From Stability to Mobility: An Emerging Paradigm for Higher Learning
Carney Strange, Ph.D.
Bowling Green State University
From simple beginnings centuries ago, the roots of today’s institutions of higher learning most familiar to us lie deep within the culture of a monastic tradition dating to sixth century Rome. There it was that the Rule of Saint Benedict first gathered the strands of a number of extant prescriptions to characterize the nature of community life as schooling – inviting candidates to learn the ways of prayer (ora) and work (labora), through commitment to a specific place and a particular people.
It was this cenobitic culture (i.e., grounded in community life) and its adherents (i.e., monks) that preserved learning itself, transcribing the Wisdom of the Ages and creating the first libraries of printed knowledge. Thus, the fundamentals of monastic life formed a basic template for the first universities, for example, at Bologna (c.1088), Oxford (c.1096), and Cambridge (c.1209), with many of the very same characteristics we associate with academic culture today.
From the physical layout of a quad and residential facilities, to the appointment of deans and the donning of robes and hoods for convocations and commencements, these are the trappings of Medieval monastic design that shaped the great centers of learning for centuries that followed.
At the core of this evolution was its emphasis on stability, that is the willingness to come, to stay, and to learn. This was a vowed commitment to remain at one physical place, within a specific community of people, for purposes of listening and learning from others how one might change toward what one was supposed to become.
Accordingly, it was these three vows, as the Latin rubric named them, of stabilitas (to stand still), obedientia (to listen), and conversatio (to turn oneself around), that framed the learner’s journey in the monastery until the “day of graduation” (that is, at one’s earthly passing). The essence of this experience – taking up residence in a community of others in order to discover oneself, constituted the principal ethos of the earliest institutions of higher learning in Western culture, leading to some of the most important features we have come to recognize in the very best of them.
It was this communal model that also dominated the learning landscape for centuries and defined the experience of John Harvard (1607-1638) at Emmanuel College (University of Cambridge). That same design guided the foundation of his namesake institution in America, which in turn influenced the layout and organization of numerous other institutions for the centuries that followed.