Victor Karady


Universities and the Formation of National Elites


-          Preliminary remark : The problem raised in the title of this exposé has to do with the encounter of two Western European historic inventions, universities and nation states.

-          Universities were an invention of Western Christendom in the late Middle Ages as a vehicle of transmission of accumulated learning produced by the Greek and Latin civilisations and adapted to Christian civilization.

-          The political pattern of modern nation states belongs to the post-Enlightenment period, realized for the first times in concrete terms by the French Revolution and then, differently though, in other Western European and later other European countries having shed the heritage of feudalism.


Since the foundation of the first universities in the late 12th century and later on universities always performed the function of training local elites for the feudal societies in which they were operating

-          In Paris one could find students subjects to the king of France, in Oxbridge those of the king of England

o       But the alumni of universities did not define themselves as French or English, but above all literati of Western Christendom, trained in the only intellectual arts and crafts admitted and promoted by the Church with reference, essentially to some authors of the Antique World, above all Aristotle

o       The cognitive message of universities was of universalist by nature and claims

o       There was indeed no basic difference between the organisation in faculties (four faculties) the language of tuition (Latin) and the teachings - all following the same pattern prescribed and guaranteed by the charter of the Pope (or, later, by the charters issued by territorial sovereigns)

o       Thus, nothing like the training of ’national elites’


-          But graduates with university education were for a long time - up to the 18th century - mostly only marginally members of social elites : When they actually were, it was due to their status by birth and much less to their education

o       A noblemen needed no education for keeping its standing

§         in Central Europe (Hungary, Croatia, Poland) many – probably most – petty noblemen remained illiterates up to the 18th century

§         though in the higher gentry a smattering of university education became fashionable after the Renaissance, so that young noblemen would make their ’grand tour’ to travel in Western European cities, share the life of city elites and visit a number of universities

·         occasionally even taking (or bying) an academic degree

·         this was a supplementary support of their status, but far from a necessary one

o       Still education secured some social standing to those outside the feudal ruling class (urban patriciates, free citizens, gifted peasant boys picked out and sponsored by the Church)

§         by becoming members of service elites in feudal society : priests, clerics, doctors, lawyers, teachers in parish schools or in colleges, or even members of university staff

·         thus, marginally though, but universities became vehicles of social mobility from the feudal lower class

§         by forming a more or less respected group of free literati, often protected and supported by the Church or by noblemen for their services as clercs, poets, musicians, envoys with the knowledge of Latin or other languages, court erudites and advisors (alchemists, translators, diplomatic experts, etc.)


-          This state of things suffered a first disruption with the Renaissance and the Reformation

o       Conducive to the separation of the Catholic and Protestant academic markets (North-South division)

§         Entailing the almost complete separation of the two confessional clienteles of universities

§         Leading to a number of new university foundations, including in Eastern Europe : Tartu/Dorpat

·         Since universities henceforth took a share in the power struggle for souls between Catholics and Protestants

·         Part of this conflict situation was a virtual and locally often actual competition between Catholic and Protestant secondary schools leading to university studies

·         In both the Catholic and the Protestant sector new pedagogical schemes emerged with some utopean traits aiming at a universal reform and generalisation of advanced education for elites

o       Let us just mention the pedagogical ideas about life long education of Komensky (Comenius – early 17th century), bishop of the Czech Brethren Church

o       And, on the Catholic side, the extraordinary success of Jesuit college network over two centuries (since the mid 16th century till the 1760s), the first attempt at a world-wide system of basic elite education

o       leading also to the progressive breaking up of the rigid framework of old universities both in the Protestant and the Catholic sector

§         universities were becoming more and more active in the production of new knowledge, especially in the experimental sciences

§         in Protestant countries (Scotland, the Netherlands, Scandinavia, Prussia) the spread of literacy promoted by the Protestant Churches gave rise to a largely literate society, that is, the multiplication of potential academic clienteles

·         the proportion of those seeking university education in the age groups around 20 reached 1-2 % in some Western countries by the 17th century, the same as in the late 19th century !

o       around 1650  - 2,8 % in the German Empire

o       1,8 % in the Netherlands

§         New clienteles started to include social outsiders like Jews (Padova, German universities)

·         the Jewish philosopher Spinosa was invited to teach at Heidelberg in the mid-17th century

§         beyond the increase of their functional importance in the training of male social elites in Western Europe, universities became institutional status symbols of states – small or big ones - with claims for progress and modernization

·         this is probably the reason why Moscow University was founded in 1755 – at that time the easternmost university in the world


- A second, decisive breakthrough happened in the 18th century thanks to the peneration of Enlightenment ideology in some old universities, but above all via the elaboration of new university models, bringing about a major institutional transformation of existing universities and conferring new functions to them

