The Enlightenment, as a movement in the cause of general education and culture, made a tardy and fumbling entrance into Spain where the vested interests of the Church, the universities, and even of the state, made progress painfully slow. Until the expulsion of the Jesuits in 1767, the reformers made little headway against the dead hand of a medieval tradition. Subsequently, the French Revolution and later the War of Independence nullified many of the gains so slowly won. This chronicle of the eighteenth-century Spanish universities begins with a dismal picture of the demoralized state of the institutions of higher learning in the Peninsula. The faculties were usually incompetent, often fraudulently selected, and indifferent to teaching. The curricula were mired in a medieval scholastic methodology of dictated material, rarely in Castilian; in a needless elaboration of courses in theology; and in an almost total lack of sciences. These institutions functioned as independent entities, serving only an elite of undisciplined students, competing with colegios mayores, and tolerating the farce of purchased degrees.

During the first two-thirds of the century, the pioneers in the effort to reshape the educational system were: Father Benito Jerónimo Feijoo, a Gallegan, who urged the use of textbooks in place of dictation in the classroom, and who combated ignorance and superstition and prejudice in his Teatro crítico; the Portuguese Luís Antônio Verney, whose midcentury book El verdadero método de estudiar assailed the prevailing scholasticism; and Pablo Olavide, the Peruvian, whose radical Plan of Reform of the University of Seville and Francophile ideas brought the unwelcome attention of the Inquisition and caused his exile. In successive chapters the author details the state’s efforts during the remainder of the century to impose plans of study, which would foster a shift from theology to more scientific and utilitarian subjects, on the Church-dominated universities and colegios. This involved story is related in a clear, agreeable prose and with almost excessive documentation in footnotes that occasionally crowd the text off the page.