From Antiquity to Modernity
From antiquity to modernity, all civilisations have been driven by knowledge. The blossoming and flowering of a civilisation depends to a large extent on how free learning centres were or have been. Although learning centres have existed in the citadels of civilisation from antiquity, the modern university is different from ancient learning centres. The modern university has evolved meeting the demands of an ever-changing and dynamic human race.
Universities are a phenomenon of the second millennium. The first universities to appear include Al Azhar in Egypt (est: 970), University of Bolgna in Italy (est: 1088), Oxford University in Britain (est: 1096), University of Paris in France (est: 1150), and the University of Cambridge in Britain (est: 1209). Before these universities, the learning centres were from the Grand Islamic civilisations in Andalusia, Spain, and Al Baitul Hiqma (The House of Wisom) in Baghdad. The east had the Bihars in Ancient Northern India, and the great learning centres in China. Be they in Europe or the Middle East, these initial universities shared some similarities. Medieval universities were born as religious institutions that catered for religious teachings.
Alongside religious teaching, all these ancient learning centres promoted the learning of philosophy and law, astronomy, geometry and mathematics and experimental sciences. Thanks to the preservation of records and passing down of knowledge from one generation to another in written form and through oral tradition, the thoughts of Aristotle and others in the West; Confucius and others in the East; and Averroes (Ibn Rushd), Al Beruni, Avicenna (Ibn Sina) and the other grand maestros in the Middle East were alive and sleeping only waiting for a spark. That spark came in the 16th and 17th centuries during the age of exploration; and the age of scientific discoveries dawned on human civilisation.
Slowly and gradually the medieval universities adapted to meet the needs of the age. By the second half of the 19th century the medieval universities transformed and started to become the modern universities of today. By then the 'old schools'- the old universities of Europe in particular- had already started to attract leading philosophers of their day who were on the brink of creating an intellectual revolution. Issac Newton and Charles Darwin from Cambridge; David Hume from Edinburgh and Adam Smith from Glasgow are just four thinkers from the British Isles alone who came through Universities. Continental Europe is full of names that would make a very long list. By the beginning of the 20th Century, United States emerged as a beacon of civilisation by becoming the melting-pot of all human intellect through long-term investment in higher education. All the roads started to lead to the universities where the beacon of civilisation lay.
New universities and new centres of learning started to surface from the second half of the 19th century. This is a trend that has continued worldwide and carries on continuing. The University of Dhaka was established in 1921 and remains one of the oldest universities of this region.
What separates modern universities from ancient learning centres and the medieval universities is that modern universities provide a platform for the extension of human knowledge. Due to the technological revolution through the Internet, today knowledge of scientific advancements and contributions can be shared in the twinkle of an eye. This sharing could easily have taken decades before the advent of the digital age. If World War II is considered a watershed in human history, then today worldly philosophers no longer spring from thin air. Almost all of them have to pass through universities now. The modern university has become an integral part of human knowledge and wisdom.
Modern universities also provide a vital education that is sometimes overlooked. They make contributions towards the training of an educated labour force that keeps the wheels of the economy moving and run faster than before. This training reduces the training costs for employers of university graduates in the public and the private sectors. University education does not mean that a student is intelligent only. Intelligence also reflects that a student is suitable for particular tasks. Birds of a feather flock together. Intelligent students tend to go to universities that have a better reputation than others. Future employers seek students from these leading universities because that reduces their training costs. This feature of modern universities increases the demand for places in universities that have a national and international repute.
Modern universities have come a long way from the learning centres of ancient civilisations. The basic intent remains the same- to preserve and pass on human experience to the next generation. Universities are the silent tablets that have preserved the secrets of the heavens since the days of Gilgamesh and the Babylonian civilisation. The majesty of a civilisation is expressed through the majesty of the free thinking that exists only in universities. Let us preserve the sanctity of universities and let it blossom and bloom. Once that sanctity ceases to exist, our existence will also cease to exist.
(The author teaches economic theory at Jahangirnagar University and North South University.)