chapter 14

the University & Academic Disciplines


1. In the 21st century, there is one primary source of official knowledge: Science.  This form of knowledge is produced by scientists who do most of their work in research universities.  But people don't fully understand the origins, structure, and purposes of the modern university.  In order to master 21st century literacy, you need to know about this important institution, especially if you are planning to enroll in one in order to earn a college degree.   Historian of education, David F. Labaree (2017) argues that "the complexity and opacity" of the higher education system "helps reinforce the social advantages of those at the top of the social ladder and limit the opportunities for those at the bottom" because the system "rewards insider knowledge" to be successful, especially in terms of choosing a school, choosing a major, and earning a degree (p. 165).  This chapter will introduce you to some of that "insider knowledge" you will need to be a successful college student.


14.1  The Origins of the University

2. The modern university has diverse roots in both religion and science.  For several hundred years it was an integral part of in the Roman Catholic Church.  Students learned the lingua franca of Latin, the official language of the Church, and they studied theology, religious law, and sometimes medicine.  Students spent several years studying holy texts, both theological and legal (although there was not always a fine distinction between these two fields).  Once a student had majored in a specific subject, they would take a series of qualifying exams to be accepted as a baccalaureus, or "bachelor," which meant a "beginner" in an intellectual field of study (Lucas, 1994, p. 51).  One to two years later the student would sit through another series of exams, which if successfully passed, would confer the bachelor of arts degree, the baccalaureate.  With this degree, a student could work as a civil servant for church or state.  Or the student could continue with his studies (only men were allowed to attend university) and potentially earn a masters of arts degree or a doctorate in theology, both of which could be used to become a university professor or a high official for church or state.

3. The university was the administrative center of the Catholic Church.  It not only "organized, preserved, transmitted...and codified" the official knowledge of society (Lucas, 1994, p. 68), but it also certified and coordinated the officials who would run the complex bureaucracies of church and state.  The university was the center of knowledge in medieval Europe.  It was also the center of the rule of law, albeit more so in terms of writing or codifying official doctrine, rather than actually passing verdicts.  The actual making of laws and administering justice was reserved for high church officials, like the Pope or Cardinals, or high state officials, like the King or the King's ministers.  Gradually by the 17th century, universities broadened their mission to focus more on training white, male elites for "public service" in various professions, including medicine, civil law, and the military (Thelin, 2004, pp. 36, 73).  Data is scarce on the subject of university attendance during this time, but in the United States around 1800 only 0.6 percent of young men attended higher education.  This number grew to around 1.75 percent of young men by 1860 (Thelin, 2004, p. 69).

4. A momentous change of the university occurred during the 19th century.  Scientists and natural philosophers allied themselves with various political movements for democracy and freedom (Gay, 1969/1996).  The university gradually shifted its priorities away from both church and state towards the production of scientific knowledge for the advancement of humanity (Cole, 2009, p. 46).  The German university system of the 19th century became the new model for higher education.  The German's invented the modern research university based on science and secular public policy, which is the foundation of the 21st century university (Lukas, 1994, pp. 170-72). 

5. The Germans broke the university down into smaller departments called academic disciplines.  Each discipline focused on a specific field of knowledge.  Professors in each discipline were rigorously trained in the latest scientific methods, and they researched the natural world so as to produce definitive knowledge that could be used to better develop human society, the economy, and government (Cole, 2009, p. 56).  As one late 19th century American professor proclaimed, the university "has ceased to be a cloister and has become a workshop" (as cited in Lukas, 1994, p. 144).  Another late 19th century professor, F. W. Kelsey further explained, "[the university] cares not for pedants steeped in useless lore.  It calls for true men, who are earnest, and practical, who know something of the problems of real life and are fitted to grapple with them" (as cited in Lukas, 1994, p. 144).  By the beginning of the 20th century, the cultural authority of religious and political leaders had greatly declined in the west, and the new scientific "expert" had become the center of modern knowledge (Cole, 2009, p. 46).  


