Ancient Centers of Higher Learning: A Bias in the Comparative History of the University?
The historiography of the university is open to cultural and national appropriation.
By Michael A. Peters
Beijing Normal University
The university is a European institution; indeed, it is the European institution par excellence. There are various reasons for this assertion. As a community of teachers and taught, accorded certain rights, such as administrative autonomy and the determination and realisation of curricula (courses of study) and of the objectives of research as well as the award of publicly recognised degrees, it is a creation of medieval Europe, which was the Europe of papal Christianity […].Walter Rüegg (1992) ‘Foreword. The University as a European Institution’, in: Hilde de Ridder-Symoens (Ed.) A History of the University in Europe. Vol. 1: Universities in the Middle Ages, Cambridge University Press, p. xix.
If the ‘university’ was a European institution, it is no longer exclusively the child of medieval Europe. Rather it is now truly a global institution with national and regional characteristics, often grafted onto institutions and traditions of higher learning that pre-date the birth of the medieval university. It is the case that the global form of the modern research university, originating with the Humboldt reforms and the establishment of the University of Berlin in 1811, served as a model that was exported to the US and other parts of the world. The modern research university that developed in the 19th and 20th centuries is very different from the medieval university. It is not clear what exactly is being claimed when Rüegg’s makes his claim. J. K. Hyde (1991) makes a similar claim:
The statement that all universities are descended either directly or by migration from these three prototypes [Oxford, Paris, and Bologna] depends, of course, on one’s definition of a university. And I must define a university very strictly here. A university is something more than a center of higher education and study. One must reserve the term university for—and I’m quoting Rashdall here—‘a scholastic guild, whether of masters or students, engaged in higher education and study,’ which was later defined, after the emergence of universities, as ‘studium generale’.
The historiography of the university is open to cultural and national appropriation. A great deal hangs on the claim ‘the first university in the world’. It furnishes also a peculiar privileging of the historical form of institutions of higher education when it is said ‘A university is something more than a center of higher education and study.’ George Makdisi (1970) puts it this way:
Thus the university, as a form of social organization, was peculiar to medieval Europe. Later, it was exported to all parts of the world, including the Muslim East; and it has remained with us down to the present day. But back in the Middle Ages, outside of Europe, there was nothing anything quite like it anywhere.
One is inclined to reason differently: the university as a form of organization was peculiar to medieval Europe but there were organizational forms of higher learning peculiar to India, China, and the Middle East that considerably predate the European form. We should say then that the ‘university’ is a form that originates historically in Europe but that it is only one form that ancient centers of higher learning took and that non-European monastic forms considerably predate universities in Europe. This would counter the tendencies to provide the ‘lists’ approach to the first universities, claiming the form as an historic first and part of an exclusive European history.1 In the vein, Jacques Verger (2003) writes:
No one today would dispute the fact that universities, in the sense in which the term is now generally understood, were a creation of the Middle Ages, appearing for the first time between the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It is no doubt true that other civilizations, prior to, or wholly alien to, the medieval West, such as the Roman Empire, Byzantium, Islam or China, were familiar with forms of higher education which a number of historians, for the sake of convenience, have sometimes described as universities. Yet a closer look makes it plain that the institutional reality was altogether different and, no matter what has been said on the subject, there is no real link such as would justify us in associating them with medieval universities in the West. Until there is definite proof to the contrary, these latter must be regarded as the sole source of the model which gradually spread through the whole of Europe and then to the whole world. We are therefore concerned with what is indisputably an original institution, which can only be defined in terms of a historical analysis of its emergence and its mode of operation in concrete circumstances.
In this statement, it is not clear what Verger (2003) means by ‘no real link such as would justify us in associating them with medieval universities in the West’. Verger’s claim is for ‘an original institution’ but then why wouldn’t he investigate and comment on the form of other ancient centers of high learning, some of which predate the medieval European university by thousands of years? Clearly, many of these Asian and Middle Eastern institutions took distinct organizational forms, they were as in the case of the Indian ancient centers of learning based on and responsible for the protection of an archive of sacred religious texts, the first in an Indo-European language. These Asian and Middle Eastern ancient centers of learning were the textual basis for the world’s major religions—Hinduism, Buddhism, and Islam. Surely these cultural achievements must count for something in the one-up-man-ship histories we are taught?
