William Clark: The history of academic charisma

... what does the academic agenda of the modern research-based university have to do with the other side of college life as we know it—with fraternity pledges, the choruses of “Gaudeamus igitur,” the stone façades of Victorian Gothic buildings? The mixed inheritance of the modern university is the subject of a new book with the somewhat oxymoronic title “Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University,” by William Clark, a historian who has spent his academic career at both American and European universities. Clark thinks that the modern university, with its passion for research, prominent professors, and, yes, black crêpe, took shape in Germany in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. And he makes his case with analytic shrewdness, an exuberant love of archival anecdote, and a wry sense of humor. It’s hard to resist a writer who begins by noting, “Befitting the subject, this is an odd book.”

Clark’s story starts in the Middle Ages. Th organizations that became the first Wester universities, schools that sprang up in Paris an Bologna, were in part an outgrowth of ecclesiastica institutions, and their teachers asserted their authorit by sitting, like bishops, in thrones—which is why w still refer to professorships as chairs—and speaking i a prescribed way, about approved texts. “The lecture like the sermon, had a liturgical cast and aura,” Clar writes. “One must be authorized to perform the rite and must do it in an authorized manner. Only the does the chair convey genuine charisma to th lecturer.” Clark assumes his notion of charisma loosely but clearly, from the work of Max Weber, wh developed the idea that authority assumes three forms Traditional authority, the stable possession of king and priests, rested on custom, “piety for what actually allegedly or presumably has always existed. Charismatic authority, wild and disruptive, derive from “the exceptional sanctity, heroism or exemplar character of an individual person.” Rational authority the last of the three forms to emerge, represented th rise of bureaucratic procedure, dividing responsibilitie and following precise rules
As Weber pointed out, in real organizations these different forms of authority interact and collide. In the medieval classroom, for all its emphasis on tradition-bound hierarchy and order, a contrary force came into play, one that unleashed the charisma of talented individuals: the disputation, in which a respondent affirmed the thesis under discussion and an opponent attempted to refute it. (Unlike the lecture, the disputation hasn’t survived as an institution, but its modern legacy includes the oral defenses that Ph.D. candidates make of their theses, and the format of our legal trials.) Clark calls the disputation a “theater of warfare, combat, trial and joust,” and, indeed, early proponents likened it to the contests of athletic champions in ancient Rome.

One early academic champion was the Parisian master Abelard, who cunningly used the format of the disputation to point up the apparent inconsistencies in orthodox Christian doctrine. He lined up the discordant opinions of the Fathers of the Church under the deliberately provocative title “Sic et Non” (“Yes and No”) and invited all comers to debate how the conflicts might be resolved. His triumphs in these “combats” made him, arguably, the first glamorous Parisian intellectual. A female disciple, Héloïse, wrote to him, “Every wife, every young girl desired you in absence and was on fire in your presence.” Their story has become a legend because of what followed: Héloïse, unwed, had a child by Abelard, her kin castrated him in revenge, and they both lived out their lives, for the most part, in cloisters. But even after Abelard’s writings were condemned and burned, pupils came from across Europe hoping to study with him. He had the enduring magnetism of the hotshot who can outargue anyone in the room.

Traditionalist plodders and charismatic firebrands shared the university from the beginning. The heart of Clark’s story, however, takes place not during the Middle Ages but from the Renaissance through the Enlightenment, and not in France but in the German lands of the Holy Roman Empire. This complex assembly of tiny territorial states and half-timbered towns had no capital to rival Paris, but the little clockwork polities transformed the university through the simple mechanism of competition. German officials understood that a university could make a profit by attaining international stature. Every well-off native who stayed home to study and every foreign noble who came from abroad with his tutor—as Shakespeare’s Hamlet left Denmark to study in Saxon Wittenberg—meant more income. And the way to attract customers was to modernize and rationalize what professors and students did....

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