Mr. Loconte’s essay is adapted from a talk he delivered for the Charles Malik Institute on April 27, 2023.
The idea of the university, of an institution devoted to freedom of thought in the pursuit of truth, stretches back nearly a millennium.
Its origins can be traced to the Italian city of Bologna, when a daring and powerful woman—yes, a woman—invited a famous scholar to teach Roman law to a small group of ambitious young men. The Countess Matilda, heiress to vast tracts of land in Tuscany and a friend of Pope Gregory VII, was as fervent in her quest for knowledge as in her piety.
In 1080, the discovery in an Italian library of texts of Roman law, compiled under Justinian in the sixth century but lost for many years, created a sensation. As historian Harold Berman explains, Europeans viewed Justinian’s law as “the ideal law, the embodiment of reason,” and applicable everywhere.
The texts were copied and began to be studied as students gathered to hire teachers to expound their meaning. A popular and dynamic teacher known as Irnerius caught the attention of Matilda, and in 1088 she arranged to have him teach in her native Bologna.
It marked a quiet yet profound revolution in the history of education.
The Bologna students quickly organized themselves into a guild, what they called a universitas, a term from Roman law to describe an association with a legal personality. It was a bottom-up affair. The students paid the salaries of the professors themselves — and penalized their instructors if they were not fulfilling their academic duties. After securing a charter from the city of Bologna, the school drew teachers and students from all over Europe and from other disciplines — medicine, theology, philosophy, the liberal arts — and organized them into an academic profession.
This spontaneous experiment marked the birth of the university, the oldest in the world, and the first institution to establish academic requirements and award degrees. The principle of academic freedom had taken root.
The city of Bologna, under the slogan libertas, had sought to escape feudal rule and become a free commune. There was a spirit of innovation and freedom at Bologna, where the city and the university collaborated to preserve their independence and advance a common educational vision.
By the end of the twelfth century, the University of Bologna was renowned as the premier center for higher learning in Europe. Students from across the continent were drawn to its culture of truth-seeking. Graduates could teach anywhere, spreading their reputation as La Dotta, the Learned.
The Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I (1122–1190) granted special protection to Bologna’s foreign scholars, ensuring them “freedom of movement and travel for the purposes of study.” As a result, some of the most innovative and creative minds of the Middle Ages — including Dante Alighieri, Francesco Petrarca, and Erasmus of Rotterdam — studied at Bologna. A noblewoman named Bettisia Gozzadini, after studying philosophy and law at Bologna in 1237, became the first woman in history to be awarded a university degree and allowed to teach at the university level.
Even during the turbulent years of the Protestant Reformation, the university kept its doors open and protected Protestant students from prosecution by the Inquisition.
A New Inquisition
Well, the spirit of the Inquisition—a secularized version of it—is alive and well in the West and working its mischief in the modern university.
Before we try to get to the heart of this mischief—the intellectual and moral crisis of the university—let’s remind ourselves why it matters. In fact, it matters supremely to every citizen in the United States and in the West more broadly.
This is what makes A Christian Critique of the University, by Charles Malik, published just over 40 years ago, so vitally important to our cultural moment. As Lebanon’s first ambassador to the United States, Malik was a key figure in the debates over the meaning of human dignity and human rights at the inception of the United Nations. An Arab intellectual and committed Christian (Greek Orthodox), Malik understood the crucial role of the universities in shaping the beliefs and assumptions of generations of leaders in virtually every sector of society: in education, politics, the media, entertainment, the sciences, the arts, and religion.
“The great Western institution, the university, dominates the world today more than any other institution,” wrote Malik. “No task is more crucial and urgent today than to examine the state of the mind and spirit in the Western university.”
Charles Malik had raised the alarm two years earlier, in 1980, at the dedication of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College (IL). In that talk, called “The Two Tasks,” Malik warned the evangelical community that, in their passion to win souls, they must not neglect the life of the mind. He cautioned them against the sin of anti-intellectualism.
“If Christians do not care for the intellectual health of their own children and for the fate of their own civilization,” he said, “a health and fate so inextricably bound up with the state of the mind and the spirit in the universities, who is going to care?”
Tragically, we cannot depend on the current progressive, secular leadership of America’s universities to care about the intellectual, moral, and spiritual health of the academy. But the problem is not just on the Left.
With a handful of wonderful exceptions, we cannot depend on the current leadership in the conservative Christian community to appreciate the depth of the problem. The new Christian Right seems as indifferent to the great cultural and intellectual inheritance of our civilization as the woke Left.
And this is why Charles Malik is the man for our moment. It was Malik, a generation ago, who warned us that “the fundamental spirit of the whole university is determined by the humanities. Philosophically and spiritually, where the humanities stand, the entire university stands.” Let that truth hang in the air for a moment: where the humanities stand, the entire university stands.
The disciplines of history, literature, politics, philosophy, economics, the arts, and religion: this is the lifeblood of the humanities. It is here where the most important questions about human nature and the nature of human societies are asked. It is here where the collective wisdom of the West in grappling with those questions is transmitted. It is our inheritance, our cultural birthright.
Yet we are in the process of selling our birthright for the thin gruel of social fads and social engineering utterly detached from the moral norms of Western civilization.
Truth-Seeking in the Academy
The problem runs much deeper than the explosion in gender studies, racial narratives, and political yardsticks for diversity, equity, and inclusion. The problem, I believe, is profoundly spiritual. The problem lies in the rejection of the concept of a Creator. We are in the midst of a cultural rebellion against the God of the universe upon whom we—as creatures—depend for life and truth and meaning.
The mission of the earliest colleges and universities in colonial America was to educate men and women in such a way that they would, through the course of their lives and vocations, honor God with their hearts and their minds. With this foundational belief, universities were committed to truth-seeking. They were confident that truths about the nature of God and the world that he made could be discovered—and, once discovered, would demand our obedience, if we hoped to live lives of virtue and meaning.
