The University in History: 1088 And All That

Response by Stephen M. Stigler

January 17, 2001

The history of universities, and the history of the idea of the university, are both richer and more complicated than generally believed, and more interesting as well. At least that is one message I derive from Hanna Gray's eloquent and stimulating account. From the floating campus of the University of Noah, which introduced the idea of a balanced student body, to Carmen Newman and Doris Gudonov, it is a remarkable tour de force. As Hanna observes, the subject is too rich to be treated in any fullness in one lecture, much less in a short discussion, and so I shall confine my remarks to but one single data point.

As befits the occasion, my data point will be the U of C. Not our U of C, but an older one, the University of Cambridge, and by that I mean the real Cambridge, not the nouveau Cambridge on the Charles River. And within the long history of the real Cambridge, I will look at but a single individual. Hanna has located the source of the modern idea of the university at a transition, the transition from tradition to science, a shift from an emphasis on inherited learning and its preservation and transmission, to one on the freedom accompanying the conviction that knowledge is an open and infinite area of new discovery. I was quite struck by that observation, and I want to underline it and risk trying to make it too specific: I wonder if the genesis of that transition, and hence of the idea of the university, cannot be dated (in an important sense) exactly to the year 1665, and to the experiences of Isaac Newton at Cambridge. Of course we statisticians know the foolishness of identifying a long and complex process with a single point; we also know the rewards in crisp focus that such simple summaries can yield.

I should perhaps remind you of Newton's history. He entered the U of C in 1661 at the age of 19. To a first glance, his story has discomforting implications for the value of higher education. The Cambridge he entered has been described as having a curriculum in an advanced state of decomposition. For the better part of four years, Newton played cards, frequented taverns, and he may even have engaged in loan-sharking. If he read beyond the assigned aged and stagnant texts in religion, logic, history, and Greek philosophy, it was to pick up an unscientific work on astrology. By the popular account, all of that changed in 1665 when he was driven from Cambridge by the Great Plague, fleeing back to his home in rural Woolsthorpe, where over the next two years in splendid isolation he made a sequence of discoveries that were to create modern mathematics, astronomy, optics, and more. In the wrong hands the lessons from that story could put a lot of professors out of work. But the story is incomplete, and any dark reading of it would be a misinterpretation.

In fact, it is clear that without his Cambridge education, all Newton would have made out of that famous falling apple is apple sauce. In March of the year 1664, the year before the plague, Newton heard lectures by Isaac Barrow on mathematics. They were not great lectures, but they sowed a seed, and several months later, after Newton observed a strikingly bright comet on December 9, 1664, he bought a series of advanced books on mathematics, books that he carried with him and devoured at Woolsthorpe. Cambridge, even at one of the lowest ebbs in its history, had given him an awareness of great questions, a framework for addressing them, and an introduction to the tools that could provide answers. What more can we expect out of an education? But the essential importance of the university for Newton's discoveries, even though they were made in absentia, is not my principal point. I want instead to argue that Newton's discoveries were essential to the evolution of the idea of the university.

After the Great Plague lifted, Newton returned to Cambridge, and he quickly advanced to Fellowship and to the Lucasian Professorship (the way to which was cleared by Barrow's resignation from that Chair in 1669). Newton's academic career at the U of C was long but superficially undistinguished. He published only one medium-sized book, in 1687, and a handful of short articles. His lectures attracted only a small number of indifferent students, none of whom showed any sign of comprehension. If the university rules had not stipulated a 40 shilling fine for every missed lecture, he probably would have skipped them entirely, and no one would have been the worse off. After he published his book, his lectures were cut back to only one term a year.

Now, I hasten to emphasize that I am not claiming that my single data point marked a dramatic change in the practices or the conception of universities, even of the original U of C. For more than a century after Newton, that U of C persisted in its ways, its reputation rescued by a few bright students and the occasional inspiring faculty member. The curriculum may have been improved after Newton's day, but not by much, and the faculty administered it with a heavy hand. One example of this: In the mid-1800s the best known mathematics teacher at Cambridge was another Isaac, Isaac Todhunter. In an 1873 article on curriculum, Todhunter railed against the use of physical demonstration in classes, demonstrations such as acting out Galileo's suggestion of dropping a feather and a coin in a vacuum and seeing that both reached the bottom together. Todhunter granted that such experiments might make a greater impression on students' minds than a lecturer's explanation of Galileo's own purely mental experiment, but he thought that ought not to be the case. Todhunter wrote that if the student "does not believe the statements of his tutor - probably a clergyman of mature knowledge, recognised ability, and blameless character - his suspicion is irrational, and manifests a want of the power of appreciating evidence, a want fatal to his success in that branch of science which he is supposed to be cultivating." So much for Newton's apple!

No, Newton did not change universities. But the idea of Newton did in time change the idea of the university. Newton's book of 1687 may have been the only book he published at Cambridge, but it has proved to be the most influential book in the history of science. The Principia helped to create the very rational processes of which Edward Levi wrote; it fulfilled what Levi called the greatest contribution a university can make, it liberated the mind. And it did more than any other event or discovery to effect the transition Hanna mentioned. The Principia inspired scientists, who borrowed from it and attempted to imitate it in every realm where mathematics could be applied and many others besides - even in medicine and wrestling. It also caught the vivid attention of humanists from Voltaire to the present, with its demonstration that pure reason could reach the stars. And to speak directly to the present point: Unlike earlier pathbreaking works of science, it was the product of a professor, and a university. Before the 19th century, few professors contributed directly to knowledge: Kepler, Copernicus, Napier, Huygens, Descartes, Fermat, Pascal, Boyle - none of them were based in universities (although many had studied there). Galileo was an exception to this, a lonely one whose work did not find a welcome. If you stood with Humboldt in the 19th century and thought to look for examples of the promise of university-based research, or with Cardinal Newman and thought of who at a university had had the greatest impact upon university scientific training, Newton would loom the largest, and not by just a small margin. In many ways, including as a teacher, Newton was no model. But as an example of the possible heights of intellectual attainment at universities he had no peer, and the effect his work had upon university instruction was by the 19th century evident to all. The idea inspired by this promise (and its "modern face-lift", to use Hanna's phrase) has been reinforced at our U of C, at "The University" in our own time by others - by Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar and by John Simpson, for example. Isaac Newton's face is engraved over the front door of Eckhart Hall, a permanent reminder of what Hanna called the "conviction that knowledge is an open and infinite area of new discovery," of the possibilities that comprise the Idea of the University.


Todhunter, Isaac (1873). The Conflict of the Studies and Other essays on Subjects Connected with Education. London: Macmillan. p. 17.

Westfall, Richard S. (1980). Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.