of finding new ways to access it, as well as to amplify it. An old idea in new molds which worked extremely well once again, like all good ideas.

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