Cambridge University – the Unauthorised History

Cambridge University is celebrating its 800th anniversary in 2009. The official history tells the tale of the buildings; but what about the ideas?

Down through the years, Oxford has produced many powerful men and Cambridge many iconoclasts – scientists, philosophers and revolutionaries. The polarisation is by no means total: Oxford's alumni include the reformer John Wyclif and the father of economics Adam Smith, while ours include the Prime Minister Charles Grey, who abolished slavery and passed the Great Reform Bill. But we've long produced more of the rebels; way back in the Civil War, for example, we were parliamentarian while Oxford was royalist. Why should this be?

I can't find anyone else trying to tell the tale, so I'll try. This web page explains how disruption has been in our DNA from the very beginning.

Creative disruption

If you want physical objects destroyed, the army can do that. As for badly-run companies, they get trashed when the economy goes into recession; the economist Joseph Schumpeter taught us that this "creative destruction" is vital for progress as it clears away the deadwood and creates space in which new businesses can grow. And it's just the same in ecosystems: from 1911, the USA put a lot of effort into stopping forest fires, but then discovered that although they saved individual plants and animals they were destroying the environment. A forest with a fire brigade is a sad old forest; a lot of plants from sequoias to proteas reproduce only in the aftermath of a fire.

Just as fire regenerates the forest, so a great university regenerates human culture – our view of the world and our understanding of it. We incinerate the rubbish. And Cambridge has long been the hottest flamethrower; we're the most creatively destructive institution in all of human history. And big new things come from that. The ground we cleared made us the cradle of evangelical Christianity in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, of science in the seventeenth and eighteenth, of atheism in the nineteenth, and of all sorts of cool new stuff since – including the emerging sciences of life and information.

In the beginning

I believe it goes right back to the beginning. We were founded, eight hundred years ago, by scholars fleeing persecution during a period of conflict between church and state. In 1209 the burning issue of the day was whether King John or Pope Innocent III should appoint the next Archbishop of Canterbury. Such power struggles were going on all over Europe, and had been for years (John's father Henry II had had St Thomas Becket killed). One of the church's reactions was to organise crusades – against infidels abroad and heretics at home. Robert Moore tells the story of how successive popes in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries incited the mob against lepers, gays, Jews and other undesirables, in the process forming a culture of persecution of outgroups and minorities that has blighted Europe ever since.

It was against this background that our founders fled Oxford in 1209 and settled in the newly-chartered town of Cambridge. The townsfolk of Oxford had hanged two clerks for a murder of which they were apparently innocent; the king backed the townsmen, and the scholars dispersed for five years. Some of the refugees came to Cambridge, and established our university. A generation later, in 1231, both Cambridge and Oxford got charters from Henry III which exempted us from taxes; and two years after that a Bull from Pope Gregory IX gave our graduates the right to teach everywhere. Had these men foreseen the role Cambridge would play in later reformation and revolution, they might have been less generous!

Early years

By the end of the thirteenth century, Cambridge was already making its mark in philosophy, with Duns Scotus producing disruptive ideas in theology (some of which by the 20th century had become Catholic orthodoxy). After the fall of Constantinople, the Renaissance got going and challenged the curriculum. Cambridge, like other medieval universities, had taught grammar, rhetoric and logic for the BA, then arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy for the MA; much of the course material came from Aristotle. Suddenly this tradition was under fire, and the big debate was whether to teach Terence as well as Aristotle. In 1488, the rebels won: we started offering a four-year BA with two years in "humane letters" followed by two in logic and philosophy. We prospered amidst this tumult; six new colleges were founded between 1430 and 1496. Another fifteenth-century development was that we started hiring salaried professors, rather than leaving all the teaching to the "Regent masters" or young teaching fellows at the colleges and hostels. The professors mainly taught postgraduate subjects like law and medicine. This was an advance for scholarship, but caused some problems for governance: the university was still run by the Regent masters, but their position was weakened by the professors.

As Renaissance moved toward Reformation, there were Cambridge scholars on both sides of the barricades. One of the most influential of our critical theologians was Erasmus, said to have "laid the egg that Luther hatched". His major act of disruptive scholarship, produced at Cambridge, was a New Testament in parallel Greek and Latin texts. Until then, the church had claimed to be the sole custodian of God's word, whose official text was the Vulgate of St Jerome. By producing the first translation from the original manuscripts for over a thousand years, Erasmus undermined the Vatican's monopoly on biblical authority – although that issue would rumble on and on.