As a matter of fact, it is not the case that European Christianity was untouched by Asia during the medieval era. Joseph A.P. Wilson (2009, p. 169) suggests that ‘certain Indian ethical tenets were incorporated into Christian ascetic practices as a consequence of interaction with heretical intermediaries.’ He comments on the Eurocentrism of scholars in the study of religion indicating that the religious scholar ‘Albert Edmunds coined the term Romocentrism to describe the ignorance of European scholars about the extent of Asian influence upon Western religions and cultures’ citing him to suggest ‘the Mediterranean culture [is] a cage for the historical mind’ (p. 170). Edmunds, as Wilson remarks, challenges the assumption that ‘Western religions developed in isolation from Asia.’ Wilson himself extends this revisionist critique to show the Buddhist influence on the European High Middle Ages (c. 1000–1300 CE) during the period of the establishment of the first universities including the medieval translation of several Buddhist texts and their gradual Christianisation. There was also huge Arab-Christian trade during this period which became a corridor for mutual influence (Agius & Hitchcock, 1994).
The term that came to be associated with the medieval university, Studium generale indicated a number of criteria. In The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages, Rashdall (1895) suggests the following criteria:
- that it received students from everywhere (not merely the local district or region);
- That it engaged in higher learning—i.e. that it went beyond teaching the Arts,and had at least one of the higher faculties (Theology, Law or Medicine).
- that a significant part of the teaching was done by Masters (teachers with a higher degree)
- that it enjoyed the privilege of jus ubique docendi—i.e. masters of that school were entitled to teach in any other school without a preliminary examination.
- that its teachers and students were allowed to enjoy any clerical benefices they might have elsewhere without meeting the mandatory residency requirements prescribed by Canon Law.
- that it enjoyed some degree of autonomy from local civil and diocesal authorities.See also Pedersen (1997).
These criteria once shred of its Catholic particularities contain little or nothing that distinguishes the medieval university from ancient centers of higher learning. While the word ‘university’ is derived from the Latin in the form universitas magistrorum et scholarium, first coined by the University of Bologne (founded in 1088), the origins are to be traced to the first Catholic cathedral or monastic schools in the 6th century. Thus, Wikipedia’s ‘List of oldest universities in continuous operation’2 makes this comment, excluding institutions of higher learning from ancient India, China, the Islamic world, Persia, Greece, Rome, and Byzantium because of ‘dissimilarities’.
Other institutions of higher learning, such as those of ancient Greece, ancient Persia, ancient Rome, Byzantium, ancient China, ancient India and the Islamic world, are not included in this list owing to their cultural, historical, structural and juristic dissimilarities from the medieval European university from which the modern university evolved.
I view these exclusions of the rest of the world as both unjustified and unwarranted. ‘Cultural, historical, structural and juristic dissimilarities’ are only asserted but not proved. Any procedure of proof or evidence for such a statement would take extensive archeological, historical, cultural, religious and historiographical investigations and a familiarity with the sacred texts and early Sanskrit and other ancient languages to justify the claim. The fact is that Western scholars of the ‘university’ probably do not possess these skills or this experience, and much of the evidence has been permanently lost and must be reconstructed from ruins, some of which have not yet been uncovered. There is little by way of literature in English available on ancient centers of learning demonstrating that few scholars have pursued these themes. The words ‘continuous operation’ also serve an exclusionary function. The fact that ancient centers of higher learning were establish thousands of years before the European medieval universities and have been subject to conquests and sackings does not seem a good ground for excluding them ‘the world’s oldest universities’. To me this smacks of an Orientalism in history and historiography that privileges Europe and the West without adequate qualification, investigation or argumentation. Neither can I understand why Wikipedia authors would exclude ancient Greece and Rome when clearly the medieval universities had strongly historical links to the Platonic Academy established in 387 B.C., which was, for example, emulated by the Florentine Platonic Academy. Aristotle’s Peripatetic School, established around 335 B.C. and sacked by Sulla in 86 B.C., exercise an important philosophical influence on the European medieval universities. The historical complexity within the western tradition when we take the Imperial University of Constantinople, established 425, and Pandidaketrion, into account. Pandidaketrion was founded with some 31 chairs in diverse subjects and refounded in 1046. It survived until the 15th century. It is the case that Byzantine higher education were strongly influenced by Greek philosophy:
The university maintained an active philosophical tradition of Platonism and Aristotelianism, with the former being the longest unbroken Platonic school, running for close to two millennia until the 15th century. http://www.self.gutenberg.org/articles/Pandidakterion
Paul Vincent Spade (2018) puts the case decisively when he writes:
The originators of the notion of the Middle Ages were thinking primarily of the so called ‘Latin West,’ the area, roughly speaking, of Roman Catholicism. While it is true that this region was to some extent a unit, culturally separate from its neighbors, it is also true that medieval philosophy was decisively influenced by ideas from the Greek East, from the Jewish philosophical tradition, and from Islam. If one takes medieval philosophy to include the Patristic period, as the present author prefers to do, then the area must be expanded to include, at least during the early centuries, Greek-speaking eastern Europe, as well as North Africa and parts of Asia Minor.