14.2  Academic Disciplines & the Research University

6. In the 21st century, the modern university has greatly expanded its mission.  There are more academic disciplines than ever and the production of scientific knowledge continues to increase exponentially (Cole, 2009, p. 176).  Over the past century, the university has become the main engine of technological innovation and development, which in turn have become the foundation of the global "knowledge" economy (Cole, 2009, p. 93).  Today the university has become the main source of cultural authority over matters of knowledge and public policy.  It has also become the primary center for vocational training in the various professions and technical fields (Grubb & Lazerson, 2004).  Most likely you are reading this book because you are enrolled in a university to earn a bachelor's degree, which you will use to either find employment in a profession or to further your studies with an advanced degree.

7. While most young people realize the increased importance of a university degree, they don't fully understand how the university works and what it will take to earn that degree.  Most students don't fully understand the difficulty studying higher education. Enrolling in a university means learning a completely new language, actually several new languages.  But in order to understand all the various academic languages that are spoken in a university, you first need to understand how this institution is organized.  There are many academic disciplines, like Economics, Political Science, Biology, Law, or Physics.  These disciplines are organized into five academic schools.  These are just a few of the major disciplines, listed on the chart above.  Each one represents a specific way of studying the world.  Each uses its own unique languages and scientific methods.  But there are also many sub-disciplines, which are smaller units within each major discipline, perhaps over a thousand if you were to count up all of the areas of humanistic and scientific study.  Each major discipline has around 50 to 100 sub-disciplines, and each one of these smaller units has a specific language and methods for research.


Handout:  Academic Disciplines & Schools


8. For example, The American Historical Association (AHA) is the governing body for the discipline of History, which is one of the oldest academic disciplines of the modern university.  AHA has over 100 "affiliated societies" of sub-disciplines.  Education is another major discipline.  Within the field of Education are sub-disciplines like Economics of Education, Educational Psychology, Anthropology of Education, and History of Education, just to name a few.  Within each of these sub-disciplines are also sub-sub-disciplines of specialized knowledge.  I belong to the American Educational Research Association (AERA), which is the governing body for the major discipline of Education.  AERA has over 25,000 members and about 175 sub-disciplines. 

9. Take my case for example.  I am a historian of education.  Within the major discipline of Education there is the sub-discipline of History of Education, but within this field there are many scholars who specialize in the history of specific countries, time periods or types of education.  One of my specializations is late 19th and early 20th century American post-secondary education, with a focus on the history of the community college.  Most scholars will have one or two specializations and they will spend their whole career, 30 to 40 years of researching and writing, focused on this narrow domain of expertise. 

10. As a student, when you take a class in a major discipline, like Economics or Philosophy, your professor will teach you not only new information about a subject, but also a new vocabulary, academic jargon, and particular scientific methods for conducting research.  It’s important to realize that each professor in a single department will be speaking a slightly different academic language, just like a dialect of a larger language body.  So if you major in Philosophy you will discover that there are hundreds of different types of philosophy, all with different technical languages.  Your professors will also be using diverse sets of scientific methods, even in the same department.  Not all historians or biologists conduct research in the exact same way. 

11. This can all be quite confusing for the first-year student.  Most undergraduates are never taught this basic information about the university system.  I was never taught any of this information, not even in graduate school.  Professors just assume that students learn these things on their own as they struggle towards a degree.  In order to help students succeed in higher education, I think professors and advisers need to do a better job explaining these largely invisible rules governing universities.

12. So what is a university?  A university is a large, diverse conglomerate of different groups of experts.  Each group is called an academic "discipline," a word which refers to the specialized skills experts possess.  A discipline is, first and foremost, a formal group of people collected together in order to achieve common goals, what sociologists call an organization.  All formal organizations have official purposes to achieve, and members participate in the organization to make it a successful enterprise.  In order to reach these goals, members are not allowed to do as they please.  Instead, they accept formal roles with specific duties and responsibilities.  Organizations also have specific rules that determine what is allowed and what is not allowed, and sometimes they have specific types of people to enforce these rules.  These rules are often, although not always, written down in a formal constitution, which is the official rulebook of the organization, and usually it cannot be changed without a formal process and the agreement of many or most of the members.  Sometimes organizations also have formal rituals, which may or may not have special meanings attached, whereby members must perform a series of actions in a very specific way.

