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 the civil and canon law addressed so brilliantly in universities. As a matter of fact, neither the famous Talmudists nor the celebrated canon lawyers would have understood the questions I bring to the sources that, in one idiom or another, they studied. They wanted to know one thing, I something else.

Nor is the Mishnah alone. There is, after all, philosophy. There is mathematics. There is music. The Classics of ancient Greece and Rome may make the same statements in Greek and in Latin as I have in reference to writings in Hebrew and in Aramaic. Most of what we study here will see this new, this young, this scarcely tried institution as a temporary home. Every professor of every subject may find roots to his or her subject of learning, however recent in its contemporary formulation, in the soil of remote antiquity. For mathematics dictated the arrangement of the stones at Stonehenge and the cave drawings in France and Spain, as much as the aboriginal wall-scratchings in Australia and the mins of the old cities of Africa, not to mention the remarkable Mayan monuments of the Yucatan and Aztecs of Middle America and of the Incas of the Andes. They all bespeak reflection, judgment, proportion, taste, and composition: philosophy. And all these traditions of learning flourished, for most of the history of humanity, elsewhere than in universities.

When, therefore, we ask what is different about universities, to begin with our task is to remember not how old, but how new this kind of place of learning really is. Nearly everyone in every tradition of human knowledge pursued in universities stands for something that humanity has pursued in other institutions than this type of institution, under other circumstances than this one, and in the service of different auspices from the ones that sustain and support universities as we know them (church, state, industry, commerce, to name the more important auspices of learning today).

Learning transcends its academic auspices. Learning recognizes no limitations of an institutional sort. Learning is so natural to humanity as, in the end, to require nothing more than the intellect driven by curiosity and sustained by speculation. Accordingly, we have to ask ourselves what it is that marks as distinctive and as valuable the university as we have known it for the brief spell commencing nine hundred years ago, among the ancestors of this people. Why is the university of the West, inclusive of the Americas (and now Africa and Asia as well), different from all other forms in which learning has found a home; in which, in more academic language, learning has been institutionalized in permanent and socially sanctioned form?

As I said, it is not because it is old, for it is young. It is not because the program of learning, the curriculum, is stable, because it is subject to change that, relative to the hundred thousand year history of humanity, happens every 45 minutes. And it is not because the university is the best place in which to pursue curiosity and to sort things out, for that remains to be demonstrated. Consider that nearly all of the great intellectual achievements in the history of humanity—by definition—took place outside of universities and were the accomplishments of persons who were not professors, who were not paid to think great thoughts and write them down. If we point to the formative intellects of the world as we know it—Darwin, Freud, Marx, to name only three—we must wonder who needs universities at all. For, clearly, the great intellectual steps forward in the natural and social sciences were taken somewhere else, on the Beagle, or in the imagination of a despised Viennese Jew, or in the hall of the British Museum, open to a lowly foreign journalist.

What marks the university as different? It is that we assemble here to treat learning as shared, plural, open, diverse. What we institutionalize in universities is the possibility of shared discourse and public exchange of knowledge among different people who know different things and seek to find a language common to those different things.

What it means to study, in some one place, mathematics and botany, or sociology and religion, is that we judge it better to study these things in one place than in many places. And in the end that judgment addresses a deeper concern for explaining many things in a few ways. If chemistry did not speak to geology, or physics to mathematics, or economics to political science, then the premise of the university that learning many things helps us to understand them all in some cogent way proves flawed. But it is not flawed, for, as we know, economics without mathematics, and political science without history, and anthropology without psychology, are not possible. Learning flows across disciplinary lines, to the discomfort of the limited and the specialized, because humanity will not stay within bounds. In times past the analytical mind turned to measure the dimensions of God.

In universities we draw together many disciplines in quest for not information but understanding. And by understanding we mean the capacity of many things to find explanation in some one way. What this means for those of us who study the particularities of a single human group—the Jews through time, or the Classics, or the anthropology of this tribe or the sociology of that class or locus—is simple. We all learn a great deal about some thing. But only when we can intelligibly address others, who know a great deal about some other thing, are we able to join in that mode of discourse that makes the university unique.

When we see what we know as suggestive, as data that serve as an example of a condition to be explored in diverse examples, and when we offer what we know as useful examples for the testing of hypotheses of common interest and concern, then we form universities. For how we treat knowledge indicates where we are. The entry of any subject requires displaying a passport: this is what I, knowing what I know, can teach you about you, knowing what you know—and therefore I can learn from you as well.

The framers of the Talmudic canon compare to the builders of universities in that they put together all knowledge, as they identified worthwhile knowledge, and explained everything they knew in some one way. They produced not an encyclopedia of knowledge but a single coherent statement of what they knew, set forth in a cogent and proportioned way. It was their theory of the whole, all together and all at once. When we can do that, we shall also have founded a tradition of learning that will endure, where it serves, as theirs has endured.