-          this was not a unique or a unified model and it actually resulted in at least three very different systems of modern higher education in the 19th century – the French, the German and the British – but all had at least three common features


o       1. the most important of them was nationalization and nationalism proper

with a number of divergent meanings of the term and different elaborations of the model of national universities (as discussed below)

§         Nationalization meant most visibly the passage from Latin to national language tuition everywhere around or before 1800


- 2. this nationalization process was connected everywhere with the moderni-zation of universities – via reform and refoundation of old or else via the foundation of new universities

§         Reform meant reorganisation of the surviving university networks and the ’systematization’ of schooling

o       Reorganisation of school institutions in a complex hierarchy : primary, secondary and higher education

o       Reorganisation of higher education in 3 sectors

§         Scholarly universities (Arts, SciencesLaw, Medicine) – with doctorats

§         Technical Universities – with doctorats

§         Vocational colleges or academies – no doctorats

-3. Finally the change implied a more or less radical secularization of university education

            - new universities founded by and depending on secular states only,

§         detachment of the theological faculties or their institutional separation, or the foundation of universities without theological faculties

·         this process took place differently in different countries, it was most radical in post revolutionary France

o       since 1885 complete separation of theologies and other institutions of higher education


Emergence of three major European models of the university


·         nationalization started, as it is well known, in Halle and Göttingen (1737)

and German tuition was fully institutionalized by the foundation of the Humboldt University in Berlin (1910)

o       research university model, unity of teaching and research, large scale academic autonomy

o       based on a systematised hierarchical educational structure


·         The French Revolution abolished old universities, the following turbulences bringing about a tabula rasa, allowing the foundation of the Napoleonic Université (1808) operating exclusively in French :

o       A state funded, managed and controlled system – a teaching bureaucracy - with three sectors :

§         Université : 4 faculties and lycées linked together (reproduction of social elites, non selective, inefficient training)

§         Grandes écoles (training of high level tecnical staff of the State, very selective and efficient training)

§         Network of research institutions : for scholarly research (CF

·         In Britain the transition was – as usually in England – more gradual, but still completed by the foundation of the University College in London (1828)

o       Much less systematized (informal hierarchies between the three levels

o       Aristocratic training, with high costs, low student/staff ration (16-19 students/staff members)


-          This is not the place to expose in detail the development of those diverging university systems, but to discuss their functions in the training of national elites

o       The nationalization of universities lead first

§         to the diversification of university models

·         with reverberations in the rest of Europe, since new universities in Eastern and Southern Europe followed one of the above models

o       mostly the German-Prussian model, with modifications . in Russia, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia, Hungary (via Austria)

o       But the Napoleonic Université had also a strong impact in Eastern Europe via the state control over the whole educational provision

§         then, during the 19th century, a convergence of the three model started,

·         following  mostly the Prussian example of the research university

·         main modifications had to do with the degree of academic autonomy, mostly restricted by the authorities of the new nation states

o       state control was notoriously among the stricktest in Russia


-          the nationalization process had indeed a far reaching indirect consequence : universities appeared as symbolic appurtenances of emerging nation states or national empires

o       hence each new state had to have its university proper

§         avalanche of university foundations (or refoundations) in the Balkans, in the Baltics or elsewhere together with the triumph of nationalist movements leading ultimately or liable to lead to the creation of nation states

·         Iasi-Bucarest (1860-1864) in Romania, Athens (1837) in Greece, Sofia (1904) in Bulgaria, Tartu/Dorpat (1802), Oslo (1811) in Norway, Zagreb (1874) in Croatia, division of Prague Universities (1882) etc. 

o       precisely endowed with the brand new function to train national elites

§         that is elites loyal to the new nation state

§         representing a national type of scholarship

§         cultivating, producing, expanding and transmitting cultural assets redefined as part of ’national civilisation’

§         even national schools of scientific investigation were founded

·         this lead to a process of the nationalization of knowledge in various forms

·         intellectual inventions or productions – due to universities – were claimed to be the expressions of the intellectual power or potential of the nation

·         universities hence took up the function of national status symbols


-          the long term consequences – implications - of nationalization and modernization

o       invention and development of local-national forms of scholarship and erudition – which had not existed earlier in elite training !

§         national literature – cultivation and canonization of romantic cultural heroes (Pushkin, Miczkiewicz, Petöfi, Goethe-Schiller-Heine, etc.)

§         national arts

§         folklore, ethnography

§         national history  (not just the history of the Antique World !)

