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The modern social sciences, as well as all other forms of knowledge, are primarily studied and taught in universities. Not all the social sciences disciplines can trace their origins directly back to the twelfth century when universities first appeared. Many evolved indirectly from subjects taught at the original universities, such as law, logic, philosophy, and medicine. But the university’s main role in the development of the social sciences is primarily the result of manifold changes occurring in the second half of the nineteenth century. Demographic and urban growth, industrialization, democracy, and religious pluralism provided new arenas for academic inquiry and problem-solving and produced the array of disciplines commonly united under the heading of the social sciences. Economics, sociology, anthropology, demography, psychology, city planning, and history of science came of age as autonomous university-based disciplines.


As a special type of educational institution, universities emerged almost unnoticed in three locations: Bologna, Paris, and Oxford. The circumstances were propitious. Trade had improved, cities were expanding, and municipal, imperial, and ecclesiastical authorities were in need of trained talent. Cities provided the necessary population, the facilities, the markets, and the career opportunities. Student fees, gifts, and ecclesiastical resources supported teaching, and universities were expected to help define and encourage religious belief. Until approximately the nineteenth century, most graduates of universities entered clerical careers, and most academics were ordained priests and ministers. Secularism and pluralism called into question many religious assumptions. At the same time universities embraced new forms of critical and scientific thinking, and as a consequence theology became just another subject rather than a primary focus, even within faith-based colleges.

In the beginning, the intellectual, philosophical, and scientific starting point of all teaching and learning was the corpus of encyclopedic writings mainly but not solely derived from Aristotle, preserved by Arabic scholars and transmitted to Italy in what historians have called the Renaissance of the Twelfth Century. This was the first of two revivals of ancient Greek and Latin learning in the Western world, the second commencing with the Italian Renaissance of the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The medieval curriculum itself derived from the seven Roman liberal arts of logic, rhetoric, grammar, dialectic, astronomy, music, geometry, and arithmetic, but these were regarded as preparation for the professions of medicine, law (civil and canonical), and divinity rather than subjects in their own right. All were grouped into administrative structures called “faculties.” Although at first glance the seven liberal arts appear to be limited to mathematical and language studies, the process of teaching and expounding them furthered their development as multifaceted disciplines.

By the early modern period hundreds of universities had been founded in Europe by both secular and religious authorities, spreading from the Atlantic to Russia. During the ages of exploration Spain and Portugal established universities in their New World colonial territories, primarily to train imperial administrators and priests. Further north, the British settlements, beginning with Massachusetts, established university colleges to provide the colonies with an educated class. The first university in Japan came at the end of the nineteenth century, and in China in the twentieth. By the nineteenth century the utility of universities and college alternatives was so clearly accepted that governing elites associated their existence with the health of a modern bureaucratic state and economy.

New Knowledge and Structures

There is a popular tendency to regard universities as conservative institutions and resistant to change. Academic costumes, rituals, and ceremonies provide an impression of unbroken tradition through the ages, as do the forms of teaching. But the conservatism of universities is merely apparent. Sometimes deliberately, but often accidentally, the pursuit of learning by its very nature yields new conceptions, methods of inquiry, and startling intellectual movements. Two of the most closely studied are the scientific revolution of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the transformation of the liberal arts during the Italian Renaissance.

In both cases examples can be found of innovations that grew out of the scholarly methods taught at universities. But there was also internal resistance. The heliocentric universe described by the Polish astronomer Copernicus (1473–1543) and publicized by the Italian physicist Galileo (1564–1642) undermined theological assumptions about the purpose, scale, and physical laws governing the cosmos. As a consequence, subsequent generations of scientists gravitated to newly establish royal societies where they could work unimpeded. In the same way, humanistic scholars using new critical methods of historical analysis founded academies where the liberal arts could be taught from a different perspective. Ruling elites were in favor. They desired education more closely focused on statecraft and better suited to the growing individualist cultures of the Renaissance. Yet intellectual cooperation between universities and the outside world never altogether ceased.

Disciplines alter over time, but so does the organization of teaching. Within a century or two of the founding of universities, colleges joined faculties as centers of instruction, improved discipline, and residence for students and instructors. Colleges were either freestanding or connected to existing universities, and among the most academically enterprising and successful were the Jesuit foundations of the Counter-Reformation. By the nineteenth century, however, colleges had largely disappeared from Europe, except for Oxford and Cambridge, where they remain, or in America with its distinct family of liberal arts colleges. Other examples of new administrative and teaching structures that arose, especially in the later centuries, are disciplinary departments, scientific laboratories, botanical gardens, observatories, art museums, marine biological stations, and ethnographical institutes. Libraries continued to buttress all pedagogical efforts.

Eventually the radical curricular changes associated with the early modern period were fully embraced by universities. As a consequence, the thrust of universities changed from places that mainly preserved and disseminated inherited learning, however modified in practice, to places devoted to discovering new knowledge. Research as the primary missions of universities is usually said to have started in Germany with the foundation of the University of Berlin in 1809; there were, however, earlier manifestations. Yet universal adoption of the research ethic was a phenomenon of the second half of the century, burgeoning in the century that followed.

Academic Freedom

The universities of the Middle Ages were genuinely international. The curriculum was similar, and the language of instruction was Latin. Students migrated to the leading centers from all corners of Europe. But the spread and popularity of vernacular languages, combined with political and religious divisions in the early modern period, altered the patterns of student mobility. Universities became more conspicuously national. Regarded as extensions of state power, the political loyalty of academics was under continual scrutiny.

Academic commitment to religious orthodoxy was also closely watched during the early modern period. The wars between Protestants and Roman Catholics created church and state alliances unknown in the centuries of a universal Christendom. But no matter how threatening the new conditions to academic freedom and institutional autonomy were, they did not compare to the calamities inflicted on universities, teaching, and freedom of inquiry by totalitarian regimes and nondemocratic governments of the twentieth century and afterward.

The historical lessons clearly show that knowledge growth requires both external and internal freedom. Although universities originally developed as self-governing institutions with the right to own and dispose of property, they are only as free and independent as their societies and governments allow. And they are only as tolerant and open-minded in teaching and learning as are the devotion to those ideals of professors and students.


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  • Bender, Thomas, ed. 1988. The University and the City, from Medieval Origins to the Present. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Clark, Burton R., and Guy R. Neave, eds. 1992. The Encyclopedia of Higher Education. 4 vols. New York: Pergamon Press.
  • De Ridder-Symoens, Hilde, ed. 1992. Universities in the Middle Ages. Vol. 1 of A History of the University in Europe. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  • De Ridder-Symoens, Hilde, ed. 1996. Universities in Early Modern Europe. Vol. 2 of A History of the University in Europe. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.
  • Heilbron, John L. 2006. Coming to Terms with the Scientific Revolution. Uppsala, Sweden: Uppsala University, Office for the History of Science.
  • Hofstadter, Richard, and Walter P. Metzger. 1955. The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States. New York: Columbia University Press.
  • Marsden, George M. 1994. The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief. New York: Oxford University Press.
  • Rashdall, Hastings. 1987. The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages, eds. F. M. Powicke and A. B. Emden. New York: Oxford University Press.

Source Citation

"University, The." International Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences. Ed. William A. Darity, Jr.. Vol. 8. 2nd ed. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2008. 531-533. Gale Virtual Reference Library. Gale.