Creating a University from Thin Air

By Michael Kimmage

What is a university?

This question imposed itself on Poles living under the Russian empire in the second half of the 19th century. Polish universities were shut down, having been deemed dangerous by the imperial authorities. What could replace them? Can a university be created from thin air?

Indeed it can, was the answer — and thus was born the Flying University, which assembled in people’s homes, in parks and apartments, secretly because it had to escape official attention. Students and professors used word of mouth to locate (and to trust) one another. For practical reasons, they had to be mobile, their meeting places transitory — hence, the name: the Flying University. Its intellectual level was extraordinary. The Flying University that operated between 1885 and 1905 included the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Marie Curie among its alumni. Elements of it were brought back during World War II in German-occupied Poland. 

Later, in the 1960s, a Polish scholar living in Western Europe, Leszek Kolakowski, published essays that helped to revive the Flying University. Poland was once again living under foreign domination — its communist-era universities were not open to the unrestricted pursuit of knowledge, and a second Flying University arose in 1977, lasting until the enactment of martial law in the country in 1981. Its alumni included Adam Michnik, the intellectual architect of the Solidarity movement, which agitated successfully against communism throughout the 1980s. 

The Flying Universities corresponded to a political and national situation unique to Polish history. Their spirit, however, has acquired new relevance at this odd and perilous moment for universities unaccustomed to flying. Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, many students and professors have been driven into their homes and apartments. The physical campus is not necessarily the center of action. 

We can, of course, mourn this lamentable state of affairs. We can also draw a measure of inspiration from the Flying Universities. They showed how little is necessary for genuine intellectual vitality, and how deep and intuitive the hunger for learning can be. They showed what a university in essence is — teacher, student, book, and zeal for learning — and what it is not. It is not reducible to credentialing; in fact, students at Poland’s Flying Universities often damaged their professional prospects by “enrolling.” It is not dependent on gyms, cafes, bars, campus bookstores, or college sports, nice as it is to have all these things. A university does not require ceremonies or public acknowledgment of its importance. A university does not even require official approval of its existence. 

The Flying Universities did not consist of students alone. They were more than an underground fraternity or sorority. They had teachers and students and, therefore, the passing down of knowledge, which lived in the discussions that took place in the homes and apartments doubling as lecture halls and seminar rooms. They did not always have physical books, as we do not at the moment always have the physical books we are used to getting from the library. But the Flying Universities were there to transmit awareness of the best books, of the crucial books, however this transmission could be managed. 

Teacher, student, book, zeal. Four simple ingredients, that was the recipe. We still have them in our virtual teaching environment, and we can still take some comfort in the thought that everything fundamental to a university can be achieved with them. 

Michael Kimmage, professor and chair of the Department of History, is an expert on the Cold War and on American diplomatic and intellectual history. His latest book, The Abandonment of the West: The History of an Idea in American Foreign Policy, was published last year.