The work of Adam Smith in particular is the cornerstone of modern economics. Even to this day, he is perceived as the father of modern economics, his most influential scholarly work being “The Wealth of Nations”, which is still an integral component of any humanities curricula. This fact emphasizes the connection between the Enlightenment of a few centuries ago and the modern university. In spite of the distance in time, the spirit of the Enlightenment is at its most radiant in contemporary academia, which remains largely independent and objective; as opposed to the mainstream media institutions, which are subject to political influence and corporate pressure (May, 1976).
To gain a better understanding of why this movement turned out to be so pivotal in the course of modern world history, it is imperative that we trace its roots. The thirteenth century philosopher Thomas Aquinas, for instance, cites the work of the Greek philosopher Aristotle in reconciling religious faith with newly evident scientific facts. Later, during the Renaissance in Italy, the intellectual atmosphere was made more congenial for the impending revolution that is the Enlightenment (Kitromilides, 1996). During the Renaissance, it was primarily the Humanists, who held out a system of thought, which gave precedence to universal human values against those proposed by organized religion. Hence, the origins of the Enlightenment go a long way back. The following passage illustrates the core of Humanist philosophy, which has many common elements with the scientific and rational schools of thought of the Enlightenment:
“This celebration of human capacity, though it was mixed in the Renaissance with elements of gloom and superstition (witchcraft trials flourished in this period as they never had during the Middle Ages), was to bestow a powerful legacy on Europeans. The goal of Renaissance humanists was to recapture some of the pride, breadth of spirit, and creativity of the ancient Greeks and Romans, to replicate their successes and go beyond them. Europeans developed the belief that tradition could and should be used to promote change. By cleaning and sharpening the tools of antiquity, they could reshape their own time.” (Brians, Paul, 1998)
While there are critics in contemporary intelligentsia about the significance of the Enlightenment both during the period it played out as well as its legacy still manifest in modern institutions. But as a matter of fact, the cultural and intellectual trends started off by the Enlightenment have never been more vibrant and alive than they are today, more so in the academia. While intellectual in the extreme Left of the political spectrum criticize it for “promoting the ideals and power of the bourgeoisie at the expense of the working classes, postcolonial critics reject its idealization of specifically European notions as universal truths, and poststructuralists reject its entire concept of rational thought”, they miss an important point (Brians, Paul, 1998). Namely that the idea of basic and universal human rights that was one of its outcomes is a source of support and inspiration for many people across the world, who are valiantly engaged in their fight for liberation from governmental and corporate tyrannies. The fact that such academics as Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn and Michael Parenti are campaigning against these oppressive forces in order to achieve the values of the Enlightenment is a testimony to its importance for modern Universities.
While the New World was late to catch up on the cultural and intellectual changes in Europe, the political events leading up to the Declaration of Independence provided a suitable opportunity for the values of the Enlightenment to thrive. Such luminaries as George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin and Tom Paine took inspiration from the Enlightenment while charting the course for the new nation that is the United States of America. All the founding fathers of the new nation were well traveled and well-versed with the intellectual culture of Europe. This experience was later to find sublime expression during the drafting of the Constitution of the United States of America. They were the first proponents of the separation of Church and State and gave a whole new meaning to the concept of God. For example,