A+ A A-

How the Church Has Changed the World: The Church, Mother of Scholars


The first sight that met my eyes when my father turned onto Nassau Street was the high Gothic tower of the Commons, where we freshmen and sophomores of Princeton University would take our meals.

Join the worldwide Magnificat family by subscribing now:
Your prayer life will never be the same!

gothicIt was a handsome structure, of great gray blocks of granite, sober, stately, partaking of the earth and reaching toward the sky.  The vast hall within, where we ate at wooden tables, was graced with portraits of past presidents of the university.  These, I soon learned, were stained by stray projectiles of food sent their way, usually intended for fellow students.  It was, you might say, a tradition pasted with tradition.

Like her rivals Yale and Harvard, Princeton had been founded primarily as a divinity school, and you could still sense it in the older buildings, which might seem a natural growth of the lives and the devotion of the people who lived nearby.  And once or twice a year, the professors and students would walk in parade, in robes whose original significance they no longer understood — clerical robes worn by students and masters in the first universities, those of the Middle Ages.  But other than a few scattered remnants of the past — like the yearly freshman theft of the bell-clapper atop Nassau Hall, to which I contributed by providing a crowbar — there was nothing that held the university together, that made it a unity, other than the name.

The More Things Change

We also made noise at night, we students walking down the street or stopping at a bar for a drink.  That was not a new thing in the world.  In that sense, we were as students have always been, full of youthful energy, prone to sin, free from the oversight of parents, and not always inclined to pore and sweat over books.  You can find charming manuscript illuminations that reveal something of the life of students in the Middle Ages.  Here's one in winter, and the boys are outside throwing snowballs at one another — and one's a lefty!  Here's one in spring, in a classroom, and the window's open, and although most of the students are attending to the lecturer, one of them is glancing toward the great outdoors, and another, in the back, has his head on the desk, napping.

So too there was sometimes trouble between town and gown, especially regarding the more brainless vices, but for the most part the medieval townsmen welcomed the universities, because they made for a more vigorous town life and a lot of business.  Colleges now pride themselves if they can catch a few students from foreign countries, but back then, so many students might come from this or that foreign country, that fellow nationals formed themselves into unions.  Thomas of Aquino, a fortress village in southern Italy, traveled to Cologne in the Rhineland to study under Albert the Great, and then taught at the University of Paris, where his friend and rival was Bonaventure, another Italian, and his chief opponent was Siger of Brabant, a Belgian.  They could do that, because even a common person in a port town or a trading center knew more than one language, and so it was no great feat of mind or tongue for learned men from all over the world to read and converse in Latin.

Not just anybody could teach; you had to have credentials.  The professors at Princeton were divided into faculties, by discipline, a division they inherited from the Middle Ages.  Although one university might be known for law (Bologna) and another for medicine (Salerno) and another for theology (Paris), the schools gave courses of study in other disciplines also, by men who were proficient in them.  How could you be sure that the teacher knew what he was talking about?  Well, the same way you could be sure that the mason knew his trade, and the altar he was building would not be crooked or ungainly.  The mason belonged to a guild of masters who required from him years of apprenticeship, until he could produce a masterpiece — literally, the work of art that would show that he was a master of his trade.  In the same way, the medieval teachers and scholars formed themselves into a guild or union, universitas magistrorum et scholarium, the origin of our term university.  They made sure that teachers taught and students learned.  The masters of that trade made sure that only men who were truly masters of their fields would go on to teach.  And — this really was a new thing in the world — a man who was named a doctor in Paris could teach at any university in Christendom.  His achievement and his learning were honored everywhere.

But then, Some Things do Change?

Yet in many ways the first universities, those which the Church founded in the Middle Ages, were more public and exciting than ours are.  Imagine the scene.  It's a warm spring day in Oxford.  There are no classes this afternoon, there were none the day before, and there aren't going to be any tomorrow and for the rest of the week either.

But the students aren't wandering about the fields or rowing upon the river.  They're all present, as are all the masters.

The whole enterprise implies that the human mind is perfected by intellectual virtues: a thirst for truth, a confidence that truth can defeat error, a humble willingness to submit opinions to judgment, and the solid belief that words are the signs and servants of things, whose natures we can know.