This was one of the themes that animated the career of the English philosopher John Locke, who helped to lay the foundation for government based on natural rights, human freedom, and human equality. Recall the importance that Locke attached to the impartial search for truth, in his Essay Concerning Human Understanding: “This I am certain, I have not made it my business either to quit or follow any authority in the ensuing discourse: truth has been my only aim.”
Locke’s commitment to truth-seeking also animates his Letter Concerning Toleration. “No man can, if he would, conform his faith to the dictates of another. All the life and power of true religion consists in the inward and full persuasion of the mind… Every man has a commission to admonish, exhort, convince another of error, and by reasoning to draw him into truth.”
Toward this end, Locke brought together a circle of friends to discuss and debate the big questions of life. He laid down the “Rules of a Society” for those who wanted to participate. Rule #3 was this: he must affirm that he “loves and seeks truth for truth’s sake, and will endeavor impartially to find and receive it himself, and to communicate it to others.”
Truth-seeking was not a product of skepticism for Locke. Rather, truth-seeking began with the belief in a loving and just Creator, and it was the obligation of every individual seek the truth if he hoped to please his Creator. As Locke put it in his Thoughts on the Conduct of the Understanding: “But I am not enquiring [into] the easy way to opinion,” he writes, “but the right way to truth, which they must follow who will deal fairly with their own understandings and their own souls.”
This outlook has been at the heart of the creative genius that has shaped our civilization for millennia. Few statesmen of 20th century understood this fact better than Charles Malik. “More than by anything else,” he wrote, “Western civilization is defined by total fearlessness of and openness to the truth. To the extent this civilization begins to harbor reservations about this fearlessness and this openness, it ceases to be itself, i.e., Western.”
Today we are afraid of the Truth: the facts about God and our mortal lives that we seek to evade at almost any cost.
Oxford, the Inklings, and Western Civilization
We need to recover a passion for the humanities. Historically speaking, it’s difficult to imagine any hope for cultural renewal without a renewed commitment to the humanities.
We must avoid silly nostalgia about our history and cultural inheritance.
There is much in our past that we must renounce, patterns of thought that we must guard ourselves against—because human nature has not changed and there are hatreds and philosophies and schemes of domination that reappear in every generation.
But the purpose of the university is not primarily to denounce our past, but to recover its treasures: to help each generation understand what the search for beauty, and virtue, and truth can look like. What might it look like?
It looked like the circle of scholars, authors, and friends who gathered at Oxford University, throughout the 1930s and 40s, to reclaim this older tradition. They called themselves the Inklings, those who dabble in ink, and were led by C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien. They met every week to share with one another whatever they were working on as authors: to critique and sharpen one another as thinkers and writers.
Lewis’s first work of epic fiction as a Christian, The Space Trilogy, was tested in the presence of the Inklings. It is a story about the Fall of Man and the Will to Power. Tolkien read out loud to his friend, C.S. Lewis, virtually every chapter of his epic story of the battle for Middle-earth. Without Lewis, he confessed, he never would have finished The Lord of the Rings.
The authors of these imaginative works about the struggle between good and evil were rooted in the literary canon of the West. They were nourished by what philosopher Russel Kirk called “the permanent things.”
One of the supreme goals of the university, properly understood, is to direct the minds of each generation toward these “permanent things.” This is one way to cure each generation of what C.S. Lewis called our “chronological snobbery”—the vain belief that virtually everything in our past has been displaced by our current fads and modes of thinking.
Lewis delivered this precise message during a moment of existential crisis: in September of 1939, after Germany invaded Poland, when Britain was once again at war and when the fate of Western civilization sat on the edge of a knife. The rector of St. Mary the Virgin Church in Oxford asked Lewis, himself a veteran of the First World War, to speak to the undergraduates in his congregation. Here is what he told them:
“What we need most, perhaps, is intimate knowledge of the past… A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village; the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age.”
The cataract of nonsense has grown to epic proportions and threatens to overwhelm us.
Joining the Resistance
And this brings us back to the University of Bologna. Today, with eleven schools and more than 86,000 students, it ranks among the top academic institutions in Europe. Its history is intimately bound up with the city of Bologna. In the historic squares, for example, it is not the statues of political or military heroes that dominate — but rather the tombs and memorials to medieval professors.
It is largely forgotten that the popular term alma mater, used by university graduates around the world, comes from the University of Bologna: Its full name is Alma Mater Studiorum Universita di Bologna, or “the Nourishing Mother of Studies University of Bologna.”
The modern university could use some nourishment, Bolognese-style. Unlike the contempt for Western civilization that animates much of the academy, the students at Bologna paid homage to their cultural inheritance: the classical-Christian tradition. Unlike the tribalism and grievances that characterize campus culture, Bologna sought to create an academic community devoted to meeting the physical, emotional, intellectual, and spiritual needs of its members.
The University of Bologna, in the words of the historian Tom Holland, became “a new nerve center for the transfiguration of Christian society.” But could the modern university once again become a nerve center for moral and spiritual transformation? It certainly seems unlikely. We are living, as the Scripture reminds us, in enemy-occupied territory. Let that not be forgotten.
That gives us a special role to play, a special privilege and obligation. We need to become part of the Resistance: outposts of intellectual seriousness and Christian virtue and moral sanity that expose the darkness of our own crooked and perverse generation.
“The problem is not only to win souls but to save minds,” Malik warned. “If you win the whole world and lose the mind of the world, you will soon discover that you have not won the world. Indeed, it may turn out that you have actually lost the world.”
Hearts and minds—they are waiting to be won. They are waiting for us to reach them.