Thursday, October 27, 2016

The Idea of a University

In 1386 the ruler of Heidelberg, Ruprecht I, founded the university in Heidelberg. It was the third university in the Holy Roman Empire, following after Prague (founded in 1348) and Wien (founded in 1365). It was modeled after the Sorbonne in Paris. It was inaugurated on 18 October 1386 with a mass in the chapel at the Marktplatz in Heidelberg. The first classes were held the next day, covering Paul’s epistle to Titus, Aristotle’s Physics, and Logic. The university had three faculty members, led by the Dutch scholar, Marsilius von Inghen. It was not unusual for students to be as young as twelve.

The founding documents of the university called for four faculties: theology, law (both civil and canonical), medicine, and the arts. What distinguished the university from other institutions of learning is that students were expected to study in all the subjects and to be universal in their knowledge rather than specialists in one narrow subject. Echoes of both the subjects and the approach can be seen in the opening lines of Faust in Goethe’s play by that name:
Habe nun, ach! Philosophie,
Juristerei und Medizin,
Und leider auch Theologie!
Durchaus studiert, mit heißem Bemühn.
Da steh ich nun, ich armer Tor!
Und bin so klug als wie zuvor!
(Goethe, Faust, 354-359) 

Modern universities have strayed rather far from the original intent of a university. It is typical to emphasize the students becoming specialists rather than generalists. That narrowness of vision is exactly the kind of thing that a university was originally designed (and designated) to combat.