The Aristotelian view of the physical world informed the medieval universities for over 450 years up until the first fruits of the new science empiricism in the seventeenth century began to replace it. As Christina Thomsen Thörnqvist (2017) explains: ‘Parts of Aristotle’s writings were translated into Arabic and over the centuries countless thinkers have left behind them works inspired by him; including Avicenna, Averroës Apuleius, Boethius, Porphyry and Plethon.’3 Garth Kemmerling (2011) comments:
Nearly all of the medieval thinkers—Jewish, Christian, and Muslim—were pre-occupied with some version of the attempt to synthesis philosophy with religion. Early on, the neoplatonism philosophy of Plotinus seemed to provide the most convenient intellectual support for religious doctrine. But later in the medieval era, thanks especially to the work of the Arabic-language thinkers, Aristotle’s metaphysics gained a wider acceptance. In every case, the goal was to provide a respectable philosophical foundation for theological positions. https://brewminate.com/ancient-and-medieval-philosophy-the-origin-of-western-thought-medieval-philosophy-and-religion/
The rise of new forms of education and the universities in the medieval era were exclusively concerned with Christianity and mostly Catholicism. The monastic schools associated with the monasteries, individual ‘masters’ who set up their own schools, cathedral schools and universities, were set up by a royal charter with granted by a royal or ecclesiastical authority. Philosophy was cultivated in the Arts faculty and Thomas Aquinas (1224/25–74), John Duns Scotus (c. 1265–1308), William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347) and Bonaventure (1221–74) were the main figures in the later medieval period focused on the problem of the compatibility of the divine attributes, the problem of evil, and the question of human free will and it compatible with divine foreknowledge (Spade, 2018).
One of the problems with comparative ancient history of world higher education is that historiographical traditions are notoriously open to question on the basis of racism which is perhaps not surprising with the origins of European racism tied to slavery. In the ancient world ‘the belief in the heritability of acquired characteristics and the belief in the importance of lineage’ (Issac, 2004, p. 38–39) were particularly important. Edward Said’s (1978) Orientalism demonstrated the questionable representations of the East in the eyes of Western scholars with its presumption of Western superiority often demonstrated through historical narratives. In Black Athena (1978, 1991, 2006) Bernal examines ‘The Afroasiatic Roots of Classical Civilization’ and the ideology fostered by European historians in the nineteenth that ancient Greece did not bear any of the traces of influences from African and Phoenician sources. One does not have to accept Bernal’s thesis of Black Athena to accept the ideologies of classical scholarship.
I do not have the space to elaborate or substantiate these charges of ideological history in European comparative history of medieval universities here but I do want to make a case for the extraordinary diversity and early origin of ancient centers of higher learning in countries and areas outside Europe which might help first to acknowledge their significance in establishing major world religions, traditions of law and literature, forms of pedagogy and kinds of organization of knowledge and wisdom, let alone traditions of scholarship steeped in the ancient languages.
Universities of Ancient India
The universities of ancient India have a prouder history than that of their counterparts in the ancient western world. At least one of them, viz., Takshaiila, flourished several centuries before the Universities of Alexandria, Athens and Constantinople. The universities of ancient India had also a more impressive teaching and research programme. The teachers who taught in the hallowed precincts of Takshaiiia, Nalanda and Vikramaila were scholars of high eminence and repute. This is not all. The cordial relationship that existed be- tween them and their students was indeed sublime. Such ideal teacher-student relationship has no parallel in the long history of educational thought and practice.T. K. N. Menon, Editor’s Note, p. 4, Universities in Ancient India, Maharaja Sayajirao University of Bareda, N.D. 1939? https://www.rarebooksocietyofindia.org/book_archive/196174216674_10153420277166675.pdf
D.G. Gupta (1939?) provides a brief account of ‘universities’ in Ancient India using the term university to mean simply ‘a center where higher education was imparted to aspiring students. It does not connote all the different features possessed by the universities in the East and the West to-day.’ The tradition of higher education to which he refers begins ‘the long period of about 2000 years beginning with the 10th century B.C. and ending with the 12th century A.D. He mentions Takshasila, Nalanda, Valabbi, and Vikramasila.
