Humans are culture creation machines. We stumble on some idea or thought, share it with other humans, and if the idea sticks and spreads faster than we forget about it, it becomes embedded in the way we do things together in the future. These are your inside jokes, your traditions and your cults. Many such ideas disappear as soon as they come, like fashion trends and popular culture. Some great ones stick around for a while and influence history, like Jazz or the Enlightenment. The few most powerful ones, like religion and democracy, embed themselves into the DNA of civilization, and they become institutions, inseparable from the species that conceived of it in the first place. Institutions are much harder to replace than other kinds of culture, because they go beyond simply being a part of life, and take root as an infrastructural piece of the way we navigate the world. They are fabric, more than threads. These institutions are pieces of culture immortalized. There’s nothing inherently inevitable about them – they are immortalized into humanity by virtue of their staying power in the way we live, and by how effectively they spread themselves amongst our communities.
One important invention of civilization is the university – a place with cultural and economic implications so complex I couldn’t possibly do it justice in one blog post. The university is an invention – there’s nothing fundamentally inevitable about it. The university is also an object of culture – universities play different roles in society and economy and life in different parts of the world, and at different points in history. The university is arbitrary in this way, but it’s also fundamental to the way the world works. The four-year research university has weaved itself deep into the fabric of society, from immigration and visa policies to the way science gets done to the coming-of-age culture in most developed countries. If it’s not an institution of civilization today, it’s rapidly becoming one.