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The Ninnyversity?

The post-Restoration dons and students therefore inherited a curriculum made up of scholasticism and the classics, “the Ancients,” which they vigorously defended against the assaults of the “Moderns,” such as languages, history, and the classics in translation. In a frenzy of reactionary zeal, Oxford University in 1683 forbade students to read, and ordered to be publicly burned, the works of such diverse enemies of safe thinking as the Independent Milton, the Presbyterian Baxter, the Catholic Cardinal Bellarmine, and the skeptic Hobbes. The reason for this all-embracing conservatism in the universities in the late seventeenth century, according to Professor Kearney, is that they were composed of two declining social groups, the gentry and the clergy, who were now being outnumbered and overtaken by the monied and commercial classes and the dissenters.

Under the stress of this social threat, the dons and the students retreated into reactive conservatism, as a lastditch defense against the wave of the future. By fleeing to scholasticism and the classics, they hoped to preserve the old clerical/gentlemanly values in an alien capitalist world whose intellectual mouthpieces were Descartes and Locke. In the battle of the Ancients and Moderns, the supremacy of the former within the universities and of the latter without is therefore of profound social significance, and should not merely be regarded as an epiphenomenon of the history of ideas.

In Professor Kearney’s view, the effect of the universities over this 200-year period was to strengthen the forces of social and intellectual conservatism. They were the principal instrument which polarized society into two distinct status groups and subcultures, the gentlemanly members of “polite society” and the rest of the population, separated by a gulf defined by a leisured style of life whose most visible characteristic was a running acquaintance with Latin.

Plebeians could acquire gentle status by a university education and a career in the Church, an institution now controlled by the lay elite, and in which advancement depended on the favor of gentry patrons. Their stay at the university gave the gentry a common educational experience and served to create a national elite which was both unified in outlook and culture and clearly distinguished from the rest of the nation. Moreover, the curricular trend back to scholasticism which set in at the end of the sixteenth century created the intellectual background for the authoritarian regime of Charles I and Archbishop Laud in the 1630s. This trend also explains why the revolutionary leaders of the 1640s were angry old men, nearly ten years senior to the Royalist supporters. According to Professor Kearney, the former had been bred at the universities on the Elizabethan biblical curriculum, the latter on scholastic theology and the Fathers, the former being interpreted as an incentive to radicalism, the latter to conservatism.

Professor Kearney has propounded a thesis of great boldness and originality, which offers a key to unlock the door to many mysteries about English social and intellectual history over a critical 200-year period. This is in many ways an original and exciting book which will provide themes for discussion and investigation for many years to come. It is enlivened with sudden flashes of insight and provocative assertions.

What is surprising is that the universities survived at all at Oxford and Cambridge when the obvious place for higher education was London near “the third university,” the Inns of Court. [p. 21] The obsession with natural law, which we see in the neo-scholastics, may be explained as a method of supplying a god-given world of rational truth in which property, government, and learning have a right to exist independent of Biblical warrant. [p. 81]

We may see much of the Tudor preoccupation with learning and the learned clergy, and hence with the universities, as part of a general social unease. Take but degrees away, and hark what discord follows! [p. 36]

University education, like the law of property, a learned clergy, and a restrictive franchise, was seen to be one of the pillars upon which the “Gentry Society” rested. [p. 140]

These quotations give the reader some impression of the flavor and direction of Professor Kearney’s thinking. But impressive as is the intellectual tour de force which has produced so attractive a synthesis, there is unfortunately reason to think that the methodology is unsound and that many of the conclusions are unproven or untrue.

There are four methodological flaws in Professor Kearney’s book, any one of which would alone be sufficient to detract seriously from its value. First, it is based on a fixed presupposition, namely that the university is an institution which not only was intended to operate, but which in fact did operate, as a social and intellectual control system to strengthen the monopoly of the existing elite over high status positions, to formalize and reinforce class distinctions, and to propagate conservative ideology. The university is assumed to have been, both in intent and in practice, one of the most important elements of the system of repression which maintained the social status quo.

That governments and ruling elites have in the past tried to use the educational system for such purposes is a matter of historical record, and is a proposition which I myself advanced some years ago. It is only in the twentieth century that liberals have tried to use the system to create a society based on equal opportunity and high social mobility. But the extent to which the universities did in fact operate in this way and the degree to which there were internal resistances and slippages are quite other matters.