Takshasila is the oldest among the universities in ancient India. It was well known as a center of learning as early as during 700 B.C. The educational activities at this place must have started at least a few centuties earlier. The place derived its name
from Taksha, a son of Bharata. The Ramayana narrates how Bharata, after defeating the Gandharvas, founded the two famous cities—Takshaiila in the Gandharva Deia for Taksha and Pushkalavata for the other son Pushkala in the Gandhara.
Takshasila, more commonly called Taxila, was established sometime after the founding of the city of the same name circa 1000 BCE. Ruins date back to the 6th century BCE. It was located some twenty miles north of Islamabad in Ralwapindi, Pakistan. Gupta writes:
Takshasila came to be known as a famous centre of higher education because several learned teachers who were recognised as authorities on various subjects resided at the place… Each teacher was an institution in himself and enjoyed complete autonomy in his work.
There was little regulation and no formal examination yet it was the central university in India to which all others were affiliated. Courses involved the study of the Vedas and sacred texts as well as the Silpas (technical subjects) including ‘Holy tradition and secular law, Sankhya, Nyaya (Logic), Vaiseshika (Atomic theory of creation), Arithmetic, Music, Medicine, four Vedas, Puranas (Antiquities), Itihasas (History), Military Art, Poetry and Conveyancing’ (p. 13). The Brahmi script was replaced with the Kharoshtri script when the Persians conquered the place in sixth century BC. In fact, the history of the university is one of subsequent occupations by Sythians in the first century B. C., the Kusans in the first century A.D. and Huns in the fifth century A.D. Buddhism which was born in mid sixth century B.C. had been influenced by Takshasila, which remained a stronghold of Vedic learning. The Vedas are the oldest Sanskrit religious texts, forms of literature and scriptures of Hinduism. The Vedas, credited to Brahma, and the earliest scripture in the world are hymns or mantra, created by the sages (Rishis), normally divided into the Rigveda (Knowledge of the Hymns of Praise, for recitation), Yajurveda (Knowledge of the Sacrificial formulas, for liturgy), Samaveda (Knowledge of the Melodies, for chanting) and Atharvaved (Knowledge of the Magic formulas). Each type is further divided into mantras and benedictions (Samhitas), texts on rituals, ceremonies and sacrifices (Aranyakas), commentaries on rituals, ceremonies and sacrifices (Bramanas) and texts discussing meditation, and philosophy (Upanishads). There are various traditions of Indian philosophy that claim to take their spiritual direction from the scriptural authority of the Vedas.
The Sanskrit word véda mean ‘knowledge, wisdom’ derived from the root word ‘to know’. The origin of the Vedas can be traced back as far as 1500 BCE, when a large group of Aryan nomads from central Asia, western Russia and Ukraine, speaking an early form of Sanskrit, crossed the Hindu Kush Mountains and migrated to the north of the Indian subcontinent, and the Kuru-Pañcāla, two important kingdoms in early Vedic India (Witzenl, 1997). The Samhitas are said to date from the period 1700–1100 BCE (Witzel, 2003). The Rigveda, the most important text of the Veda and probably composed during c.1500 and 1200 BC, comprises 1028 hymns and it is divided into ten books called mandalas.4 While the Rigveda deals with many gods, over half the hymns are to just three gods—Indra, Agni and Soma. The Vedic period is estimated to be c. 1500 to c. 500–400 BCE ending with the rise of Buddhism and the beginning of the Theravadin Pāli Canon.
Nalanda (425 A. D. to 1205 A. D.) was an ancient center of learning in Bihar, India. It was a religious center where Buddha and his disciples stayed (523 B. C.–477 B.C.). As Gupta (1939?) remarks:
The University was founded by Sakraditya and extended by his son, Buddhaguptaraja, and his successor, Tathagataguptaraja. This was follow-ed by the destruction of the place by Mihirakula in the course of his pursuit of Narasinhagupta, in 500 A.D. But after this destruction the place flourished with greater radiance and prosperity (p. 24).