§         geography

§         grammar, linguistics

§         statistics, demography, sociology, social sciences in general

§         but also ’nationalisation’ under the disguise of ’national schools’ of universally applicable forms of erudition, sciences and technologies, even maths !

·         a new hierarchy of university disciplines with ’national cultures’ (language and literature) as one of their focal points

·         as against the earlier hierarchy dominated by the Greek and Latin antiquity


o       another direct consequence : development of inter-cultural branches of scholarship

§         study of ’alien cultures’ as branches of  university studies: French, English, Russian, etc.

·         in the Napoleonic faculties of Letters : ’foreign literature’

·         study of living foreign languages as major branches of university studies

§         development of an academic culture of translations, both literary and scholarly or scientific


o       more generally this entailed the growing weight of the familiarity with Western languages in the intellectual qualification of emerging modernizing elites of Eastern, Southern, Northern and Central Europe

§         replacing or, in part, completing Latin as a must for members of social elites, French and/or German became important as an indispensable skill with heavy symbolic significance

§         these new elites became fists Francophones, than Germanophones or combined the two with varying proportions

·         decisive patterns of linguistic training of elites in Russia, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary or even in the West

o       French kept its dominance in Germany and England too as an elite language up to or beyond 1914

- The social values attached to the knowledge of Western languages

                                   governed a new trend of student peregrinations since the 1880s and

1890s from East to Western (francophone or germanophone) universities up to 1939

·         this was an new expression of the intellectual domination of the West, which had existed much less openly earlier

o       up to the 18th century the universities of Cracow, Prague or Tartu/Dorpat (till 1710) performed equivalent teaching functions to Universities in the West

o       henceforth most scientific and scholarly innovations derived from the West almost exclusively

o       there started a virtual competition in terms of cultural influence between Western Powers, especially France and Germany for the adhesion of Eastern European elites

- Westward peregrinations expressed also the under-equipment of Eastern Europe with universities : around 1900 7 universities in Switherland, 9 in Russia, 16 in France


-          a major sociological consequence of the modernisation of universities was the unprecedented increase of their functions for the legitimization of elites

o       henceforth a male (and later female) member of the elite had to acquire a level of certified education, at least graduation from secondary school (baccalauréat, Matura, Abitur) : „la barrière et le niveau” (Goblot) separating the ’gentlemen’, the middle class from rank and file people.

§         Birth, wealth, family prestige was not enough for elite membership


·         this a major change from birth based legitimacy to meritocratic type of legitimacy of elites

- this also led lately, mostly only by the end of the 19th century (after the 1890s) to the accelerated expansion of the highly educated social clusters within the whole population, everywhere in Europe

§         in this expansion the size and inclusiveness of universities played an autonomous institutional role : more there were universities, more they contributed to the expansion of the number of educated people

-          another essential extension of the social functions of universities had to do with the reformation of various would-be elite groups into one more or less unified national elite cluster - sharing at least a common educational expeience in advanced learning

o       new universities of the long 19th century became melting pots for old and new elite clusters, achieving a more or less complete integration of newcomers into established elites, which amounted often to a substantial social recomposition of the recruitment of elites

§         with cultural aliens : Jews

·         this was opposed by some Eastern European states, like in Russia (numerus clasus since 1886)

·         stille the mass entry of Jews into educated elites, indeed Jewish over-education of sorts – was a major happening in East Central European social history during the process of Emancipation (often even before, as in Germany or Hungary)

o       ½ of Russians studying in France, Switzerland or Germany around 1900 were Jews (and the other half mostly Poles or Baltic Germans)

§         with dominant or dominated ethnic aliens : Germans in Hungary, Poland, the Baltics, Russia

§         lower class alumni of universities often achieving an academic carrers via sponsored mobility (with grants and scholarships offered by the Churches or the State)

§         such strengthering of the function of elite integration occurred not without conflicts. Members of old elites often restisted against the integration of new members, especially ethnic and confessional aliens, like Jews

·         the birth of political antisemitism had a lot to do with the arrival of gifted and competitive Jews in the fields of activity of the old elites and non Jewish middle classes

·         antisemitism in modern times is the outcome – among other things – of a class competition of Jews in elite clusters

o       to avoid such competition there was often a separation of fields of activities between Jews – opting for free intellectual markets (lawyers, doctors, engineers), while Christians with identical degrees would opt for positions in the civil service (represnting a state protected activity market for Gentiles)

Conclusion : Universities could nowhere achieve the formation of completely integrated, unified ’national elites’ on the mere strength of the education they offered.

-          But they achieved it better in some societies where the nation-building process was based on universalist values linked to various conceptions of civic equality – be it paradoxically liberal (Britain), fascist (Italy) or communist