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A Neo-Medieval War on Universities
Administrators should learn from history and be a part of the university, not apart from the university
In the year 1277 CE, the bishop of Paris decided to take on the university in his city. He formally condemned 219 items of philosophy that were being taught, including works by the Spanish Muslim Ibn Rushd (also known as “Averroes”), the Greek thinker Aristotle, and the Christian thinkers Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas. The bishop’s decree furthermore asked students and faculty to denounce those who taught courses on the banned ideas, so that the bishop could root them out of the school.
This denunciation of ideas and “request for information” in 1277 was an attempt to bring the school to heel. As we discuss in our book The Bright Ages, this was, in some ways, the culmination of a long-running feud between the teachers and students on one side, and outside authorities on the other - both contesting who should be in charge of this new school that centered around the cathedral of Notre Dame. That struggle defined the school from its very beginnings, when in 1200 CE a drunken bar brawl that became a riot led to the French king recognizing the rights of the teachers and students as a distinct political and legal entity. The term that was used for this group can sometimes be translated as “community” or “corporation,” but it strikes us most clearly when we see it in the original Latin - “universitas.”
The bishop’s proclamation in 1277 was of a different sort though. This moment was indeed about an outside authority trying to assert power, using pretexts that the students were supposedly out of control. But if we look at what ideas were specifically attacked, we see that the bishop was really worried about the freedom of the university, the ability of its teachers and students to pursue truth without outside political control. Indeed, in this case, the bishop was threatened by a new learning that moved across religious traditions, including Greek polytheism, Islam, Judaism, and Christianity.
History doesn’t repeat, but sometimes it echoes.
As teachers, but especially as medievalists who have spent a lot of time thinking about the relationships between universities and powerful leaders, we’ve been watching the situation down in Florida with considerable alarm. Last week, the presidents of Florida’s community and state colleges issued a statement promising to support the new initiative put forward by Governor Ron DeSantis, and supported by Republicans in the legislature. The state government, following a wider nationwide right-wing panic, has been outspoken against the specter of “Critical Race Theory” and how universities (contrary to all evidence) are “indoctrinating” students. Now, they’re demanding universities provide the names and titles of all Florida college and university employees who do work on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion, and information on how much they spend on any work (including teaching) in this area. Republicans in Oklahoma have just done the same.
In response, the college presidents in Florida pledged that “our institutions will not fund or support any institutional practice, policy, or academic requirement that compels belief in critical race theory or related concepts such as intersectionality, or the idea that systems of oppression should be the primary lens through which teaching and learning are analyzed and/or improved upon.” The statement goes on to say, paradoxically, that suppressing the teaching related to America’s troubled history with race and its lasting impacts will “cultivate a spirit of inquiry and scholarly criticism, and to examine ideas in an atmosphere of freedom and confidence, free from shielding and in a nondiscriminatory manner.” Or to put it more plainly, the Florida College System has pledged to suppress and eliminate certain administrative offices and subjects from their teaching. At least one college has already begun to cancel courses in these areas.
What’s most striking about the presidents’ response is that the leaders are over-complying with the directive, and thereby embracing a right-wing talking point about what’s going on within their schools. DeSantis and his Republican allies only made a request for information. The purpose behind that request - to suppress academic freedom - is not hidden, but rather has been made quite clear by their actions and rhetoric. But the Florida College Presidents decided not to advocate up in defense of their institutions, but rather to enforce down, to ignore the very real fears of their faculty and students, to stifle academic freedom and free inquiry on campus.
And so history is echoing.
When looked at via a longer historical lens, Gov. DeSantis is simply the most recent in a long line of bureaucrats trying to enforce a narrow politics onto the pursuit of knowledge. But even now some brave faculty in Florida are continuing to teach the truth of the past. And this purposeful resistance has medieval precedent as well.
The condemnation of 1277 did have a chilling effect on what was taught for a time, but medieval universities never fully complied to stave off the political pressure. Instead, when students and teachers (including the masters who are the closest analogs to modern university administrations) banded together and resisted, insisting on their right to pursue truth, they often won. Aristotle and Ibn Rushd continued to be taught in Paris. Thomas Aquinas was made a saint in 1323.
Wherever universities are suffering bad faith attacks during this difficult moment, administrators need to realize that they are part of a tradition that stretches back centuries. They need to get more “medieval,” to realize that some have always been threatened by the messy confluence of different ideas, of different traditions. Their job, historically, should be to advocate upwards against censorship, rather than enforce these mistaken directives downwards. And, in the end, this is why the statement of the Florida College Presidents is so disappointing.
In the past, the university - teachers and students - stood together in solidarity. Facing pressure, they threatened to leave, to strike, or just continued teaching what needed to be taught, learning what needed to be learnt, daring politicians to try and stop them.