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By Jonathan M. Smith


The Montréal Review, October 2018


Leviathan, 52'' x 72'', oil on canvas, 1996, by Richard Bunkall


I have often heard it said that the word university indicates the offering of universal knowledge. Like a great many things I have often heard said, this is not true. The word university means and always has meant a corporation, since a university is nothing more or less than a corporation of learned men.  The collective knowledge of these learned men may be patchy and partial, but the learned men are unified.

That is the unity indicated by the word university.

We have this word from the medieval universitas magistrorum et scholarium, which may be fairly translated as “corporation of masters and scholars.”  The masters were the learned teachers (hence the Master’s degree) and the scholars were the less learned students (from the Greek scholastes, or persons freed from the need to toil for their bread). When a collection of pedants united in a body, the corporation was called a university.

The word college likewise meant a body of men incorporated for some purpose.  We see this in cognate words like collegial and colleague.  We also see it in archaic titles such as College of Cardinals, College de Propaganda Fide, and Electoral College.  When that purpose is (or is to simulate) the life of learning, we have a college in the modern academic sense of the word.  But there is at bottom no real difference between a college and a company.  A college is just scholars who work in company with one another.

Colleges and universities were inventions of the Roman Church, and one can still catch a whiff of things ecclesiastical and Roman in some of their titles and ways.  The title of dean, for instance, comes from a sort of platoon sergeant in the Roman army. A dean was originally the leader of ten men, but the title eventually passed to the head of the chapter, or governing committee, of a monastery or cathedral.  When a title was needed for the head of an academic college, dean was therefore an obvious choice.  My College naturally has its Dean, although it does not have a beautiful gothic chapter house in which she and the department heads meet.

Corporations of learned men have the strengths and weaknesses of other corporations, and this is why the learning produced in universities so much resembles the food produced in chain restaurants.  Both are dependable but rather dull.

This is why art historians use the adjective “academic” to denote a period in which painters converge on a standard of “uniform mediocrity.”  As Fuseli put it:

“Indiscriminate imitation must end in the extinction of character, and that in mediocrity—the cypher of art” (Lectures on Painting, 1801).

It must be remembered that mediocrity was not a pejorative word in 1801, and meant only average or middling.  Because they imitate each other, academic artists and thinkers necessarily converge on a uniform standard of mean or average quality.  Adherence to academic rules elevates the performance of the plodding dullards, but it at at the same time hobbles and retards the geniuses.  As was said in a different context,

“Every valley shall be exalted,
and every mountain and hill shall be made low.”

I have elsewhere opined that academic writing is mostly “butt sniffing,” a vulgarism suggesting just what Fuseli suggested with the words “indiscriminate imitation.”  You should not let my vulgar image obscure the fact that, for half of the scholars in the corporation, this butt sniffing is a salutary and improving education.

The mediocrity of Edward Gibbon’s Oxford professors caused the great historian to call them “academical bigots,” and to say that the fourteen months he spent at Magdalen College were “the most idle and unprofitable of my whole life.”  We should not think too harshly of those long-dead dons, since corporate academics are bigoted by design. University men think as a unit. Confronted with an extraordinary character like Edward Gibbon, they therefor naturally set to work grading this mountain down to the dead level of their uniform mediocrity.

That is what a university does.  That is how it achieves unity.  That is why it is a handmaiden of Leviathan.


*Originally published in orthosphere.wordpress.com


Jonathan M. Smith is a cultural-historical geographer primarily interested in the history of geographical ideas and geographical thought. He has published articles on geographers’ use of metaphor, irony, and rhetoric, on the development of geographical concepts such as region, place, and environmental ethics, and on the geographical imagination in 17th century England and the 19th century United States. He has also published articles on landscape symbolism, the role of technology in geographical change, and the geographical conditions of contemporary identity. He has co-edited six books and is presently co-editor of the journal Ethics, Place, and Environment.


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