Rebellion and reformation

Thus it was that when Henry VIII needed a theologian to justify rebellion against the Pope, he turned to Cambridge and hired Edward Foxe, the Provost of King's. Foxe was soon eclipsed by his colleague Thomas Cranmer who became the first protestant Archbishop of Canterbury, wrote the Book of Common Prayer, and was executed by Queen Mary. Another Cambridge martyr was William Tyndale who translated the Bible into English and, like Cranmer, got burned at the stake for his pains. However Tyndale had embraced the printing press. He printed 55,000 copies of the Bible before he was burned, and stoked the fires of the Reformation.

The Cambridge Puritan tradition got traction as our internal rebellion against statutes imposed on us by Queen Elizabeth in 1570, which gave college masters power over academics in the hope that they would curtail heresy. Wishful thinking! Our Puritan tradition drove the settlement of America – the Pilgrim leaders Henry Barrowe, John Greenwood and Robert Browne were all Cambridge men – and culminated in the Civil War the following century. The Cambridge MP Oliver Cromwell defeated and executed King Charles I, supported by many more Cambridge men, such as the poet John Milton and the founder of the Royal Society John Wilkins. Others spread dissent farther afield; John Harvard endowed a university in New England and left it all his books. Cambridge men such as Tyndall, Cranmer and Milton gave a huge push to the process of reining in religion – of turning it from an instrument of state power into a matter of conscience (though that wasn't always what they intended).

Physics, chemistry and biology

In 1665-7, Isaac Newton discovered the laws of motion and gravity, and the calculus. This trashed the medieval idea of a God lurking everywhere in the world, forever interfering to keep the planets in their rightful motions and the destinies of men aligned to his will. By showing that God could simply have wound up the universe and set it running, but didn't need to interfere thereafter, Newton greatly enlarged the space for men to wonder whether supernatural powers dictate our fortunes in this world and the next. He himself was religious – but a dissident. Although a Fellow of Trinity College he did not believe in the doctrine of the Trinity; but no matter. He got a special dispensation from Charles II to be a dissenter.

Francis Bacon had already written about the scientific method in the early 17th century; Newton and his Royal Society colleagues such as Wilkins, Flamsteed and Halley made science a reality. (The word "scientist" was coined much later by William Whewell.) Within a few years, people could doubt in public whether there was a next world, and not go to jail (Halley managed to become a professor at Oxford in 1703 despite being an atheist). The eighteenth-century Enlightenment flourished in the space this created. Unfortunately for Cambridge, our authorities restricted the university to Church of England members through the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and even required many academics to be ordained within a set number of years after appointment. There was a long argument with our mathematicians wanting dissenters admitted, without needing the royal dispensation that Newton got, while our theologians dragged their feet. As a result, much of the running in the Enlightenment was made by men from elsewhere, such as Edinburgh's David Hume.

The nineteenth century saw a number of great Cambridge men filling in the gaps in the Newtonian idea of the world as mechanism rather than magic. Charles Babbage came up with the idea of the computer, and although he couldn't really build one with the technology of the time, his idea would eventually challenge the very concept of intelligence at the deepest level. Meanwhile, James Clerk Maxwell explained electromagnetism, and in 1897 JJ Thomson discoved the electron, laying the foundations for modern physics and electronics that would lead to proper computers. We also had great social reformers, such as Henry Mayhew. But the greatest iconoclast of the nineteenth century was undoubtedly another Cambridge scientist, Charles Darwin. By explaining how animals and plants evolve by variation followed by natural selection over long periods of time, he shot down the belief that man had been created specially by God and that we were qualitatively different from other animals.

Twentieth-century troublemakers

The early twentieth century saw not just the full-blown emergence of modern physics, with Cockcroft and Walton splitting the atom and theorists like Dirac showing that reality is stranger than anyone could have imagined. It also saw philosophy flourish as people sought to understand this new and scary world. Cambridge philosphers such as Wittgenstein and Russell taught us that many metaphysical problems of the past simply arose from abuse of language (an idea that our medieval logicians had also explored). Russell also came up with Russell's Paradox, and such work in logic led (via Goedel) to Alan Turing's work on the foundations of computing. After Turing went to Manchester another Cambridge man, Maurice Wilkes, built the world's first proper computer, the EDSAC, and established the lab where I work. Shortly afterwards, Watson and Crick discovered the structure of DNA, which led rapidly to the realisation that living things are also self-replicating computational machines. Bioinformatics is now one of our strongpoints; Cambridge did about a third of the Human Genome Project (and John Sulston, who ran our genome project, pushed for the genome to become public domain – disrupting the world of "intellectual property"). And biology is only one of many fields to be turned upside down by computing. Starting in the 1950s, sciences as disparate as astronomy and crystallography have been revolutionised by computing; one science after another has started shifting from the theory-intensive model pioneered by Newton to a more data-intensive way of working. And the disruption caused by computing has spread from one industry after another – from telecomms to bookselling.

