Writing University History for Aberdeen's Quincentenary

By Carter, Jennifer | History Today, February 1995 | Go to article overview

Writing University History for Aberdeen's Quincentenary


Carter, Jennifer, History Today


Universities are among the Western World's oldest institutions with continuous histories. Only the Roman Catholic church, the law courts of certain European countries, some army regiments, and a few town and craft corporations can claim similar longevity. What is interesting today is the way in which the history of these old institutions, the universities, is being written. University history has moved away from the once-dominant tradition of recording the stories of particular institutions and praising famous forebearers, and instead tries to interpret the history of universities in its widest context -- social, economic, political, intellectual and cultural. It is often a collaborative enterprise, and it frequently uses computer technology -- though as one practitioner admits, it may do so with a 'mixture of enthusiasm, experimentation, scepticism and bewilderment'.

Examples of contemporary university history include the large-scale project on the history of European Universities under the auspices of the Standing Conference of Rectors, Presidents and Vice-Chancellors of the European Universities (CRE). In Britain the history of the University of Oxford is an outstanding example, as is the research currently going forward towards a 'holistic history' of the University of Birmingham. A comparable American effort has begun at the University of California in Berkeley. This multi-dimensional approach is seen too in the leading journal in the field of university history: History of Universities, launched in 1981.

The University of Aberdeen is one of the select band of European universities which can trace a continuous history for 500 years, since its foundation on February 10th 1495. There are eighty-one European universities which were founded before 1500, but many of them have significant gaps in their histories, when war or plague or political change interrupted their existence. Conscious that we were dealing with an unusually long institutional life, historians at the University of Aberdeen embarked ten years ago on a Quincentenary History Project, designed to honour the quincentenary in 1995, but also to make a positive contribution to the new type of university history. Our experience may be of general interest.

Almost the first decision we made was not to produce a single stout commemorative volume -- or two or four -- in 1995. Instead we decided to commission a series of short studies, each dealing with a particular episode in this university's history which needed exploration or reinterpretation, and raised issues which might allow comparison with the histories of other universities. One advantage of this approach is that each author has been free to tackle a topic without strict reference to the approaches taken or the ground covered by others: all have learned from each other's work, but have not been constrained by a heavy editorial agenda. At the time of writing, nine short histories have appeared, in a series called Quincentennial Studies in the History of the University of Aberdeen; by 1996 we hope to have another six in place.

The books produced so far have included aspects of university history not commonly studied. For example, R.D. Anderson, The Student Community at Aberdeen 1860-1939 (1989), which launched our series, dealt with the neglected subject of corporate student life, including its manifestations in clubs and societies, sports, and political action, and how this activity affected the university as a whole. Lindy Moore, in Bajanellas and Semilinas (1991), wrote what is still one of the few substantial accounts of British women's higher education outside Oxbridge, and the only such account of Scottish students. J.D. Hargreaves' Academe and Empire (1994) studies the overseas connections of Aberdeen University and their influence both on the university and on the countries to which its graduates went, in a depth not attempted for any other university except Oxford. Books which revise and reinterpret more familiar themes include David Stevenson's King's College Aberdeen, 1560-1641 (1990) which decodes one of the most complex and obscure phases in the history of King's College as it responded to the Reformation and the tangled politics of the earlier seventeenth century, and shows how different was the experience of this earlymodern Scottish university from that of Oxford or Cambridge. …

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