Universities: Who Needs ‘Em?

Normally, I would not question the wisdom of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, especially when backed by the general disposition of the Church and specific, solid papal bulls. I do not doubt that the founders of the universities at Bologna, Paris, Oxford, Salamanca, and so forth meant well. But in light of the experience of the last nine centuries, were they a good idea?

The modern view is that the question lies beyond asking. But that is one of the problems with the modern view: There are too many questions it can’t or won’t ask. We take it for granted that, even if the scene that greets us in any existing university — from Ivy League down — is an appalling one, still, in principle, universities are a good thing; and if they were returned to their original functions, and various excrescences docked or reformed, everyone could be happy.

Indeed, those who tend to be most “jingo” on the achievements of Western Civilization (like me, on a good day) tend also to advance “the idea of a university” as one of our great gifts to mankind. For the last three centuries or so, these proud expostulations have been tainted by the Enlightenment conceit of “secularism” (really, we need another word). It is specifically claimed that universities put learning at one remove from the authority of the Church, as if that had put us closer to the angels.

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The whole history of universities I will not try to review in the very short space of this article; suffice to say it is not coterminous with the history of scholarship, classical or otherwise. Such a standard survey as the old History of Classical Scholarship by John E. Sandys (published in 1903 by Britain’s junior university, Cambridge) made the distinction clear. Its longer title continued, “from the Sixth Century B.C. to the end of the Middle Ages,” relieving the reader of any doubt.

But were that point still clearly taken, the Islamophiles who champion various ninth- and tenth-century foundations in the Arab world as the first universities could drop the idea. Though collegiate in the broad sense, the ancient madrasah at Fez, the medical and philosophical caravanserai at Baghdad, and even so venerable an arguably degree-granting institution as Cairo’s Al-Azhar were something else entirely. Until very, very recent times, those Muslim schools that survived at all had vastly more in common with our own ancient studia generali and scholae monasticae — schools associated with cathedrals and monasteries, designed for the training of clergy.

We might return to ancient Alexandria, or continue back to Athens to find pregnant examples of learning pursued as an end in itself, but even in the expansive Hellenistic age, we find nothing that truly resembles what we mean by “university.” True enough, we find personalities as pretentious, disportive, and irritating as our own tenured dons (in the Library of Alexandria, for example), but this is a better indication of universal frailties in human nature than of an institutional tradition.

From what I can see, though an old thing now, universities were once a new thing, and so much of a kind that we can recognize everything wrong with modern campus life in the earliest models — certainly not excluding the “five-year party” phenomena documented in the recent bestseller by Craig Brandon.

The prototype University of Paris (wandering scholars from which hatched Oxford University and many others) presented something of a law-and-order problem from the start. “Town versus gown” became a riotous commonplace wherever these colleges landed, as their inmates began flexing not only virile young muscles but the arrogance that came with royal and aristocratic connections. You do not put young dogs on very long leashes without expecting bystanders to be bitten.

But what I find more interesting, in reading accounts of the mediaeval universities, is the speed with which they allied themselves with Bishops against Pope, with Court against Church, with Law against Spirit, and, when they were being spiritual, with the spirit of secession in all of its instinctive and demonic forms.

Conversely, they were from their beginnings the flag-bearers of bureaucracy and regulation. Italy’s first universities were themselves the outgrowth of law schools, and other arrangements made by the flourishing city states to provide themselves with educated clerks, to fill metastasizing civic administrations. The association between universities and the “civil service” — and, more broadly, with secular government in all its more intrusive forms — is hardly something new to our age.

More deeply, by freeing students from the oversight and discipline of religious orders, and then creating a class of professors out of former students, the mediaeval universities were formulating a new kind of man — the public intellectual, quite full of himself — the sharp edge of whose intelligence would be honed to serve adolescent dreams of power and control, with endless voyages into “pure theory.”

One hears the echo through the ages of Benedetto Gaetani, papal legate and future Pope Boniface VIII, gone to Paris in 1290 to express the exasperation of the Roman Curia — not only with the intensely meddlesome political posturing of the university, but also with its venal attachments to worldly vested interests. To a professoriate flouncing their reputation for the “higher” education, Gaetani cries: “It is all trivial!”

And to the smug looks on many hundred faces, he declares: “We are called by God not to acquire learning to dazzle mankind, but to save our souls!”

Now — please — I am not against learning, and to some degree, not even against learning as an end in itself. Nor am I actually against universities, in principle; or at least, not yet. But I would like to wonder aloud if the time is not approaching to pull the fiscal plugs on all of them, and start over from the monastery again.


  • David Warren

    David Warren is a Canadian journalist who writes mostly on international affairs. His Web site is www.davidwarrenonline.com.

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