If Gutenberg had been born just a few centuries earlier, there might have been no need for the university system. A medieval culture of the book, relying on written authority in both secular and religious matters, was developing, but there simply weren’t many books to go around. Production of books at scriptoria was slow. At a time when an extensive private library might contain two or three dozen books, Oxford’s Oriel College had 52 books in 1375; Cambridge, then as now vying with Oxford for the title of England’s center of learning, had 122 volumes on its library shelves fifty years later. (On the Continent, where academic matters were somewhat more advanced, some monastaries of the period had hundreds, even thousands of volumes; these were the books copied in the scriptoria and circulated throughout Europe.) A gathering of scholars could share books. And there were other advantages. Peter Abelard taught in the schools that were soon to coalesce into University of Paris. His rhetorical skills won him a reputation as perhaps the most learned man and fierce debater in that city (before his misfortunes):
And so, after a few days, I returned to Paris, and … I set about completing the glosses on Ezekiel which I had begun at Laon. These proved so satisfactory to all who read them that they came to believe me no less adept in lecturing on theology than I had proved myself to be in the field of philosophy. Thus my school was notably increased in size by reason of my lectures on subjects of both these kinds, and the amount of financial profit as well as glory which it brought me cannot be concealed from you, for the matter talked of…. And the greater progress I made in my lecturing on philosophy or theology, the more I departed alike from the practice of the philosophers and the spirit of the divines in the uncleanness of my life. For it is well known, methinks, that philosophers, and still more those who have devoted their lives to arousing the love of sacred study, have been strong above all else in the beauty of chastity.
As early as the eleventh century, Peter Abelard had discovered the life of the academic superstar: glory, wealth, a chance to fraternize with co-eds. Students might not have had any such impetus, so they made up for it with dueling and alcohol-fueled riots (a surprisingly common occurance). The real payoff for students, of course, was after graduating; higher education was a path to practicing medicine, the law, or as a religious official. Henry V’s split with the Catholic church moved English universities towards a more secular path, but the association between canon law, theology, and the university remained strong. In the American colonies, dedicated to religious freedom, different Protestant sects simply backed different schools.
America’s oldest universities almost all began their existance as theological institutions. Harvard was Congregationalist; Princeton and Yale were Presbytarian; William and Mary was Anglican. Brown, two hundred years before the New Curriculum and the formal study semiotics, was making a stand for relativism as a strictly non-denominational school, although it leaned Baptist. But in America, as in Europe, the university system slowly became secularized.
When William F. Buckley kickstarted the modern American conservative movement with God and Man at Yale, he was following something of a trend. Complaining about doctrinal slippage in universities dated back at least to the nineteenth century (when Harvard’s practice of hiring Unitarians led horrified Congregationalists to form Amherst) if not back to John Wycliffe in the fourteenth. The traditional response from religious groups feeling spurned or oppressed by a larger society was to start their own university (as Catholics, Jews, and even sects as obscure as the Seventh-Day Baptists had done).
Conservatives may not have been reacting to specific doctrinal slippage (although the pressure brought to bear on Baylor University, a major Baptist university in Texas, represents a case in point), but their response to a broader culture which they felt was abandoning them was much the same as the Congregationalists who founded Amherst. Evangelical universities began to appear. Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell (whose Liberty University has both a dress code and a law school dedicated to "training future generations of conservative warriors") launched their own schools. Patrick Henry College, a school for homeschoolers that bans dating and promises that "every subject will be analyzed from a Christian viewpoint", appeared and was promptly denied accreditation.
Hillsdale College, which William F. Buckley described as "the most prominent conservative college in the country", won praise from libertarians when it refused to accept any federal money. A simmering tension between the secular and religious right at the school erupted into a huge scandal when college president George Roche III left his wife of 44 years for a younger woman; was accused by his daughter-in-law of having carried on an affair with her for almost two decades; and resigned after his daughter-in-law committed suicide. William Bennett got into a verbal scuffle with Buckley over whether Roche should be more forthcoming about what he had or hadn’t done; questions were raised about Roche’s retirement package; libertarian supporters were dismayed. Questions were raised about Roche’s autocratic, even "Stalinist" nature, questions which had been glossed over by Roche’s success with fundraising and publicity. Eight hundred years after Peter Abelard wrote about the spiritual damage of academic pride, the Hillsdale College philosophy department celebrates the scholar; his books and his cautionary tale are available to be read in the college library.