How the modern university may go the way of the monasteries

This article is from the WLUFA Advocate April 2016 4.9.

Dr. Jason Sager, former CAS, Department of History

The other evening, I met up with a good friend and former colleague from Laurier at one of my favourite haunts in Waterloo. It was a thoroughly enjoyable evening as it had been some time since we had last seen each other. Surrounded by exposed brick and artificially distressed wood, I was reminded of why I loved academic life in spite of being underpaid and underemployed as a contact faculty member.

Our conversation was sparkling and intellectually engaging. As the evening wore on, the conversation turned to the subject of the fate of the institutional university. Much of what we discussed has been explored in minute detail in different forums (although Stefan Collini’s articles in the London Review of Books on the conditions universities in the UK face are harrowing and worth the read). However, my friend made a point that I found to be quite insightful.

Years ago during a conversation with his former PhD advisor, he had mentioned some of the growing realities of the modern university. After listening, the PhD advisor responded by comparing the modern university to medieval monasteries on the eve of their collapse during the Reformation of the 16th century.

As a historian of early modern Europe who slummed in the medieval era, I think that such a comparison makes considerable sense. Even at the dawn of the Reformation—which helped see off a millennia of old culture throughout northern Europe—there was little sense that the monastic enterprise would come to an end. Of course, complaints and social trends had begun to undermine the privileged position that the monastic movement enjoyed throughout medieval Europe. While there had always been complaints about monastic laxity or abbatial abuses, the orders were too powerful and too protected to be really concerned that they would truly ever be displaced. Furthermore, after an existence of nearly 1,000 years, it is difficult to conceive that things would change so drastically.
And yet change came, and the monasteries were displaced. In England, when Henry VIII turned his cannons on the religious orders during the Dissolution of the Monasteries—leaving little more than the haunting ruins that now dot the Yorkshire landscape—he demolished more than the Gothic religious heritage of England; he tore down the religious and intellectual structures that had supported the monasteries and con-vents, forever altering England’s religious landscape. However, the initial stages were less dramatic than that. In 1535, Thomas Cromwell led a commission to determine the spiritual state of England’s monasteries. There was no question as to the outcome of the investigation. Reporting their findings in 1536, Cromwell and his agents presented a picture of a monastic world dominated by loose morals, gluttonous monks, illiterate abbots and centres of blasphemy—an image mostly of Cromwell’s imagination. No matter. Within a few years, England’s monastic heritage crumbled under Henry’s onslaught.

In Germany, where the Lutheran Reformation took hold, monasteries were closed down and many of their inhabitants were married off or left to their own devices, events that anticipated developments in Revolutionary France nearly 300 years later. Even the regions of Europe where Catholicism maintained its primacy, the popularity of cloistered monasticism also waned in popularity.

So what does this have to do with the modern state of the university? Quite a bit, I think. First of all, today’s university can trace its origins to the monastic and cathedral schools of the late 11th and early 12th centuries. Hence, Universities and monasteries share a long-standing common tradition even as the university evolved over time. Throughout this evolution, universities for the most part maintained their basic structure and function for nearly 800 years. And like the monks did in 1500, we have assumed that the university would continue forever. Yet, as with the monasteries then, so too the universities are now under threat of disappearing.

To be fair, universities are not being bombarded with cannonade, but something more insidious is at play. For the past 30 to 40 years, the raison d’e tre of the university has come under attack in the guise of criticism of the value of the liberal arts and humanities. Disciplines such as History, English, Literary Studies and Art History are considered irrelevant to labour market demands of the 21st century. As a result, colleges of Arts throughout the Anglo-Saxon world have been on the defensive, attempting to mount a defense of our existence by emphasizing “skills” such subjects provide.

The relevance of the humanities has been further eroded by the emphasis put on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) subjects, again with the claim that graduates need to be ready for the jobs of the future. There is nothing wrong with the idea in principle and the more money available for the sciences should be welcomed. But that funding has come at the expense of the humanities. For example, at Laurier, a multimil-lion-dollar state-of-the-art building has been built to house the School of Business and Economics and the Department of Mathematics while the Faculty of Arts will end up being housed in the outdated and worn out hand-me-downs.

And just like the monasteries, universities have become complacent and failed to recognize our dependency on the goodwill of the society in which they operate. While there were many defenders of the old monastic world, the fact is, for a greater number of people, the monasteries had outlasted their value. Anyone who doesn’t think that that is happening now only needs to read the comment section of any local paper to see how unsupported universities are by the general public.


With massive increases in university enrollment in the 1950s and 1960s, we assumed that our work was done. This was something the late Jane Jacobs understood.
The overturning of progressive victories achieved during the post-war period happened largely because we assumed the value and social benefits of those accomplishments—whether publically funded roads or the strengthening of the social safety net—would be self-evident to all, and require little effort on our part to constantly remind the public of their value.

Instead, we need to consistently fight these battles. Barry Goldwater’s 1964 US presidential campaign was the first warning that progressive policies—often informed by the liberal arts—would be seen as frivolous luxuries, or even worse, dangerous. The Reagan–Thatcher decade was the warm-up act for what was to come in the subsequent 25 years.

Of course, other challenges to the existence of the university come from the same developments that have disrupted other sectors of the economy. The rise of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) and advances in technology bring with them many exciting opportunities. (Imagine the possibility of inexpensive virtual reality technology to recreate a historical event that students could experience.) They also bring dangers. MOOCs have provided more people more opportunities to engage in continual learning, but they have exerted downward pressure on wages of university instructors as well, for example.

This is no cri de coeur, but rather a sobering acknowledgment that we might be witnessing the end of the university as we know it. Knowing the profound challenges facing the universities might mean that we can avoid the fate of the monasteries. By facing up to those challenges, we can still preserve the mission of the university while adapting to cultural, technological and political forces that will always be with us.

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