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Why Are Universities Different From All Other Centers of Learning?

The oldest university in the West, the University of Bologna, has celebrated its nine hundredth anniversary; but much that is studied there sustains an intellectual tradition of scholarship that is thousands of years old. Universities are not the first institutions in which a systematic and sustained labor of learning has been pursued. Nor would anyone today working in a research institute or industrial laboratory concede that universities are the best institutions for research. All they are is different, and when we understand the difference, we shall have a deeper perspective on what makes universities different from all other centers of learning.

Let me begin with the simple fact that many of the areas of learning now covered in universities far antedate the founding of universities themselves. The sources on which I work, the ancient writings of Judaism in the first seven centuries A.D., for example, though they were long studied by major intellects, were never studied in universities before our own time, and they are just now beginning to find a place here. True, the Talmuds and related writings form the counterpart (for Judaism) of the canon law and jurisprudence studied in European universities for nearly a thousand years. Without the considerable labor of mediation by bilingual persons, however, university professors would have no more understood these writings than the succession of scholarly Talmudists would have understood...

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