The Middle Ages and Academic Freedom
During my time in this Vale of Tears I have listened to many commencement addresses, and I think I remember precisely one sentence from one address. Forgettable exercises in throwing platitudes to students eager to get to the post graduate party, and parents still numb from considering how much it has cost them for their offspring’s brief appearance on stage in cap and gown, most commencement addresses are as ephemeral as the youth of the audience being given yet another boring lecture. However, if Yale law professor Stephen L. Carter gave the commencement address below, a sharp satire on students not wanting to hear from speakers holding “heretical” views on politics, I would have been very attentive indeed:
The literary critic George Steiner, in a wonderful little book titled “Nostalgia for the Absolute,” long ago predicted this moment. We have an attraction, he contended, to higher truths that can sweep away complexity and nuance. We like systems that can explain everything. Intellectuals in the West are nostalgic for the tight grip religion once held on the Western imagination. They are attracted to modes of thought that are as comprehensive and authoritarian as the medieval church. You and your fellow students — and your professors as well; one mustn’t forget their role — are therefore to be congratulated for your involvement in the excellent work of bringing back the Middle Ages.
Now, before I close, I would like to address those members of the Class of 2014 who might think that it’s wrong to ban speakers whose views you reject. Your reactionary belief in tolerance and open-mindedness is truly distressing. I beg you to remember that every controversial question has only one answer. You have absolutely nothing to learn from people whose opinions you dislike.
And now, graduates, before things go too far — before you run the risk of being thought to be on the road to becoming responsible adults — please, rise to your feet, and, speaking with one voice, shout me down!
Go here to read the rest. Like most non-Catholics, and many Catholics, Professor Carter does not realize how less free our own times are in many ways compared to the Middle Ages, especially on campus. Universities in the Middle Ages were places of robust and endless debate, often spilling over into town and gown battles. The Church, far from being an authoritarian controller, was often struggling with the local King or other ruling body, and on most questions favored debate and free inquiry even, and especially, on religious topics, as the various orders of the Church had at it hammer and tongs in heated debates at the universities throughout Europe, founded by the Church, and the liberties of which were defended by the Church. Some questions were foreclosed by the dogmas of the Church, but these were precious few in number, the Church realizing that on most issues only free inquiry could ferret out the truth. The idea that a stifling political orthodoxy, self imposed, could exist at all universities, and that students would shout down speakers not subscribing to such political orthodoxy, would have struck medieval professors and students as the purest madness, and so it is.