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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.

The medieval university was created precisely to regulate intellectual liberty and stamp out heterodox thought. The earliest universities—Bologna, Cambridge, Paris, and Oxford—came into existence in the period 1190–1230 as a result of papal initiatives. At that moment the papacy was mounting a fierce campaign to control heretical movements that had been metastasizing all over Europe in the twelfth century. Local bishops, the traditional guardians of orthodoxy, had proven ineffective in defending Christian truth against these new challenges. They would soon be reinforced by international preaching orders, like the Dominicans and Franciscans, who took on the roles of educators, confessors, and inquisitors.  

It is no coincidence that Robert of Courçon, the cardinal charged with defeating the Albigensian heresy, was also put in charge of imposing institutional discipline on the flocks of teachers who congregated in Paris and Oxford. In those places too there were masters suspected of teaching heresy. Bishops in towns with many schools had proven ineffective in regulating intellectual debate among scholars. 

The career of Abelard (1079–1142), the true founder of scholasticism, vividly demonstrates the problems they faced. If, like Abelard, you wanted to open a school, you just had to find an empty room and start teaching. You supported yourself by collecting fees directly from students. If the bishop didn’t like what you were teaching, you just moved outside his diocese, taking your students with you. Abelard did this several times when his notable arrogance lost him the support of the local authorities. When they finally cornered him at the makeshift Council of Soissons, they lacked the learning to brand him a heretic (which he was not), and had to be content with the lesser charge of circulating a work of theology without permission (a risible accusation in that period). This situation obviously had to change, but it continued for another half century.

The founding of universities brought this period of free-wheeling intellectual inquiry to a close. Universities now made sure that every matriculating student was placed under a master who would be responsible for his “life and science”—his good behavior and completion of requirements. All masters had to be licensed to teach by their faculties: They had to have the licentia ubique docendi, the right of teaching anywhere, the predecessor of our university degrees. To graduate you needed to pass an examination—an exercise unknown in the West before the thirteenth century—and complete a curriculum of study. Curricula listing set texts were laid down by the relevant faculties and private reading of other texts was prohibited. All reading had to be conducted publicly under a licensed master. Written authorities could be criticized, to be sure, but there was a strong presumption in favor of their truth, and they always had to be treated with the utmost respect. 

By the end of the thirteenth century the teaching of theology had become largely the preserve of the mendicant orders, whose vows of obedience made them (in principle) easier to discipline. Heresy was still a threat in arts faculties, but less than might be thought. The university, together with outside authorities, put in place a structure of incentives guaranteed to induce self-censorship. Before the mid-fourteenth century, most university professors taught for a few years only before seeking more lucrative careers in the Church or in lay administration. Neither was eager to employ heretics. The system of papal and royal “provisions,” or job openings, for university graduates made the carrot so tasty that the stick was usually unnecessary. The occasional condemnation for heresy of an arts master or theologian was enough to encourage the rest to respect the bounds of orthodoxy.

You would have thought that so strict a regime, which we moderns would surely experience as highly repressive, would have stifled intellectual curiosity and debate. Instead, the opposite happened. Over the next hundred years, European universities fostered the most creative period of philosophical speculation in the West since the Hellenistic era 1500 years before. The universities produced major philosophers like St. Albert the Great, St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Bonaventure, John Duns Scotus, and William of Ockham. The focus of debate, even more surprisingly, was the thought of a pagan Greek philosopher, Aristotle, whose writings were by no means easy to harmonize with revealed truth. Thus, while their brothers were off smiting the paynim in the Holy Land, back home in Western Europe university masters were studying their Aristotle with the aid of Muslim philosophers like Avicenna and Averroës. While King Louis IX was burning thousands of copies of the Talmud and expelling the Jews from France, theologians like Aquinas were reading Maimonides.

How did this amazing efflorescence of philosophy occur in an institution that, from our point of view, was so strict in regulating thought? And why were early universities so tolerant of non-Christian thought?  

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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