The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Universities can’t fend off attacks because they’ve forgotten their roots

Universities thrive when administrators and state officials respect the expertise of faculty and students

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis waves during an inauguration ceremony at the Old Capitol on Jan. 3 in Tallahassee. The governor has challenged educational institutions in the state. (Lynne Sladky/AP)
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Some Republicans have gone to war with educators and universities.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis has bemoaned the “wokeness” of educators, while launching a frontal attack on universities in the state. Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick recently threatened to eliminate tenure protections for professors at the state’s flagship university who defended their right to teach critical race theory. More generally, conservatives paint universities as the enemy, and call into question the benefits of academic freedom for professors.

These efforts build on long-standing conservative suspicion of higher education. In 1969, for example, Vice President Spiro Agnew (R) characterized professors and their students as an effete corps of impudent snobs who characterize themselves as intellectuals.

Despite the persistence of conservative campaigns against higher education, American colleges and universities have never really hit on an adequate response to these attacks.

Looking at the historical roots of universities hints at why they have struggled. These institutions began as collectives of teachers and students drawn together in the pursuit of knowledge that would prepare students for lives as productive citizens. They did best when administrators and state officials respected the expertise and independence of the scholars who shaped that education. In fact, in the earliest universities, when officials interfered, some faculties just picked up and moved.

Yet today, this focus has been lost as administrators compete to sell their “product” to consumers — students and parents — while trying to insulate their institutions from political attacks.

While the teacher-student relationship had been at the center of the educational project since Socrates trained Plato, a new kind of institution emerged in Europe in the High Middle Ages. Municipal and cathedral schools became centers of higher learning in the 11th and 12th centuries, forging the identity of the modern Western university.

These early institutions were not universities as we understand them; they were not grounded in buildings that formed a physical campus, but rather were essentially a guild, a privileged association of teachers, and sometimes of students. By the 15th century, the term “universitas” was used exclusively to denote a self-regulating community of teachers and scholars chartered by civil or ecclesiastical authority.

These professors educated their students in the fundamentals of the liberal arts, the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, astronomy, music and geometry), the skills considered necessary for the “effective, informed, and voting citizen in ancient Rome,” updated for the needs of the medieval Christian scholar.

Once a student completed the liberal arts curriculum and received the equivalent of our Bachelor of Arts degree, he — always a he — was qualified to teach and could seek a license to do so. He could also continue with his education in one of the higher disciplines, which became the basis of the modern liberal professions: medicine, philosophy/theology and law, training offered exclusively in universities.

The growth of these institutions of higher education paralleled the revitalization of urban life in both Italy and Europe north of the Alps beginning in the 11th century. The broader consolidation of power by secular and religious authorities created a need for men trained in clerical and legal skills to serve in burgeoning bureaucracies — training that these new institutions effectively provided. This coincided with renewed scholarly interest in and excitement about the study of Roman law and logic facilitated by easier access to classical literature.

Scholars found employment teaching the sons of town dwellers and rented rooms to teach their classes. The supply of teachers (then called masters) grew in response to the demands of ambitious students and expanding administrations.

In their earliest incarnation, these associations centered on the student-teacher relationship and their shared pursuit of knowledge. The story of the brilliant teacher and logician Peter Abelard (1079-1142) — better-known today for his tragic love affair with Heloise — demonstrated this rooting. When he got into a quarrel with his former teacher in Paris, it was easy for Abelard to leave the city’s school to set up his own in the nearby town of Corbeil. His students eagerly followed him, first there, then to Melun, to Mont Sainte-Geneviève and back to Paris again, inspired by their creative and charismatic professor.

While these early communities of teachers and students emerged spontaneously, without the express authorization of a higher secular or religious authority, officials soon recognized the value of these new bodies and sought to control them. As a result, school administrations soon emerged; for example, in 1200, French King Philip Augustus formally recognized the corporation of students and teachers that eventually became the University of Paris, renowned for instruction in theology and logic. It would operate under ecclesiastical law, governed by the elders of the cathedral school of Notre-Dame.

Civil and ecclesiastical authorities recognized the value of local universities, which provided students with the scholarly expertise needed to address social and political problems, in addition to the economic benefits the influx of masters and students (who purchased food and rented lodgings) provided. As a result, they tried to accommodate the faculty and students, granting them economic and legal privileges and extending latitude over what they taught. For the most part, medieval scholars enjoyed significant autonomy and self-regulation.

Yet religious and political forces sometimes infringed upon free inquiry and debate (what we would today call academic freedom). Authorities kept a close eye on the research and teaching of university professors, in some cases bringing judicial proceedings against scholars for heresy or “false teaching.”

But masters and students had a weapon for fighting back. Because these universities remained highly mobile — not tied to the physical buildings of a campus — professors or students who were unhappy with their treatment at the hands of townspeople or administrators could go on strike (as the University of Paris did in 1229) or simply pack up and leave. In fact, the migration of unhappy professors and students from Bologna and Paris, sites of the premier medieval universities of law and theology, spawned many of the major universities of Europe.

This mobility limited the power of administrators to get in the way of the educational experience even as tensions between “town and gown” were common in general. The fact that university charters gave faculty control of the curriculum and the awarding of degrees reflected recognition of their expertise.

Like today, many medieval students saw themselves as consumers; their education was an important steppingstone to a good career and social mobility. The evolution of the University of Bologna, Europe’s premier law school, which had a powerful student guild that effectively controlled the university, demonstrated this. Students there knew that a good education offered the possibility of professional and social advancement in the service of secular or church administrations. They demanded that their professors cover the prescribed legal curriculum according to an agreed-upon schedule, including the most difficult portions of study. Professors who canceled classes without good cause were fined.

Because students at Bologna negotiated course fees directly with their professors and boycotted professors who refused to adhere to the student guild’s rules and regulations, they were able to exact diligence and expertise from their professors — who depended on student support for their income — without too much administrative interference. Consequently, a law degree from the University of Bologna was highly valued.

Students who studied philosophy and theology also demanded access to the best possible education. With the rediscovery of Aristotle in the West in the 13th century, scholars of logic were determined to study him, despite the church’s objection that Aristotelian thought was incompatible with Christianity. Students and their teachers argued that no true philosopher could ignore the contributions of antiquity’s greatest and most challenging logician. Eventually, authorities embraced the synthesis of Aristotelian with Christian thought, knowing that they needed to accommodate scholars and facilitate their intellectual growth, which would ultimately benefit the society writ large.

While the nature of the liberal arts education has evolved considerably since ancient and medieval times, and universities have grown into massive entities offering far more than a classroom education, this community of teacher-scholars and students remains at its core. The more administrators, trustees and especially politicians disrupt that, the more that essence gets lost. Rubrics, assessment and impenetrable language about “outcomes” do not improve the student experience and suggest lack of confidence in the expertise of professors.

The freedom to pursue knowledge and to shape curriculums has been at the heart of the university since its inception. Students and faculty have labored for centuries because they understood that doing so creates degrees with the most value — both as a professional credential and as one that prepares students for participation in civil society.