If ye've a knacky son or twa,
To Glasgow College send them a'
Where, for the Gospel or the Law
Or classic Lair,
Ye'll find few places hereawa'
That can compare
– Glasgow poet John Mayne, celebrating the centrality of his old university to the Glaswegian identity
The University of Glasgow, fourth-oldest university in the English-speaking world, has in part contributed not only to Mayne’s success but also the likes of engineer James Watt, publishing giants Robert and Andrew Foulis, Joseph Black, two Prime Ministers and even Mitsubishi Motors, boasting countless other renowned alumni.
In his new programme, The Scottish Intellect, BBC Radio Scotland broadcaster and language activist Billy Kay examines how the rise of the University of Glasgow paralleled the city’s leap from medieval ecclesiastical centre to a mercantile force and industrial behemoth in the 19th century.
Talking to The Journal, Kay also discusses the notion of Democratic Intellectualism; the inherently Scottish approach to education which blends the pragmatic and practical alongside the creative and intellectual.
It was prominent Unionist politician and Glasgow University alumnus Walter Elliot who coined the term ‘Democratic Intellectualism’ in the early 20th century. Kay describes Elliot as a Scottish patriot who “took pride in the Scottish tradition which gave access to higher education to students from humble backgrounds and then gave them a wide range of subjects across the curriculum with the study of philosophy at its core."
Kay goes on to explain how philosopher George Elder Davie adapted the term for the title of an influential book, The Democratic Intellect, celebrating this generalist, philosophy-based curriculum of the Scottish universities. He points out how it came under severe pressure to conform to the more specialist and elitist English tradition as the 19th century wore on; with the broad-based curriculum eroded in favour of the specialised honours degree.
Kay is undoubtedly an advocate for democratic intellectualism: “I think it is very easy to do just what you are good at, but the generalist approach definitely produces a more rounded individual,” he says. He quotes poet Hugh MacDiarmid’s description of Sir Patrick Geddes, a description which for him sums up the type of student and intellectual the Scottish system produced, particularly during the Scottish Enlightenment.
“Geddes’ constant effort was to help people to think for themselves, and to think round the whole circle, not in scraps and bits. He knew that watertight compartments are useful only to a sinking ship, and traversed all the boundaries of separate subjects.
“The Scottish generalist tradition is maintained of course in our secondary schools where we still do a broad base of five or six Highers while English students specialise in just three A-levels,” adds Kay.
He believes that all the city’s educational institutions have been central to Glasgow’s development and will be crucial to its success in the future: "in the series I show how Strathclyde University… very much embodied the Enlightenment tradition of exploring ‘useful knowledge’ and has its roots in the work of John Anderson who was a professor at Glasgow University.”
Scotland’s largest city has four universities within ten miles of its centre, as well as eleven further and higher-education colleges, home to a student population of over 168,000 - the second largest in Britain. With these new institutions shaping the city’s makeup, Kay considers academic partnerships between them fundamental to the nation’s success: “All intellectual cross fertilisation is fantastic, and Scotland has always been at its best when that has thrived.”
The author of The Scottish World and The Mither Tongue still feels that there is pressure for Scottish institutions to conform to English method, but remarks on the restoration of Scottish culture to the classroom:
“I think there is [pressure] but at the same time there is a thrawn continuation of certain aspects of the tradition. I went to Edinburgh University from Ayrshire in 1969 and it was quite a culture shock how anglicised an institution it was. Many of the teachers in the Arts Faculty were from Oxford and Cambridge who knew and cared little for Scottish culture. Fortunately, Scottish studies have revived since then, so things are better now.”
The generalist tradition of Scottish universities has encouraged students to attend universities abroad as well as attracting a range of international interest and even influencing university education in places such as the USA.
Kay tells us of a letter Founding Father Benjamin Franklin wrote to a fellow American: “You have great Advantage in going to study at Edinburgh at this Time, where there happens to be collected a Set of truly great Men, Professors of the several Branches of Knowledge, as have ever appeared in any Age or any country," wrote Franklin.
Princeton University was modelled along Scottish lines, heavily influenced by presidents John Wiltherspoon and James McCosh. “It was just amazing to stand outside Princeton’s oldest building, the iconic Nassau Hall, and muse on the fact that the money to pay for it had been raised by Scottish congregations of the Church of Scotland on one Sunday in 1740!” he delights.
“Recently, Glasgow was converted to Philadelphia as a film set for the latest Brad Pitt movie. Well for the series I visited the College of Physicians of Philadelphia and heard how it and all the early American medical schools were modelled on Scottish examples. The very building that houses the College of Physicians of Philadelphia today was provided by funds from the Scottish philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, who also contributed hugely to grants for students here at home at the beginning of the 20th century. An amazing tradition!”
Up until the end of the 17th century, Scots would top up their own education by attending universities in the Netherlands and France, and since the 18th century: “we have always attracted significant numbers of foreign students…and it is that cultural mixture which makes out universities such vibrant places to be”, says Kay.
Scottish universities were open philosophically in a way that English universities weren’t. It was much easier for someone who was poor in Scotland to get into university due to its democratic approach, providing entry to those who would otherwise have limited access to education.
James McCune Smith was first black American to gain a medical degree, receiving it at the University of Glasgow, and right up to the middle of the 20th century, many Jewish American students came to study medicine in Glasgow due to quota restrictions for Jews in American colleges at the time.
Glasgow as a community prides itself on being pragmatic and inclusive, a place where everyone - regardless of their background - can become a success. When asked about whether the implementation of RUK fees across many Scottish universities will affect this democratic philosophy Kay states that: “It may well affect the range of students who come here from outwith Scotland, but there is huge commitment in the Scottish Government to continue the national tradition of democratic access for students who are Scottish residents”.
He concludes that students choosing to study at a university based in Glasgow, with its deep historical roots and strong ties to both industry and the creative arts, gain, “A sense of place and hopefully a sense of belonging to a 600-year-old Scottish university tradition which has profoundly influenced higher education throughout the world."