A Critical History of the University: Part II
Taking a New Look at the How and Why of the University According to Allan Bloom
The Early University
Universities in the West were founded on the principle that this Platonic love of wisdom (see Part I) would lead students closer to truth and a life worth living. Their philosophic goals also matched a New Testament directive that “the truth will set you free” (John 8:32 NIV) and the repeated directive in the New Testament to “change your mind” (mistranslated in Latin as “repent” (L. paeniteo (punish, be sorry)) but originally written in Greek μετάνοια (metanoia) “change of mind”). Early universities were also influenced by the attempt by the philosopher Philo to reconcile Plato with Judaism (Runia, 1995, pp. 143-160), so most of the first universities had some Judeo-Christian influence as well. However, universities in their present form arose around the time of The Enlightenment when there was a sudden explosion of interest in the meeting of great minds of the past, and in the investigation of all knowledge––but all specifically and categorically removed from religious and political influence.
The Modern University
Bloom describes this transformation of the Enlightenment thinkers on the university: “Enlightenment begins from the tension between what men are compelled to believe by city and religion, on the one hand; and the quest for scientific truth on the other. To think and speak doubts about, let alone to propose substitutes for, the fundamental opinions was forbidden by every regime previously known to man” (p. 257). The modern university, then, was to be a place where one could speak one’s mind without political or religious consequences and devote oneself to discovering how to lead the best life possible.
Philosophy and America
In a real and special sense, America is in debt to philosophy and the university because the ideas that were self-evident to its Founders were discovered through free participation in the process of “proposing substitutes” (p. 257) for the regimes that had previously existed in history, so as to design the best regime possible. In fact, America was the first nation in history whose Constitution was built on the principle of universal human rights, certainly near the top of the list of the “permanent concerns of mankind” and so is directly in debt to philosophy’s core objective (and what was supposed to be the core of the university’s).
Again, it was Plato who wrote the definitive description of this process of moving out of the dark cave of simplistic opinions and beliefs into the bright light of truth in his Allegory of the Cave found in his dialogue, The Republic (Book VII). This allegorical story ends with the enlightened man returning back into the cave of ignorance to encourage and accompany his friends to join him in the light of truth (Rep. 532b). The university’s purpose was to provide the resources for the entire undertaking including opportunities for making friends (Bloom, 1993). How this worked for the student is she would be accompanied out of her ignorance through engagement with great thinkers, led outside into the light of truth by wise friends to then develop her own new ideas, returning to help others, etc.
The Scientific Method
This educational process may sound mundane today after almost a millennium of taking university life for granted, but for one early example of its extraordinary potency, consider Galileo Galilei (1564-1642). He attended The University of Pisa. He read the thoughts of the great minds that came before him, especially Aristotle’s, and developed new interests which led to his inventing the telescope. He did much more than that: one could argue that Galileo added astronomy, advanced mathematics, engineering, and formal logic to the university’s pantheon! But most important to the modern university, and certainly to our current culture, Galileo invented the scientific method. Parting ways with Aristotle, Galileo said nothing should be accepted as true just because someone of renown wrote it, rather one should look at things carefully for oneself and do multiple congruent experiments, always leaving open the possibility for error. One should begin with an hypothesis and if the experiment was successful, the scientist should end on the humble note that the hypothesis had not been disproved, never with certainty.
Therefore, not only was the university designed to be a “preserve against public opinion” (Bloom, 1987, p. 324) but within that protection, men––and, though it took a while, eventually, women––had the freedom to think for themselves and create new areas of thought.
We have now come to an understanding of the how and why of universities. In Part Three we will look at how the university lost its way.
Juliëtte van Bavel is a multi-disciplined artist from The Netherlands who makes creations in abstract-photography, stone and oil-paint. Her philosophy of life is encapsulated by the following:
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