13. Some organizations have rather loose sets of rules and activities, and members can exercise a lot of freedom to do what they want.  This is an informal organization.  Other organizations have very specific rules and rituals that usually cannot be altered, and there is very little freedom for anyone to try something new.  This is a formal organization, or what sociologists call an institution

14. For example, a group of friends hanging out on the weekend to drink beer and watch a football game would be a highly informal organization: They have a lot of freedom to dress, act, and speak as they want.  A group of Christians meeting on a Sunday morning to worship and take communion would be a highly formal organization, or an institution.  Christians usually have specific rules about what to wear, how to behave, and what to say or not say in church.  There would also be specific rituals that everybody in the church would be required to perform at the same time in the exact same way, like praying, taking communion, singing hymns, and listening to the pastor or priest deliver a sermon.  For example, in most churches, it is not appropriate to lie on the floor, dance in the aisles, or watch T.V. on your smartphone.  If you did these forbidden acts, most likely, you would be asked to leave because you would be breaking the formal rules or rituals of the organization, just as if you came to work in a bathing suit and flip flops. 


14.3  Joining an Organization & Playing by the Rules

15. You need to realize that the university and academic disciplines are very formal institutions, like a church or a courtroom.  When you join a university, you are agreeing to a long list of rules, which determine what you can and cannot do.  Every formally enrolled student has agreed to participate in the rituals of schooling, which requires you to register for classes, pay tuition and fees, buy books, read books and other instructional materials, come to classes, take notes, write papers, study, and take tests.  Every student has to do all of these activities in order to be a part of this organization.  You need to play by the rules in order to succeed.

16. Professors also have specific roles to play.  They have to be experts in their field, usually producing a lot of original research.  This is their primary job.  They also have to communicate their knowledge to you, usually through the form of lectures or books they've written.  Professors also have to evaluate your learning and your performance as a student.  They do this by giving you grades, which are the official way to label students.  You will either be labeled a "good" student (grades A or B) or an "average" student (grade C).  These grades allow you to stay at the university and take more classes in order to earn a degree.  But you may also be labeled a "bad" student (grades D or F), which means you will eventually be asked to leave the university because you are not following the basic rules of learning necessary to pass classes.

17. Students usually understand the basic rituals and rules of schooling in higher education because they are very similar to the basic rules of primary and secondary schooling.  What students don't understand is that a university is not a single organization with a common set of rules.  And unlike K-12 schooling, no one is forcing you to go to attend a university.  Instead, higher education is a voluntary activity.  Not only do you choose to attend, but you also pay a lot of money to participate in this organization. 

18. And what type of organization have you joined?  A university is like a large business corporation, which has hundreds of smaller organizations collected together into the one big formal unit of the company.  As I already pointed out, the hundreds of smaller departments in a university are based on academic disciplines.  These disciplines are usually organized into a few academic "schools" or "colleges," which are a bunch of similar disciplines housed in the same building with a single supervisor, called a Dean.  Each academic discipline in a college is a small, formal organization with specific rules, rituals, roles, and purposes. 

19. These colleges and disciplines are all also part of the larger formal organization of the university, which has its own rules, rituals, and purposes.  When you register and pay your fees, you become a member of the university.  Then, when you choose a major, you become a member of an academic discipline so you can earn your degree and become a working professional in that field.  In order to become a professional, you will first have to master the specific language, skills, and methods of your discipline, which, as I’ve said before, includes learning specific rules governing what you can do, how you can do it, and why.

20. For example, if you join the Sociology department, you will be exposed to the various languages and methods of sociologists, and you will be expected to choose a specific type of research method and a specific research subject.  You could choose to focus on the subject of schools or corporations or governments or churches, all which are different types of social organizations.  Then you would need to decide how to study your subject and for what purpose.  Would you look at old documents to study a school historically to see how it dealt with racial inequality between white and black children from 1930 to 1980?  Would you look at thousands of students and their test scores over the past five years to statistically analyze which types of students succeed or fail so that you could help target specific groups of students that need extra resources to succeed?  Or would you interview 10 high school principals in low socio-economic, inner-city neighborhoods to understand how and why administrators use different leadership styles in troubled schools?  These three choices represent three different methods, or ways of researching, for three different purposes. 

