As I write this I am reading the latest reports of “unrest” on the campus of the University of Missouri in Columbia, where the articulated discontents of black students, powerfully amplified by threats of a strike by most of the players on the school’s crypto-professional football team, have forced the resignation of two top administrators, the president of the university system and the chancellor of the system’s main or “flagship” campus. Most commentary I have seen relates this crisis to the highly publicized events surrounding the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson on August 9, 2014.
This is a subject that engages both my personal interest and my professional experience, but it is far too complex and sensitive to wade into armed only with the information I get from the curiously vague and imprecise reporting thus far in the New York Times. Historical perspective, however, is seldom inappropriate. As “campus unrest” goes, this episode looks more like Tom Wolfe’s mau-mauing of flack-catchers than the Defenestration of Prague. The Tianamen Square Massacre of 1989 was an off-campus event, but one largely driven by protesting students. The despotic Chinese regime has never been truthful about the casualties, but the dead certainly numbered in the hundreds and possibly in the thousands. More recently in neighboring Mexico, under circumstances unlikely ever to be truthfully described, more than forty students, mainly political radicals, were murdered and their bodies incinerated. I began my teaching career at the University of Wisconsin in Madison where, shortly after I had departed, anti-war protesters blew up a building and killed a research scientist who was pulling an all-nighter on a conductivity experiment.
Students very often think that they know more than their professors, and not infrequently they are right. Nowhere is the Oedipal drama so compelling as in the seminar room. Peter Abelard, a superstar of the twelfth-century academy really got his start with a public challenge to his old professor William of Champeaux. As for “campus unrest”, it has been endemic in universities from the very start.
I actually happened to be living in France during the Parisian student “revolution” of 1968. It was plenty dramatic, but it seems rather tame when compared with the student riots of 1229, which extended over a two-year period, saw numerous fatalities, and triggered a significant reorganization of academic life. Modern student protest is often obscurely grounded in political theory. The canonical casus belli in the medieval academy was a dispute over a bar bill. Such was the case in Paris in 1229. The axis of tension in those days tended to be the “university” on the one hand, and the local citizens on the other—that is, town-gown conflict.
The “gown” part of this is important in that the special attire identified students as clerks (cf. clerics) or votaries of clergy—i.e., knowledge, learning. University students were thus a “protected class” who enjoyed benefit of clergy—i.e., exemption from secular legal jurisdiction. (Special academic or ecclesiastical courts dealt with naughty students.) I think I mentioned in a recent post the so-called “neck verse” from the Miserere, the fifty-first psalm. If you could read this psalm competently in Latin, with sufficiently holy tones, you might literally save your neck from the gallows.
The battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton, and all that
A signal event in the history of my own university of Oxford began on February 10, 1355, and is usually known as the “Saint Scholastica Day Riot”. It began as usual with a drunken dispute over a bar bill. At first the “town”, in the form of a burly hostel-keeper, seemed to have won. But the students returned to the tavern in force the next day, and all hell broke loose. As usual, there were several fatalities. The probably unjust outcome was a further extension of academic privilege. In my time as a student in the late ‘Fifties there were still two distinct police jurisdictions, one town, one gown. The university police officer, the proctor, actually wore his gown. He was accompanied by (usually) two heavies in bowler hats. They were the bulldogs, who provided the necessary muscle for the proctor, who after all might well be a frail septuagenarian expert on Euripides.
I had but one run-in with the proctors, on Guy Fawkes’s night, 1958. I was resident in Jesus College, a college with a significantly Welsh and Welsh-speaking student body. The joke was that if you stepped into the front quad of Jesus and shouted out “Jones”, you would get a response from every other room. It happened that one of my good friends was (and is) a certain John Smith. A group of us decided to avoid the puerilities of Guy Fawkes hooliganism by going to the cinema. We had just stepped out of the college into Ship Street when we were challenged by a proctor. He wanted to know what we were up to. “The cinema, eh?…and what are your names?” “John Smith,” said my first friend. “Tom Jones,” said the second. No more evidence of premeditated malfeasance was needed, and I never got to tell them my name. The menacing bulldogs quick-marched us back to the gate of the college and warned us not to set foot in the town again that night.