In practice, universities have nearly always performed two directly contradictory functions. On the one hand, they have served to channel the children of the elite into elite positions, and thus to harden the social structure; and they have also transmitted the inherited traditional culture of the past to each new generation. On the other hand, they have provided avenues, broad or narrow, by which talented children of relatively humble origins (but usually not from the manual laboring class) may enter the ranks of the elite; and they also have provided relatively safe havens of intellectual freedom in a heavily censored universe, from which can emerge new ideas and new facts which challenge both the existing social system and the existing set of values.

Without recognition of the essentially ambivalent role of the universities—socially a block and a sieve, intellectually a buttress and a land-mine—it is impossible to understand the role the universities have played in Western society in the last 300 years. Exclusive stress on the second, innovatory and socially mobile role, leads to the exaggerated claims of twentieth-century liberals for the university as a force for social and intellectual change. Exclusive stress on the reactionary and socially stabilizing role confirms the Marxist denigration of the importance of freedom of thought and expression in the university, since it is regarded as no more than an epiphenomenon of bourgeois culture. “To state that the school is above life, above politics, is a lie and a hypocrisy,” wrote Lenin, who therefore proceeded to crush freedom of thought in Russian universities. This doctrine has now been taken up again by the more radical students of Europe and America, who also regard the university itself, and freedom of opinion within it, as mere façades and supports for the existing military-industrial complex.

The historical mistakes that arise from the adoption of this assumption are well illustrated in Professor Kearney’s work. He continually stresses that “universities are the intellectual organs of the ruling elite.” But he fails to notice that despite the efforts of the government to suppress dissent, the universities played an absolutely vital role in the dissemination of Puritanism throughout both lay and clerical societies. Puritan intellectuals filled college fellowships, and from there they indoctrinated generation after generation of gentry and parish clergy with their subversive ideas.

Similarly, the attack of the free-will theorists on the accepted Calvinist ideas about predestination was also launched within the universities, despite the fact that Calvinism was part of the official Anglican doctrine. And when Arminianism finally became official in the 1620s, opposition to it continued from inside the universities, even at the height of the Laudian tyranny. The universities only became fully conformist in the late seventeenth century, and then they overdid their enthusiasm for the status quo to such a degree that they had the greatest difficulty adapting to the revolution of 1688, and thereafter tended to lapse into centers of High Tory disaffection.

As for the role of the universities as agents of social mobility, the very large number of men of humble origins whom they enrolled sufficiently speaks for itself. Whatever else they were at this period, the colleges were not exclusive havens for the social elite.

The second flaw in Professor Kearney’s book is his organization of intellectual history around a Hegelian dialectic of conservative and radical opposites. In the first place his categories are all wrong. It is false to identify classical studies with conservatism in the seventeenth century, however much this may be true today. Indeed Hobbes argued the opposite, that the English Revolution was caused in considerable measure by too much reading of such subversive republicans as Cicero, Tacitus, and Seneca.

It is unreasonable to call Eliot a “Court Humanist” and Lawrence Humphrey a “Country Humanist,” since they merely represent different stages in the acclimatization of an Italian prototype rather than distinctive intellectual positions. Humphrey was merely adapting a Renaissance model to a Reformation society, and, as the protégé of the Earls of Leicester and Warwick, he cannot be described as any less a “Court figure” than Eliot. As for scholastic theology, it is true that the Early Fathers are less dangerous literary fare than the New Testament. But slavish reliance on the Bible as the source of all authority is hardly more liberating a doctrine than one of slavish reliance on Aristotle. Dr. Kearney’s opposites are by no means as contrary as he claims, nor are the consequences of adopting them as obvious.

Moreover, he mysteriously ignores theology altogether and consequently fails even to notice the main intellectual quarrel which was tearing Oxford and Cambridge apart between 1590 and 1640, namely the battle between predestinarian Calvinists and free-will Arminians over the Doctrine of Grace. This was one of the most hotly debated issues of the period, and one which was to have the most serious political consequences once Charles I swung the whole weight of Court influence behind Arminians.

Nor is it good enough to treat Ramism, Baconianism, Cartesianism, and the Moderns as interchangeable parts of an intellectually progressive machine. Ramism cannot easily be fitted into a left-right spectrum, except in so far as at Cambridge it was clearly associated with the Puritanism of Cartwright and his followers. The Baconians and the Cartesians were opposites in their approach to the scientific method, and many Moderns rejected science as unsuitable for the education of a gentleman. In order to make his conservative/progressive dichotomy stick, Professor Kearney is forced in places to indulge in anachronistic thinking. For example, he regards a belief in astrology, in the effect of the heavenly bodies upon the character and fortunes of the individual, as evidence of conservative thinking. But this was a standard assumption of the seventeenth century, common both to many of the new scientists and to the Aristotelians, and nothing whatever can be deduced from it.

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