Organized Western education arose most directly from the studia generalia of European monastic communities. The studia were open to monks and laymen alike and were a response to two forces at work in Europe during the Middle Ages.
The first was the expanding interest in classical authors and ideas caused by interaction with Islam. Arab scholars are said to have been centuries ahead of their northern neighbors, and not just in the translation of Greek and Latin texts (aided by Syriac Christians), but in the important work of developing and applying scientific theories of Aristotle, Galen, and others.
The second force was the expanding enterprises of monasteries, which integrated science, the arts, and commerce. Whatever the monks did – farming, winemaking, brewing, translating – they employed the latest available knowledge.
What happened to enlightened, forward-looking, and scientific Islam in later centuries is a matter explained in detail by Robert R. Reilly in The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Modern Islamist Crisis, and it’s a cautionary tale, given our present “cancel culture” – a reminder that any culture can decline as it becomes more ideological and iconoclastic.
Higher education had been an emerging Western ideal as far back as the 7th century and Charlemagne. Not only did that great king’s love of learning influence the development of writing, in the innovation of Carolingian script, and literature – in everything from the encouragement of troubadours to the opening of libraries – it also affected the structure and institutions of higher learning. It was with Charlemagne’s encouragement that the English monk Alcuin introduced into the king’s palace school a rudimentary program of liberal arts.
But education came to be valued, above all, not so much for what it could do to make man a more effective professional as for its capacity to make him a better human being. We see this in the work of clerical authors such as Chrétien de Troyes. “The earliest romances, the romances of antiquity,” historian Stephen Jaeger has written, “name two themes: love and chivalric combat. But a quite different theme enters the romance in the works of Chrétien: the education or the moral formation of the knight. Mere chivalric activity without some higher motive brings a knight to ruin.”
We are living through an era now very like the medieval period. The Internet is the new scriptorium, where civilization is both preserved and created – for better or worse. The original scriptorium was the room in a monastery (usually next to the library) where scribes copied manuscripts. It was essential since every volume in a library had to be handwritten until Gutenberg invented moveable type and began printing books, after 1450.
A “book” – each one rare and precious – would come on loan to the scriptorium, and a scribe would copy it – usually and vividly “illuminating” initial letters – for inclusion in the monastery’s own collection.
We should hasten the rediscovery of the virtue of education in the liberal arts, instruction about enjoying life, and not just about career advancement. I do not demean vocational education, but to be a cultured person is to have been liberally educated (in the intellectual, not the political sense). No other kind of learning truly edifies.
Whether or not one gets that education in school is irrelevant. And that’s a good thing, given that most colleges and universities have abandoned integrated instruction in the traditional trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy).
The first true university was established in Bologna late in the eleventh century, followed by foundations at Paris and Oxford. In each case, the universities were extensions of cathedral schools or the studia of monasteries, and their curricula were focused primarily on theology and law. But as they began to attract scholars from around the world, men who brought with them expertise in a wide variety of disciplines, the universities developed programs of study in what became known as the liberal arts, i.e., education befitting a free man (Latin, liber).
Today, some students flee public schools for traditional private and parochial schools, for non-traditional experimental schools, and even, in increasing numbers, for homeschooling. Even as we begin experimenting with such reforms as vouchers and charter schools, we must remain cognizant of the important role that “free” public education has played in making American democracy work. (I put free in quotes because nothing – and certainly not schooling – is actually gratis.) We may agree to one or another degree about the failure of public education, but, in such discussions, we may fail to recall how successful it has been, and how clearly it has been a major reason for American ascendancy.
As Thomas Sowell has recently made clear (in his book Charter Schools and Their Enemies), charter schools in New York City, which operate in the same buildings as public schools, cost taxpayers nothing extra, and whose students come from the local catchment via lottery, have astonishingly better outcomes by every academic criterion than do the kids receiving instruction from unionized teachers following state-regulated curricula.
What is at risk in education at all levels today is learning for learning’s sake. St. John Henry Newman, writing in The Idea of the University, makes clear his conviction that the embrace of diverse curricula must never degrade a university’s goal: an educated whole person. Newman believed that what was wrong with much thinking about higher education, as about the idea of the gentleman too (and which he discussed in the same book), was the absence of truly higher learning and higher living, which absence meant too much specialization and too little religion.
Newman knew that education – without a vision of its proper end – is mere dilettantism, just as he was right that a gentleman without chivalry is merely a dandy.
* Image: Saint Gregory with Scribes by the Master of the Viennese Gregory Panel (Meister der Wiener Gregorplatte), c. late 10th century (Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria). In what was the cover of a book (sacramentary) of prayers for baptisms, ordinations, blessings, and consecrations, Pope St. Gregory the Great, himself a former monk, is depicted taking inspiration from the Holy Spirit as scribes take the saint’s dictation.