As for the humanities, Alfred Marshall synthesised what was known about economics, then Maynard Keynes attacked this classical synthesis and finally Peter Bauer undermined the postwar Keynesian consensus on central planning, price controls and foreign aid. We've also produced many creative and disruptive writers, such as Siegfried Sassoon, EM Forster, Sylvia Plath, Douglas Adams and even Salman Rushdie; meanwhile F.R. Leavis set literary criticism on its head. I'm not an expert on literature; I'm an engineer, and this web page is my own perspective – hey, warts and all, as Cromwell put it. But one thing I do know is that many other Cambridge people have helped to pick apart error in just about every imaginable field of human endeavour.

The next 800 years?

Cambridge scientists and scholars have demolished more ancient superstitions than anyone else. We've not just been a bit more productive than other universities – we've been miles better. No other institution even comes close. Our effect on religion, from reformation to atheism, has been profound: if Dawkins is the Devil's chaplain, Cambridge could be called the Devil's flamethrower! But it's much wider than that. Our talent for creative destruction hasn't just led to massive advances in liberty and prosperity. It's completely changed the way people think.

The most profound innovation was science itself, which emerged in the seventeeth century among Bacon, Newton, Wilkins, Halley and their contemporaries. Science is not like religion; it's not about finding true doctrines. It's about demolishing wrong ones. Ideas are two a penny; it's the efficient destruction of error that leads us to truth. And we really need such a method. The truths at the heart of Newtonian mechanics, evolution, electromagnetism, quantum mechanics and bioinformatics are often so counterintuitive and disturbing that we only accept them when absolutely every other possibility has been shot down in flames. To understand the mechanism, you first have to burn away the myth.

So there we have it. That's us. Cambridge has been setting cultural forest fires for the last 800 years, and I sure hope we'll be setting them for the next 800 too.

Lessons for the future

So how do we keep Cambridge at the forefront? I believe that the critical lessons from our history are the importance of academic self-government and intellectual freedom. We were a self-governing community of scholars right from the start, unlike universities such as Bologna which started out as communities of students who banded together to hire teachers. Time has proved our model to be the best. And at various times, either church or state has tried to intervene, to centralise power and control us – as with Queen Elizabeth's statutes of 1570. These interventions have never had the desired effect, but have often hobbled us for a while. The worst was in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries when we weren't allowed to admit nonconformists. That simply handed the baton for a while to the Scottish universities, and to new institutions such as UCL. And even in the twentieth century we weren't perfect: although we admitted women from 1869 we didn't give them proper degrees and let them vote until 1947. Yet Oxford enfranchised women in 1920. Nostra maxima culpa!

Intellectual freedom is a more modern and difficult concept. Medieval and reformation academics often sought to suppress colleagues whose views they disliked; there were Dominicans training in Cambridge to hunt heretics from 1238, and when King's College was founded in 1441 all the fellows had to take an oath not to follow the teachings of Wyclif. (And who knows – perhaps these tussles left us with a certain edge, a certain wilingness to denounce error!) As for academic freedom, it seems to have put up its first tender shoots in the early 16th century. Erasmus remarked that Cambridge became much more open in the mid-1510s, and when a fellow of John's was accused of heresy in 1527, our chancellor John Fisher changed the statutes so that heretics could be sacked – yet there was great reluctance to do so! The emergence of science in the seventeenth century and the Enlightenment in the eighteenth had a huge effect, but it was the mid-19th century before we broke the stranglehold of the Anglican church. As late as 1813, Charles Babbage's thesis was considered to be blasphemous and he wasn't allowed to graduate! The mid-19th-century liberalisation was not the end of the story, though; Bertrand Russell was sacked by Trinity College in 1916 for being a conscientious objector to World War I, and there were many further tussles until the current wording of our Statute U (which protects academics against arbitrary discipline and dismissal) was drafted in the 1980s by David Williams. Freedom of speech in academia can't be totally separated from the same freedom in the rest of society, of course, but for centuries we academics have led the way.

Academic freedom and institutional self-governance are subtly but deeply linked. They are both still under pressure – from a busybody state and a centralising university bureaucracy. The hot topic in 2009, our octocentenary year, is a proposal to curtail academics' protection by abolishing Statute U and replacing it with a much more malleable Code of Practice. Authority argues that we should treat academic and other staff equally. Fine; let's extend the protections we now enjoy to other university staff too. For more, see the Campaign for Cambridge Freedoms.

Ross Anderson

Acknowledgements: I'm grateful to Elisabeth Leedham-Green, Gillian Evans, Richard Evans, David MacKay and Peter Robinson for comments and corrections. As for the heresies expressed here, I confess! They are mine!

This history inspired an essay on academic freedom in the Oxford Magazine (of Feb 19, 2009); an essay on academic self-government in the Times Higher (of Feb 5, 2009); and a piece from Computer Weekly.