21. Each research method has specific rules for how to validly collect, organize, and interpret data to reach a true or reasonable conclusion.  Often a specific subject requires a special type of method to study it.  For example, if you wanted to know the average long-term trend of church attendance in the United States from 1900 to 2010, you would not want to personally interview individual Americans because it would take forever, and it would be impossible to get a large, representative sample that would tell us about all American church goers during this period.  Instead, you would need to use a brief, written survey and send it to thousands of Americans of all ages, from all the major churches, from strategically chosen places around the country.  Or, you could go to hundreds of different churches that have been around from 1900 to 2010 in order to analyze their membership roles. 

22. Each academic discipline usually has rules about what subjects you can or cannot study, and which research methods you can or cannot use.  You can study churches in the disciplines of Sociology, History, Anthropology, Religious Studies and maybe Education or Business, but you cannot study churches in Biology, Physics, Mathematics, Chemistry, or Computer Science.  You can study Music in the discipline of Music, Philosophy, History, Education, Psychology, and Business, but not Anatomy, Engineering, Sports Science, or the Visual Arts.  The discipline of Mathematics does not let you interview anyone, and the discipline of Anthropology usually does not let you use any math, unless you study the sub-discipline of Archeology.  The discipline of Business or Sociology does not let you analyze works of fiction, but the discipline of English focuses mostly on fiction.  There is no creative expression in Accounting or Chemistry, but you cannot study Music, Performing Arts, Visual Arts, or Creative Writing without it.  You need to make sure to choose the appropriate academic discipline to fit your research interests.

23. While you can study the same topic in many different disciplines, each discipline has its own specialized research questions and methods with which to study the topic in a unique way.  Let’s look at the subject of churches again.  The discipline of Religious Studies might focus on the doctrinal ideas of churches or the beliefs of individual church members.  The discipline of Business would focus only on how churches act like businesses and make money.  The discipline of Education would focus on the curriculum and teaching methods of churches.  The discipline of History would look at how a specific church was founded and changed over time.  Same topic, but different research methods and different research purposes, all of which lead to different types of knowledge.

24. In the 21st century, the university has become the primary source of knowledge and technological innovation.  Professors work within academic disciplines to produce knowledge by using scientific theories and methods to conduct research and experiments.  The university also trains students, such as yourself, to either become working professionals or to earn advanced graduate degrees.   In order to succeed in higher education and prepare yourself for your career, you will need to be able to read and understand research from a wide variety of academic disciplines.  You will also be required to explore the university curriculum during the first two years of core "general education" classes. 

25. These general education classes are meant to teach you a broad set of skills, which I am calling 21st century literacy.   This includes traditional skills, like reading, writing, and arguing, and also higher order skills, like critical thinking and basic scientific reasoning.  You will then use these broad skills to further your education in a specific academic discipline where you will be trained in specific methods appropriate to your field of study.  I will be explaining the higher order skills of critical thinking and scientific reasoning in a later chapter.  It is these higher order thinking skills which make scientific research the most accurate and reliable form of knowledge. Science is the only source of knowledge that gives us the information we need to understand our complex universe and fix real-world problems. 




Cole, J. R.  (2009).  The great American university: Its rise to preeminence, its indispensable national role, and why it must be protected.  New York: Public Affairs. 

Gay, P.  (1996).  The enlightenment: The science of freedom.  New York: W. W. Norton (Original work published 1969).

Grubb, W. N., & Lazerson, M.  (2004).  The education gospel: The economic power of schooling.  Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Labaree, D. F.  A perfect mess: The unlikely ascendancy of American higher education (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2017).

Lucas, C. J.  (1994).  American higher education: A history.  New York: St. Martin's Griffin.

Thelin, J. R.  (2004).  A history of American higher education. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.


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© J. M. Beach 2013, Revised 2016