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  Academe is named after a park in ancient Athens, sacred to the legendary figure Akademos. In the early 4th century  BCE, Plato set up a teaching establishment there, to educate aristocratic students in philosophy, politics and science before they began careers in government. The school lasted for some 800 years, and was known not only for its teaching, but as a repository of intellectual knowledge, as the source of influential commentaries on the ideas of the past and as what we might nowadays call a ‘think tank’.

All these functions have remained those of academe at large, right down to the present day. The great universities, from Isfahan to Oxford, from Peking to Wittenberg, from Alexandria to Harvard, have also been important physical collections of knowledge: the libraries at Isfahan and Alexandria, especially, were regarded in their time as containing all available human knowledge, and their collections (though vandalized and dispersed) are still the foundation of our written texts of the ancient past. Such universities were also important because they were, in theory at least, independent of religious or political bias. They may have been funded by princes and governments, and they may have been staffed by people of particular religious persuasions, but the central idea was never lost that intellectual thought must, of its nature, stand aside from the pressures of the world or of faith, that it must be dispassionate and available to all.

From earliest times, the academic desire to remain uncontaminated was similar to one of the central ideas of religious monasticism. The monastics believed that true knowledge and worship of the divine could best be achieved in seclusion, by minds and spirits set free from the claims of everyday existence. In all the major faiths there was a strong sense that if a group of people removed themselves from the world and devoted their time to contemplation, prayer and spiritual exercises, they would engender a kind of pious intensity of feeling and understanding which would transcend ordinary perception. Augustine spoke of meditation in a hortus conclusus, ‘enclosed garden’—the origin of cloisters; Persian scholars similarly believed that beautiful surroundings enhanced meditation, and worked in formal, peaceful gardens; Buddha advocated meditation every day in the same, quiet spot. Since, in the ancient world, the first entry to education was often through these monasteries, there came to be a blend or a confusion between such monastic ideals and those of academe. In some cases, the same people were both monks and academics; in all cases, the idea (shared by both traditions) that seclusion and intellectual exercise would lead to concentration, and thence to truer understanding, became a dangerous but guiding principle. Whether they realized it or not, academics became prey to two delusions: that the excellence of their studies somehow extended to their institutions or to themselves as people, lifting them above the common herd; and that intellectual activity and excellence were inadmissible or to be scorned if performed outside university walls.

There is, or was, perhaps some truth in this. Access to libraries, to precedent and to other like minds gave scholars of the ancient universities a start on their non-academic fellow-beings, and very often the separation of the learned from ordinary society allowed them, precisely, the opportunity to extend their research beyond the commonplace. In ancient Babylon, China and the Indus valley, for example, research into predicting and interpreting the movement of heavenly bodies, originally undertaken to facilitate the astrological systems required by religion or state, led to completely unrelated astronomical and mathematical discoveries, the foundation of all our present knowledge. Codes of behaviour, originally devised by practical people for common use, were elaborated by academics into huge (and, it must be admitted, self-regenerating) intellectual edifices, of which Judaic rabbinical lore and the Islamic shari\'a are notable surviving examples, exploring such concepts as guilt and justice far beyond everyday concerns. ‘Secret’ studies (often punishable by death if pursued in society) led to advances in such subjects as medicine, and to the survival of knowledge and texts of which the religious or political authorities disapproved.

By the late Middle Ages, seclusion and self-satisfaction had led to the almost total ossification of academic study. Precedent and authority were what mattered; learning was a private fiefdom, and admittance was reserved for those willing to ‘think like us’. In some areas of academe, this foolish and destructive attitude has persisted to the present day, and has resulted in the marginalizing, to a point near death, of what were once major areas of study. But by and large the rise, in the last 300 years, of rational science, mass education and universal literacy have had a magnificently cathartic effect, sweeping out the cobwebs of scholasticism and returning the open-mindedness and curiosity which were once academe\'s most crucial attributes. (That scientific academics, in some communities, have tended to become an exclusive, self-declared and self-protective élite just like any other is a deplorable, and hopefully transitory, phenomenon.) Despite the efforts of politicians, and (it must be said) of the dons in some university departments, human thought has once again, become universally available. It may be done more systematically, more skilfully and more comfortably in specialized institutions, but by and large it is once again, as it was when Plato started organizing discussion-groups in the Academy, accessible to anyone who has a brain. KMcL



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Academies Of Western Art


Other Terms : Hybridization | Christian Art | Objective Correlative
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