From the fifth century AD to 1197 AD Nalanda flourished as the ancient seat of learning in the Buddhist world with some 2000 teachers and 10000 students, attracting scholars from Tibet, China, Greece, and Greater Iran. It was supported by the Buddhist emperors of the Hindu Gupta and Pala Empires. It was a monastic university that provided for the study of scriptures of Mahayana and Hinayana Schools of Buddhism, Brahminical vedic texts, philosophy, logic theology, grammar, astronomy, mathematics and medicine. It existed for seven centuries. The library was destroyed in 1197–1203 when Bakhtiyar Khalji sacked it during the Muslim invasion and set it alight. After 800 years Nalanda resumed teaching at its new campus in Raigir not far from the original site. Nalanda was a center of Buddhist scholarship. Hsuan Tsang, the famous pilgrim from China came to Nalanda to study and teach for 5 years in the 7th Century A.D.
Pushpagiri was an ancient Buddhist monastery (mahavihara) in the Jaipur district of Odisha, India. Vikramas’ila (800 A.D. to 1203 A.D.) was a famous seat of learning situated on the banks of the Ganga in northern Magadha, Bihar, close to Nalanda. Valabhi (600 A.D. to 1200 A.D.) situated in Saurashtra in Western India was an important center of Buddhist learning, and championed the cause of Hinayana Buddhism rivaling Nalanda. Vikramashila, the premier university of the era, along with Nalanda, and Somapura, Odantapurā, and Jaggadala formed a network under state supervision, interlinked with one another so that the great scholars could easily move among them (Dutt, 1962).
The institutions of higher in ancient India were probably the earliest in the world. They were religious centers of Vedic and Buddhist scholarship and learning. The Vedic texts themselves are difficult to fathom for a westerner. As Tristan Elby (2014, p. 128) argues, the Vedic texts are the foundation of Hinduism yet their content is obscure. They do not come from a single source or context ‘and their composition is likely to have continued for almost a millennium, a period during which Indo-Aryan speaking people in northern and central India were transformed from migratory, semi-nomadic pastoralists, to members of an agrarian society with significant urbanization.’ There is a dearth of material on ancient learning institutions on India in English and even fewer commentaries on Vedic world view. The Regveda contains the outlines of Hinduism in rudimentary form with no concept of liberation (moksa) or ethical theory of karma. The early Vedic notion of afterlife is ‘the peaceful world of yamaloka, an idealized human existence presided over by Yama, the god of death’ (Elby, 2014, p. 131), achieved through pious sacrifice. There is also an underworld. The Vedic worldview has an anthropology and humans play an important role in the overall cosmology (Elby, 2014, p. 132). In the institutions of higher learning in ancient India the Vedas are collected, preserved, taught and discussed. The Vedas, Vedic rituals and its ancillary sciences called the Vedangas, were part of the curriculum at ancient universities, including six subjects of phonetics, poetic meter, grammar, etymology and linguistics, rituals and rites of passage, time keeping and astronomy. The importance of the ‘universities’ and the Vedic texts cannot be underestimated. As Subhamoy Das writes:
The Vedas are considered the earliest literary record of Indo-Aryan civilization, and the most sacred books of India. They are the original scriptures of Hindu teachings, and contain spiritual knowledge encompassing all aspects of our life. Vedic literature with its philosophical maxims has stood the test of time and is the highest religious authority for all sections of Hindus in particular and for mankind in general.https://www.nhsf.org.uk/2007/04/what-are-the-vedas/
Universities of Ancient China
Taixue (Tai-hsueh, 太学) was established by the Han Dynasty and was inherited by other dynasties up until the Qing dynasty when it was known as the Guozijian, or the Imperial Academy, and replaced by Peking University in 1898. The central schools of Taixue were established as far back as 3CE, when a standard nationwide school system was established (Yuan, 1994, p. 193). Academies of classical learning (Shūyuàn, 书院) were a kind of private school that originated in 725 during the Tang dynasty and leading to the ‘Four Great Academies’ (四大书院; sì-dà shū-yuàn) of ancient China, with the list sometime expanded to include eight academies.
