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The AAUP and the Idea of the University

What has become of the "community of scholars"?
By Alvin G. Burstein

As evidenced by the elaborate costumes of most commencement ceremonies, the century-long history of the American Association of University Professors is part of a much larger story, one that, as sociologist Elliot Krause argued in Death of the Guilds, extends back to medieval times.

The earliest universities, those in Bologna, Paris, and Oxford, were embodiments of the guild movement, self-governing bodies that controlled and monitored the activities of their members, eschewing external government. In the Latin lingua franca of the time, the term universitas magistrorum et scholarium referred not to a campus or buildings but to a guild, a body of individual people, teachers and students, with a specific professional competence, who had secured the right to govern themselves. There was no mention of contemporary concerns about tenure or academic freedom as they are understood today. There was, however, consensus about the basic elements of higher education, the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy). Professional training in medicine, law, or theology was deferred.

As centuries passed, the impact of the exploration of the planet, the Protestant Reformation, and the Enlightenment broadened the notion of higher education. Academic journals emerged and intellectual domains were redefined.

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Alvin G. Burstein is professor emeritus at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and past president of the Louisiana AAUP conference. His e-mail address is

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