On contemporary threats to the idea of the university

On contemporary threats to the idea of the university

The mutual relationship between religion and science is a subject of scientific research that has been developed from the very beginning of the existence of institutions dealing with education at both primary and higher levels. The ancient „Platonic Academy” was not only, after all, an educational and research, but also a religious center, devoted to the cult of muses, because the Greeks, as a very religious nation, emphasized every moment of public and private life by worshiping deities. For Greek culture, in addition to teaching itself, upbringing was also extremely important, for which was responsible, in the Homeric standard of the educator, the pious sage, a model educating the young adept about good manners, the need to respect tradition, patriotism and shaping his sensitivity to beauty. Kalokagatia, i.e. an ideal model of harmonious education, in which there is a synthesis of intellectual and physical, bodily and spiritual education, and beauty is a visible sign of good, is also no stranger to later epochs. Its topicality is also emphasized by contemporary pedagogy. This holistic approach to human education and upbringing was developed in the following centuries by Christian culture, in which the Greek paideia focused on the universal ideal of man becomes an element of a broader look at educational processes and the basis for further education in philosophy, which is the foundation and integrator of all sciences and law, theology and medicine.

After all, the first medieval universities rooted in Christianity, closely related to the Church, derived from cathedral schools that were established at the turn of the 11th and 12th centuries, headed by the University of Bologna (1088) as universitas magistrorum et scholarium, i.e. communities of lecturers and students were characterized by independence combined with numerous privileges and powers granted by both state and church authorities in order to freely gain knowledge that allows everyone to understand the world and change it in certain social and technical conditions. Although over the centuries the models of university education have changed as a result of the reforms made and the influence of the state, the idea of the university remains the same – to shape humanity and seek truth using the freedom of thought and university autonomy. The mechanisms of the functioning of universities described by the German philosopher and psychologist Karl Jaspers in The Idea of the University allow us to delve deeper into the mission of a university that fulfills three basic and inseparable tasks: research, teaching and forming[1]. Therefore, the university is not meant to be only a place to transfer the knowledge and competences necessary to perform a specific profession, which a person performs with his whole self, integrating his emotions, beliefs and conscience. Therefore, it is necessary to present certain knowledge in a broader context, while freedom from both political and economic coercion must be guaranteed. Although the models of academic education are constantly changing, it would be fatal for the centuries-old university tradition to think that university knowledge now serves economics and offers nothing more than supporting the economy, because the university is fundamental to the tradition and self-awareness of the nation, although it is an international institution.

The contemporary meaning of universitas indicates that it is not only a community of teachers and those who are taught and a community of sciences that present a holistic and therefore universal view of the universe, nature and human, but also an institution with a global reach. The idea of the university thus assumes multi-ethnicity, multi-culturalism and multi-denominationality of individuals making up the community. Despite the fact that in Poland there are no clear divisions of the academic community, attacks on academic freedom are becoming more and more frequent, in which the search for objective truth in opposition to falsehood is replaced by seeking and spreading ideas that would be safe for specific communities, and not necessarily real. In this way, the formulation of judgments about reality is made from a specific ideological position that pushes aside other models of perception of the world and the academic community, by closing itself on them, it denies the idea of openness, universality and independence. Ideologization of scientific research destroys the ideal of acquiring objective knowledge and presenting multiple perspectives. It is worth bearing in mind this threat which, apart from the commercial function of universities, is one of the two most serious threats to academic freedom in many countries, not only in Poland. Attempts to silence and censor academic freedom of speech, implemented in accordance with the research and teaching paradigm, antagonize the academic community, which is to be a forum for presenting various beliefs and truths, excluding, of course, false and ideological ones. The polarization and radicalization of positions, often supported by the emotional reactions of both sides of the conflict, make it difficult to establish a dialogue that is inscribed in university life. Faith cannot be excluded from this dialogue because, as John Paul II writes: „[f]aith and reason (Fides et ratio) are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth”. Faith does not contradict reason and science. On the contrary, the religious perspective enriches the search for truth and it is not an ideological insertion into scientific research, but an opening to a broader, and therefore also transcendent, truth, to pose new questions to science and to develop new scientific research[3]. Therefore, it is important that the academic community takes care not to exclude religion from contemporary discussions within the academy, and thus to ensure diversity of world views at universities. An entirely separate issue is how this multiplicity of viewpoints in contemporary universities can be ensured for the university to survive, and how a beacon from a distance against the swell of waves illuminates the path to truth, openness and independence.


Weronika Kudła Ph.D

Jagiellonian University of Kraków



[1] K. Jaspers, Idea uniwersytetu, W. Kunicki (transl.), Warszawa 2017.

[2] Jan Paweł II, Encyklika Fides et ratio. O relacjach między wiarą a rozumem, Vatican 1998.

[3] See: A. M. Vanney, Wolność akademicka w amerykańskim systemie prawnym. Zasady i paradoksy [in:] Wolność słowa. Współczesne wyzwania w perspektywie prawnoporównawczej, G. Blicharz, G., M. Delijewski (eds.), Warszawa 2019, p. 33-102.


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Autor: Laboratorium Wolności
Date: 18 May 2021
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