Academies (shuyuan 書院) were educational and scholarly institutions in pre-modern China, side by side with public schools(guanxue 官學) and private schools (sixue 私學). There were public, private and mixed public-private academies. The earliest academies of the early Tang period 唐 (618-907), the Lizheng Academy 麗正書院, later called Jixian Academy 集賢書院, were libraries and compilation centres, and were therefore called shuyuan, literally “book yards”. They were run by academicians (xueshi 學士) and academicians expositor-in-waiting (shijiang xueshi 侍講學士) and served the emperor as consultative institutions.5
By the time of the Song Dynasty (960–1279) academies were established all over the empire. The early academies were subject to seizure of finances when they came under the jurisdiction of perfectures.
Discussion of ancient centers of higher learning in China would be incomplete without a reference to Confucius. As Charlene Tan (2017) expresses the point:
Confucianism comprises a rich tapestry of historical, political, philosophical and socio-cultural traditions that originated from Confucius (Kong Fuzi) (551-479 bce). A prominent theme in Confucianism is education. Confucius himself devoted his whole life to teaching his disciples and persuading the political leaders of his time to enact his educational ideals. The intellectual tradition in education in Confucianism is exemplified in the Confucian canon known as the Four Books and Five Classics (sishu wujing). Within the canon, two texts stand out for their exposition on teaching and learning: Analects (Lunyu) and Xueji (Record of Learning). Analects, which is one of the Four Books, is a collection of the sayings and conduct of Confucius and his disciples.http://education.oxfordre.com/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780190264093.001.0001/acrefore-9780190264093-e-226
Similar kinds of schools existed in other East Asian countries including Korea (Taehak, founded 372) and Japan. Sungkyunkwan was the foremost educational institution in Korea during the late Goryeo and Joseon Dynasties to honour Confucius.6 The Confucian tradition cannot be underestimated as the philosophical basis for past and the future of East Asia as Kwak, Kato and Hung (2016) write:
Though the study of Confucianism has a long-established tradition in East Asia, much of it is historical and philological in nature. In the field of Educational Sciences, which is still dominated by the modern Enlightenment perspective, Confucianism is usually considered as outdated even in this region. But the Confucian concept of learning has played an important role in everyday school culture of the East Asian countries since Confucius placed learning (學) at the very center of his teaching. Even after the introduction of Western education into these countries, the traditional Confucian features of learning retained some of its influence on the educational practice of East Asian countries. Among others, what follows are those that are still of great relevance to today’s school practice in East Asian countries:
- The practice of the Rite (li, 禮) that is often confounded with ‘formalities’ but is a sort of body-knowledge.
- The method of memorization that is often seen as ‘rote learning’ but can have a deeper significance as a method of learning.
- The conformity to norms and authority as a method of self-discipline.
- The broader understanding of the self that goes beyond the individual self of the modern West.
These can be said to constitute important yet contestable resources for the contemporary education of humanistic/liberal learning shared by the countries in the East Asian region.
Ancient Muslim Universities
There is some dispute about the most ancient ‘university’ or should we say center of higher learning. The University of Al-Karaouine in Fes, Morocco, is sometimes regarded to the oldest. Originally s a mosque founded in 859 by Fatima al-Fihri it became one of the leading universities for natural sciences. Fatima bint Muhammad Al-Fihriya Al-Qurashiya (فاطمة بنت محمد الفهرية القرشية) was a Muslim woman who was the daughter of a wealthy merchant. The associated madrasa Al-Fihri is still in operation today and it is often claimed to the oldest continuously-operating degree-granting university in the world.7 The library, one of the world’s oldest, has been recently restored and the university was included in the national system in Morocco in 1963.
