The First Universities were in Asia, not Europe

Many of us have heard that the first universities were in Europe, growing often out of monastic education. The second part only is accurate. Actually the first universities, or centers of learning, were in Asia. They were in places like Taxila in what is now Pakistan, Nalanda in Eastern India (ruins are in the photo above), Gundeshapur in Iran, and Nisibis in eastern Turkey, to name a few. All existed before the year 500 A.D., and all of them were either Buddhist or Church of the East in origin and oversight.

I will do a blog post on each of these in the coming weeks, as part of a continued research project on the history of the university. In recent years, more and more books have come out for a popular audience claiming that the roots of the European universities like Oxford, Bologna , Paris and others can be traced to Muslim universities. (more on that also in a later post). It is always a tricky thing to trace influences or causation in historical research, and my intention is more to place the centers of learning in Asia in a historical context that is often ignored or overlooked. It is not fruitful or needed to claim that one faith or another is the “source” of all education.  (It has also been claimed by some that the Jews were the original “source” of the university.)  But it is important to understand where we can what were some of the shaping possibilities that occurred.

In an article I wrote that was published in 2009 titled, Asian Centres of Learning and Witness Before 1000 C.E.: Insights for Today? (note that I use the British spelling for Centre, and C.E. instead of A.D.), I write the following: “Often when thought is given to possible historical models of educational excellence, institutions like Oxford, Cambridge, Harvard, Yale and others may come to mind. Elements of these models have been imported at times somewhat unreflectively into Asia and Africa over the past 200 years. This has often been at the expense of understanding and applying the lessons of former centres of learning and witness that were resident in Asia before the year 1000 C.E. These centres were rooted in their Asian context, yet open to a wider range of inputs and learning.”  (For the whole article see  Cochrane, Steve. “Asian Centres of Learning and Witness before 1000 C.E.: Insights for Today.” Transformation 26.1 (2009): 30-39. )

As I note above, there were important models in Asia before 1000 A.D. that can be learned from for today. Some may wonder if it is appropriate to call these early centers “university”, and I will also deal more with this in a later post. But to define university in a narrow sense, and particularly one only related to the last 200 or so years in a Western context, is to risk missing a much longer flow of educational history. These Western models were often imported to other parts of the world without any consideration for hundreds if not thousands of years of previous learning context.

Nalanda is a very interesting example of this. Located in the state of Bihar in modern India, it is experiencing a “revival” and indeed of all the examples of early Asian education before the year 1000, is the only one that again is operating and offering classes. (on my bucket list is to go there in the next couple of years. Even more would be to actually teach a class or seminar there!) Started in the 5th century and growing out of a Buddhist monastic setting, it has consistently been referred to by many writers as a “university”. Granted this has been primarily by Indian historians, though not exclusively, but as I have said in prior posts, most of the historians writing in the past 200 years have been Westerners. It is perhaps not too surprising that most of these historians would not be aware of the important developments happening in Asia at a time when Europe was in the final stages of the western Roman empire.

Nalanda became the “foremost Buddhist monastic and educational centre in the North of India, attracting students from places as distant as China and SE Asia.” (Thapar 2002:306). Another writer even likens monastic universities like Nalanda and Vikramsila (a smaller Buddhist institution) to “modern university towns of Oxford and Cambridge and Benaras (a Hindu University in North India), independent university settlements, where arrangements were made for the lodging and  boarding of the students who flocked there in the thousands.” (Altekar 1934:98)

Nalanda was destroyed in the 12th century by Muslim armies, and was only ruins all the way until the early years of the 21st century. In 2006, several Asian countries including India and China met together to plan and fund a whole new university near the ruins of the old one. Recently in a major newspaper of India I saw an attractive advertisement for Nalanda University, its doors open for classes. In the academic year of 2016-2017, they have a School of Ecology and Environment Studies, a School of Historical Studies, and a School of Buddhist Studies, Philosophy and Comparative Religions. It is an international post-graduate University supported by 17 participating countries.

I have not been yet to Nalanda, and will post about it when I get to go. But it is an exciting development. An institution that existed all the way back in the 5th century has risen again, granted in a completely different context. Nalanda also offers hope to modern universities in nations like India. As an editorial writer in the Times of India wrote in 2007, “The Nitish Kumar government is building a modern university in Nalanda, an ancient seat of learning, as the symbol of a new, resurgent Bihar. Nalanda in the works could be a model for revamping existing universities in India.”

I will continue to post on the history of the university in Asia. It is part of having not a “flawed” view of the past, but a more complete and accurate one.




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