The History of Knowledge: Darkness in the Academy

As far as we can discern, the sole purpose of human existence is to kindle a light in the darkness of mere being. Carl Jung
Knowledge does not always prevail or even endure. When the Empire fell, the Justinian Code was replaced by Canon Law. The augustness of knowledge was transformed into heresy and mankind’s curiosity was virtually extinguished.

The age became dark. In the 11th century, people began to study rediscovered Greek and Roman texts. The darkness of the age had begun to lift but the lifting took seven hundred years and was never completed. Today, nothing ensures the light’s endurance despite our pious accolades to learning and science. But anti-intellectualism never died; it continued to live in the dark alcoves of the religious institutions of the Middle Ages. That darkness came to America when its first universities were established. These universities were established as fundamentalist vocational training institutions. They were not established to further knowledge. They are madrassas, Sunday Schools, one and all. Now even this conservative educational system is under attack by ideological fundamentalists. Professors throughout the Western world, stock up on lanterns. The darkness is returning!

During the Golden Age of Greece, Athens was populated by enough curious people to cause Aristotle to write, “all men by nature desire to know.” He was wrong, of course, but his compatriots certainly had an intellectual bent. Athens experienced a period during which the Parthenon was built and the city became the artistic, cultural, intellectual, and commercial center of what was then known as the civilized world. Among its inhabitants were Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Aeschylus, Aristophanes, Euripides, Menander, Sophocles, the sculptor Praxiteles, the orator Demosthenes, Herodotus, Thucydides, and others. A love of learning was prevalent. The Socratic method, consisting of asking questions until the essence of a subject is found by eliminating the hypotheses that lead to contradictions, was developed, and mathematics was expanded by Pythagoras, Euclid, Archimedes, and scholars such as Hipparchus, Apollonius, and Ptolemy. Learning was august, but it was eventually debased. War to further commerce was the enemy and it won. Knowledge does not always prevail or even endure.
Rome, by contrast, was never populated by enough curious people to earn it a reputation for its intelligentsia. The Romans were a plundering people. They took what they wanted by killing, if necessary. Rome had made Papal Christianity the state religion and when the Empire fell, the Justinian Code was replaced by Canon Law. The augustness of knowledge was transformed into heresy and mankind’s curiosity was virtually extinguished. The age became dark.
In the 11th century, individuals from across Europe began to study the rediscovered Justinian Code. Soon, the study of Roman law and other rediscovered subjects spread, and Papal Christianity came into conflict with itself. The election of two claimants to the papacy created a schism: The split led to the establishment of new centers of learning and a decline in the authority of the Church. Learning began to reassert its place and eventually both the Renaissance and the Enlightenment emerged along with an interest in humanism. The darkness of the age had begun to lift but the lifting took seven hundred years and was never completed. Today, nothing ensures the light’s endurance despite our pious accolades to learning and science.
The darkness that enveloped the Dark Ages in Europe emanated from the monasteries, abbeys, and Scholastic universities of the Middle Ages. It consisted of the ideology that was thought to be the divinely inspired truth describing all things in the universe which itself was known as Creation. It tolerated no dissent which brought about heresy trials, executions, and the Holy Inquisition. Almost everything that would be considered learned today was suppressed. And even when the Church’s influence declined and heresy trials and the Inquisition ceased to exist, vestiges of the darkness were kept secure in other institutional ways. The love of learning that emerged in Classical Greece never regained its augustness. Anti-intellectualism never died; it continued to live in the dark alcoves of the religious institutions of the Middle Ages. That darkness came to America.
Two hundred years before the Age of Reason, Massachusetts was a religiously conservative Puritan colony that repeatedly deported, cast out, and even executed people who disagreed with ideological Puritan doctrine. Although never formally affiliated with a church, Harvard college was established in 1636 by the Massachusetts legislature primarily to train Congregationalist and Unitarian clergy. The Puritans and Harvard Collage at that time can only be described as Christian fundamentalist. The college offered a classic academic curriculum altered to be consistent with Puritan ideology. This curriculum emulated that of Cambridge University, which itself was founded as a papal university. In short, Harvard was the Liberty University of the day, a Bible school, and its function was distinctly religious. It was not established as a place of universal learning. Harvard’s curriculum and students did become secular in the 18th and 19th centuries when it emerged as the central cultural establishment among Bostonian elites. Following the Civil War, the college and its affiliated professional schools were transformed into a centralized research university, but its professional schools then as now were vocationally oriented. The university’s goal was and is to teach people to operate in an ideologically biased market economy as is shown by its history, influence, and wealth. It has the largest financial endowment of any academic institution in the world, and eight U.S. presidents have been graduates. Harvard is also the alma mater of at least sixty billionaires. It is America’s Cathedral of the Moneyed Elite, and it promotes establishment ideologies rather than universal learning. It began America’s addiction to schools of business administration, having founded the first one in 1908, twelve years before it established its College of Education. Only in the late 19th Century was the favored position of Christianity eliminated from the curriculum by replacing it with another ideology—Transcendentalist Unitarianism. Harvard is an institution where belief has always trumped knowledge.
But it’s not that way anymore, is it? Unfortunately it is. Consider this view of how economics is taught at Harvard:
students at Harvard recently walked-out of Greg Mankiw’s Ec 10 Principles class because of alleged ideological bias in his presentation. . . . Steven Margolis, also at Harvard, staged a “teach-in” about the Mankiw walk-out. . . . Margolis . . . discussed his attempt to offer an alternative Ec principles course at Harvard, which was rejected by the economics faculty—then accepted only as an alternative studies course. Students at Harvard, like students at many other schools, are not allowed to learn about alternatives to the neoclassical model and get credits toward the major!
This is Harvard, the brightest light in America’s Educational Pantheon, often criticized by conservatives as too liberal!
But it’s not just Harvard. Yale was founded in 1701 to train ministers and lay leaders for Connecticut. Ten Congregationalist ministers, all of whom were alumni of Harvard, established the school. When a rift formed at Harvard between Increase Mather and the rest of the Harvard clergy whom Mather viewed as “increasingly liberal, ecclesiastically lax, and overly broad in Church polity,” he praised the success of Yale in the hope that it would maintain the Puritan religious orthodoxy in a way that Harvard had not. Just another Liberty university.
And then, Leland Stanford, the founder of Stanford, visited Harvard’s president, Charles Eliot, and asked how much it would cost to duplicate Harvard in California. Stanford became the Harvard of the West, just another conservative, fundamentalist university.

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