Al-Azhar is another ‘university’, located in Egypt, often regarded as the second oldest surviving degree-granting institute was founded in 970–972 and served as a center for Arabic literature and Sunni Islamic learning for centuries. Al-Azhar focuses on a religious syllabus based on the Quranic sciences and traditions of the Prophet Muhammad but also teaches modern science. The University’s webpage suggests:
it is in the world’s oldest college aimed at strengthening its leading position in the world in providing positive Islamic ideals that stand on the central and central basis and have special features in academic literacy at university level and educational studies, and create an Islamic balance of equality and building in shape that will contribute to improving human civilization.http://www.azhar.edu.eg/en/About-us/About-Us (in translation)
A recent report by an unnamed Iranian journalist (2017) observes ‘The 1750-year-old Academy of Gondishapur, also known as Jondishapur University, in the southern Iranian city of Dezful has been registered as a World Heritage by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization.’ The University was established in 271. The report goes on to claim:
The world’s oldest university was built by Shapour I of Sassanid dynasty in a namesake city which stood near the existing city of Dezful. It included a medical school and was a centre for training scientists for centuries to come. Iranian, Greek, Indian and Roman scientists conducted studies and scientific research there.https://ifpnews.com/exclusive/gondishapur-universityworld-heritage-site/
Information is scarce on this topic and little is available in English. M.H. Azizi (2008) writes in his abstract:
Iran has a rich civilization and a long history during which medical science flourished at specific periods. For instance, medicine blossomed in Sassanids era (226 – 652 AD). One of the most remarkable cultural and scientific centers of Sassanids era was the city of Gondishapur located in the south-west Iran in Shah-Abad near Susa in Khuzestan Province. The city was rebuilt in the third century AD, whereupon it soon became the most important scientific focal point of the ancient world. Gondishapur Medical School was a renowned cosmopolitan institution and had a crucial impact upon the further development of Islamic medicine.https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18154434
Finally, Firouzeh Mirrazavi (2009) writing in the Iran Review makes the following comment:
The Academy of Gundishapur was a renowned academy of learning in the city of Gundishapur during late antiquity, the intellectual center of the Sassanid empire. It offered training in medicine, philosophy, theology and science. The faculty was versed not only in the Zoroastrian and Persian traditions, but in Greek and Indian learning as well. According to The Cambridge History of Iran, it was the most important medical center of the ancient world (defined as Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Near East) during the 6th and 7th centuries. George Ghevarghese Joseph, in his Crest of the Peacock confirms that Gundishapur also had a pivotal role in the history of mathematics.http://www.iranreview.org/content/Documents/_Academy_of_Gundishapur.htm
‘The University of Sankore has its roots in the Sankore Mosque which was founded in 989 AD by Al-Qadi Aqib ibn Mahmud ibn Umar, the Supreme Judge of Timbuktu.’ ‘The University of Timbuktu is a collective term for the teaching associated with three mosques in the city of Timbuktu in what is now Mali: the masajid (mosques) of Sankore, Djinguereber, and Sidi Yahya.’8 The university set up for the study of the Qu’ran taught its 25000 students also other subjects and its library was the repository for hundreds of thousands of manuscripts.9 Many of the priceless manuscript have been preserved and digitized by the Library of Congress:
By digitizing Arabic manuscripts from Timbuktu, Mali, the Library of Congress has entered into a new and evolving field of collection development and scholarly activity. The Library successfully exhibited and copied these manuscripts, initiating positive and productive contacts with Malian scholars, manuscript owners, and government officials–especially Abdel Kader Haidara, owner and director of the Mamma Haidara Commemorative Library in Timbuktu.http://international.loc.gov/intldl/malihtml/about.html
I have included a derivative, schematic and rudimentary introduction to ancient centers of higher learning in the Verdic, Buddhist, Confucian and Muslim traditions. All of these involved monasteries or religious centers that both preserved and developed learned commentary in original languages, sometimes the textual basis of ancient languages and first literatures. Not all of them but only a selection of the main ones. I have not surveyed other countries in Asia such as Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Mongolia, or, indeed, mentioned the diversity of institutions in Europe. I have not discussed or mention higher learning institutions of indigenous peoples. The medieval universities grew out of the great Christian monasteries and continued to advance religious causes. While the organizational forms may differ, and it is clear that there were considerable variable in organization both within traditions as well as across them, there seems no good reason to deny the histories of these ancient center of higher learning or the advance European universities at their expense. There may be good reason to insist on the distinctiveness of the form of the medieval university even though it underwent great change with the development of the modern research university after 1811. One could argue that the modern research university also underwent significant change in the transition from the liberal to the neoliberal university (Olssen & Peters, 2005).
It is very concerning that there are comparatively very little by way of texts in English about these centers of ancient learning that provide a clear and careful picture of the historical significance of these ancient centers. Many of them have only recently been part of archeological discoveries or restoration projects that also become part of new old histories of national traditions and also world history.
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Originally published by Educational Philosophy and Theory 51:11 (2019, 1063-1072) under an Open Access license.