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Opinion: Student protests are what created the university as we know it

Opinion by David M. Perry and Matthew Gabriele

(CNN) — In recent days, protests by college students against Israel’s actions in the ongoing war in Gaza have popped up across the country. They are a complicated national phenomenon, like all protest movements containing multitudes of attitudes, personalities, agendas and reactions.

But what holds our attention as historians is how surprised some people have been to see college professors standing up to defend their students. For example, at Emory, philosophy department chair Noëlle McAfee was arrested trying to protect her students, and economics professor Caroline Fohlin was violently thrown to the ground and herself arrested for asking a police officer to stop mistreating another student. Concerned faculty at the University of Texas-Austin called a strike to protest police actions against peaceful protestors. At CUNY, faculty literally formed a wall to put their bodies between the protestors and the police.

But as we write in our book, “The Bright Ages,” faculty and students uniting against outside political interference is baked into the core of the modern university – in fact, it’s quite literally why we have an institution called a “university” at all.

For much of the European Middle Ages, learning was centered in religious institutions.  These tended during the period to be cathedrals – often in growing cities, with amenities that allowed students and teachers to cluster in a certain area under the supervision of the cathedral’s archdeacon (called the “provost”) and its archpriest (called the “dean”).

In the late 12th century, one such school, centered around the cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris, began to attract students and teachers from across Europe – lured by the growing riches of Paris itself and the growing power of the French monarchy. All was generally well, but there was some tension between the citizens of the city and the students. But then, in the year 1200 CE, a group of students in Paris got swindled by a shopkeeper. The students got drunk and returned to trash the shop.

These developments set off a chain reaction of retribution, culminating in the shopkeeper, the school’s provost and a posse of their friends raiding the school grounds and killing a number of students.

The school’s teachers, in solidarity with the students, refused to teach and threatened to move the school elsewhere unless the king listened to the students and provided justice. King Philip II Augustus of France did just that. He arrested the posse and issued a royal decree protecting the teachers and students, saying that they were a “corporate body” that together enjoyed certain rights. The word, in Latin, he used for this corporate body was “universitas.”

Out of this unlikely origin story – a bar brawl, vigilante violence – came the origins of the modern university. The lesson is clear: universities only exist when students and faculty stand together, and when they do, they have power.

That term for the cathedral school in Paris didn’t become common until later in the century — but the hard-won rights of this “university” were quickly put to the test, because although history doesn’t actually repeat, it does sometimes echo.

In 1229, there was another bar fight in Paris.

Almost the same scenario played out: a shopkeeper tried to con some students about the price of wine. This time, however, the innkeeper got annoyed and had his servants beat the students up. The students returned the next day to smash up the shop, the shopkeeper went to the authorities for justice, and this time the queen sided with the citizens against the school. Her soldiers swept through the student quarter injuring many and killing a few.

The teachers again rallied to the students, invoked their status as a universitas and demanded a stop to this outside interference. This time the monarchy refused. The king was increasingly concerned about the independence of this corporate body, about the “dangerous” things that were being taught in this school (such as Aristotle, and Islamic thinker Ibn Rushd), about the need to discipline and control these young people. This bar brawl was a perfect pretext for the politicians to take control of the school.

But the teachers stood with the students. Together, they went on strike. Every teacher and student left the city, vowing not to return for at least six years. The monarchy was horrified and quickly worked to restore the school. The situation was only resolved two years later when the pope himself issued a decree recognizing the university’s authority to self-regulate and limiting the powers of the king and bishop over the teachers and students.  This organizing principle was copied by other schools across Europe.

Today, universities stand as one of the proudest and most visible legacies of the history of medieval Europe. They are a reminder that institutions of higher learning are a union between teachers and students dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge. And outside forces will always seek to control that pursuit, to put reins on young learners.

This historical fact carries implications and responsibilities for the present day. Teachers must stand with their students. In some cases, that may mean some of the bravest acts possible, placing yourself in the path of the violence brought by heavily armed and armored cops. But it doesn’t have to mean that. It can mean much smaller and everyday acts. Give students extensions on their final exams. Use the university governance to fight back against administration attempts to academically punish them. Be kind when grading.

The real history of the university, the most authentic and medieval, reveals that with solidarity between teachers and students, a community that continues to learn together, once stood against kings. That history reminds that even now, together, we can stand against the real “outside agitators” — politicians who care so little about free speech and education.

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