Thousands of people are watching, listening, some of them making records of the proceedings; and all those people will need refreshment, so there are grocers and wine merchants and bakers and cooks too.  Also that part of the human race naturally attracted to a good tussle; local priests and clerics; noblemen and women; anyone interested in the intellectual life; anyone at all.  For it's the great yearly disputation on any subject the questioner chooses, and it's going to be a great intellectual carnival, lasting a week or two, however long it takes for the questions to be answered.  Our private final examinations, in silence in a classroom, with students jotting a few ill-constructed sentences, are pale shadows of this glorious and colorful jousting match.

Yet I've still left out the most exciting and significant feature of the disputation.  Its simple and profound.  There's only one master on the hot seat, answering all the questions.  "Master Alexander, if the kind of a thing is prior in being to the thing itself, is it also true that our perception of the kind is prior to our perception of the thing?  How is that possible, when we have all experienced seeing that there is something — say, an animal moving in a tree, and then only later notice that it's a bird, and what kind of bird it is?"

And the great Platonist Alexander of Hales, visiting the nation of his birth, smiles, cocks his head, and says, "No, the perception of the kind is also prior; but first we must establish what we mean when we say we perceive."  Scattered applause from the audience; some muttered side-debates in the back; some expressions of surprise; all life.

He's the champion, taking on all comers, and they aren't just anybody; they are masters who have submitted questions to the spokesman for the opposition.  It's not what we now call a "debate," with people hurling assertions at one another, or accusing one another of prejudice or hatred or some other moral or intellectual disease.  It is not an exercise in flashy talk.  The master must identify the terms of the question.  He must define and distinguish.  He must show exactly how his answer applies.  He must anticipate and meet objections.  He does so on the spot.  The whole enterprise implies that the human mind is perfected by intellectual virtues: a thirst for truth, a confidence that truth can defeat error, a humble willingness to submit opinions to judgment, and the solid belief that words are the signs and servants of things, whose natures we can know.

In more than one way, then, these jousts were held in the full light of the sun.

A University Indeed

But that grand coming-together was not, strictly speaking, the invention of man.  It was made by God, in the hearts and minds of men united by a longing to know him.  It wasn't just that the Church happened to invent the university.  Only the Church could have invented it, because only what God reveals to us has the power to elevate and unite all other fields of study.  That doesn't mean that there is one astronomy for Christians and another astronomy for others.  It means that, in the nurturing haven of a true university, the study of astronomy bears upon other studies, and assumes its just and subordinate place in relationship with the handmaiden, philosophy, and the queen of sciences, theology.

It wasn't just that the Church happened to invent the university.  Only the Church could have invented it...

When I graduated from Princeton, what held us together beyond our having shared a postal code for four years?  No common course of study, no common knowledge, no common worship, no common faith.  We wore the trappings of a religious community, but we were neither religious nor a community.  We called Princeton our alma mater, our nourishing mother, but no one could say what potation we all were supposed to have imbibed.

When Thomas taught in Paris, sure, there were worldly students and masters, and many a lad drank more deeply at the public house than at the wellsprings of wisdom; but the bells rang the hours for prayer, and young and old alike walked under the arbors or in the cloisters, and they spoke of the world about them, the great poets and theologians of the past, and God.

Those universities could be hideouts for careless and dissolute youth.  Such we will always have with us.  But they were also, not by accident but by design, groves and gardens for saints.

It is time for the Church to invent the university all over again.



Magnificat Anthony Esolen. "How the Church Has Changed the World: The Church, Mother of Scholars." Magnificat (June, 2015).

Join the worldwide Magnificat family by subscribing now: Your prayer life will never be the same!

To read Professor Esolen's work each month in Magnificat, along with daily Mass texts, other fine essays, art commentaries, meditations, and daily prayers inspired by the Liturgy of the Hours, visit to subscribe or to request a complimentary copy. 

The Author

esolen54smesolen7Anthony Esolen is professor of English Renaissance and classical literature at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts, in Merrimack, New Hampshire. He is the author of Defending Marriage: Twelve Arguments for Sanity, Life Under Compulsion: Ten Ways to Destroy the Humanity of Your Child, The Beauty of the Word: A Running Commentary on the Roman Missal, Reclaiming Catholic Social Teaching, Reflections on the Christian Life, Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child, Ironies of Faith: Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization, and is the translator of several epic poems of the West, including Lucretius' On the Nature of Things: de Rerum Natura, Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata, and the three volumes of Dante's Divine Comedy: Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise. He is a graduate of Princeton and the University of North Carolina. Anthony Esolen is on the advisory board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 2015 Magnificat
back to top