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Intellectual Freedom in Medieval Universities


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First Things

James Hankins

2 . 4 . 22

Many academics today are dismayed by the growing intolerance of heterodox thinking in contemporary universities, but those aware of the university’s longer history are less surprised at this turn of events. The idea that university teachers should pursue free, open-ended research is a rather recent notion, after all. It has been around only for about two centuries, and for less than that in America. The idea that professors should be leading undergraduates on voyages of intellectual self-discovery is even more recent. When I was a young instructor in Columbia University’s “great books” program in the 1980s, we believed we were freeing minds from their unexamined prepossessions, pressing students to face fundamental life questions, helping them to form their own worldviews. Historically speaking, however, this libertarian ideal of what a college education should do is mostly American and mostly a product of the postwar era. Universities would have regarded it with suspicion for at least seven hundred of the eight hundred years they have been in existence. The traditional job of a university was to transmit learning, not to encourage free thought.

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One reason, I would suggest, is the lack of professional administrators, a feature of universities that lasted into modern times. (Harvard University—O the bliss of it!—as late as 1850 had only a single full-time administrator, the president, helped by a janitor, a cook, and two ushers.) It is a general principle of successful institutions that the people who run them are the ones most committed to their missions and most responsible for their success. A professional administrative class, by contrast, spends much of its time evading responsibility for failure and taking credit for other people’s achievements. As we have learned recently to our cost, it may harbor agendas in tension or even in open conflict with the institution’s core mission.

The medieval university was formally under the authority of the local bishop, but in practice the masters were a self-regulating corporation. The corporation of masters, charged with preparing students for positions in the Church and lay government, well understood how to encourage the life of the mind while showing proper respect for authority. The masters certainly possessed the institutional tools to stifle intellectual freedom had they wished to, but they preferred a lighter touch. They could have prohibited the study of Aristotle (as many urged them to do) but instead they allowed “the Philosopher” to become the backbone of the arts curriculum. They possessed the prudence and collegiality to create effective boundaries without presuming to dictate what their fellow masters and students should think. The monstrous regiment of administrators in modern universities could learn a thing or two from them.

James Hankins is a professor of history at Harvard University.

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