Students should be studying, not protesting – is a comment that is heard every time campuses across India, such as Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jamia Millia Islamia recently, erupt into protests. Indian students who question the Narendra Modi regime and its policies like the Citizenship (Amendment) Act are instantly branded ‘anti-Nationals’ and ‘urban Naxals’. But protests aren’t the trademark of ‘Leftist bastions’ only, as is clear from student protests in every other campus and every other town in India. It is a moment to remind ourselves that even the students of the first university in the world weren’t afraid to speak their mind and question their ‘masters’.
From its very inception as an institutional form, the university has been marked by student power and student agitations. And it has always been a space that goes beyond a nation’s borders and its government.
After all, by its very name, the university signals a borderless universe of travelling ideas and travelling scholars.
The oldest university of the world, the University of Bologna, set up in 1088, was a student-controlled university. Students travelled to Bologna from all across Europe, organised themselves into ‘nations’, because they were often foreigners to the city and needed to protect themselves from discrimination and persecution by locals. They themselves made the rules of university administration, to which the masters had to conform. Each ‘nation’ elected its own councillor, and councillors together elected the rector. In France, unlike in Italy, the university started as an organisation of masters. And yet, student agitations were common and especially successful in the 14th century, when students gained representation in university governments and influenced curricula.
The university in medieval Europe was not a place or a building. And it was certainly not a national institution. Rather it was a community or congregation of scholars of many nationalities, like a guild, or a corporation, or a trade union of professionals, who agitated for special privileges and charters of autonomy, not only from the state but also from the townspeople of wherever they were located. They would leave the city otherwise. It was because of these threats of migration that King Philip of France had to issue a proclamation in 1306 stating that all university teachers and students in Paris were under special guardianship and should be free from injury, oppression, and violence by citizens. They were also exempt from taxes and military service. Scholars were scholars and not French subjects.
The point of citing this history is not only to remind ourselves that student power is not incidental to the university but actually inherent in its institutional history. But more importantly, it is to remind ourselves that historically, the university has always exceeded the nation as a mental horizon and structure of governance.
Universities, beyond nations
George Makdisi’s study of medieval and early modern institutions of higher learning in the Islamic world makes this point – that Muslim scholars were necessarily itinerant and at home in different countries, both by virtue of being a scholar and a Muslim who was, in the theological imagination of those days, a world citizen.
The university’s relationship with nationalism, therefore, is necessarily fraught, given that nationalism, if anything, is about borders and border policing. But while it is possible to police the movement of humans, it is far more difficult to police ideas. Ideas cross borders with greater ease than even money and capital. The university in principle is meant to be an embodied institutional form of this infinite mobility and diversity of ideas.
But unlike in earlier times of the university as a corporation, the modern university as we know it today emerged in the early 19th century in tandem and tension with nationalism, a history that continues to traumatise us even today.
Basis of the modern university
The modern university – defined as an institution that combines teaching with research and, therefore, as a locus of knowledge production rather than just education and/or skill enhancement – is conventionally seen as the doing of one Wilhelm von Humboldt (1767-1835), a Prussian education minister, diplomat, philosopher, linguist and founder of the University of Berlin.
Humboldt propagated the concept of , a form of intellectual self-cultivation, nurtured in a protected and secluded environment, free of outside interference and of immediate, practical considerations, including everyday political and religious disputes. was a response to the earlier history of universities, which had become entangled in hostility with the Church and despite charters of autonomy, often persecuted for heresy and blasphemy.
But Humboldt had unwittingly replaced the Church by the absolutist state as the ultimate guarantor of intellectual freedom. What was earlier a collective of scholars was henceforth placed squarely within the jurisdiction of the nation-state.
So, while the Humboldtian university sought to consecrate rational universal philosophy in place of dogmatic religious oversight, it fell into the lap of another dogma, namely that of national self-glorification. When the University of Berlin was set up in 1810, its first rector and professor of philosophy was none other than Johann Gottlieb Fichte, who in his said: “Only the independent survival of the German nation assures man eternity; he must be willing even to die, that his nation may live, and that he may live in it the only life he has ever desired.”
There is much debate amongst historians about how far Fichte’s nationalism took him, given that Fichte was also member of the nationalist organisation Deutsche Tischgesellschaft, a group that had anti-Semitism as a core tenet of its programme.
An unhappy burden
The unhappy relationship of the university with nationalism as a political religion comes through most tragically in the otherwise magnificent philosopher Martin Heidegger’s address as rector of the University of Freiburg. Heidegger actually said, believe it or not, that the ‘historical spiritual mission’ of the German university was identical to the mission of the German people, which in turn was identical to the mission of the German state. The later story of Nazi Germany and of the tragic flight of intellectuals from the land, alongside pathetic cases of conformity and obedience amongst the faculty, is well known.
It is not entirely surprising then that today most people cannot imagine the university except as a holy seat of nationalism, putting paid to the imagination of a seamless and borderless universe of ideas. But let us not forget that even in the heyday of India’s nationalism, when nationalists boycotted colonial institutions, including colleges and universities, and set up national institutions of higher learning, there was still an intense debate in India about whether the world of ideas can ever be fitted into a national and nationalist framework.
The most famous dissenting voice, who found nationalism to be dangerous to the cause of knowledge, was none other than Rabindranath Tagore, who translated the word ‘university’ as ‘’. That is what he named his university in Shantiniketan, ‘the abode of calm’. In his 1923 Declaration, Tagore said, in his characteristic poetic style, that was ‘where the world makes its home in a single nest’. Scholars, he said, were pilgrims who travelled many paths and not just the straight and narrow of nationalism. It’s time India realises that.