In an age calling for educational reform, I submit that we take cue from history—Medieval Times in particular—while weighing the future of contemporary academia (and its financing).
While generally groundless and unfounded in its opprobrium, the term ‘medieval’ has come to conjure defamatory and backward insults onto any modern institution, practice or policy upon which it is thrust. It is a pity that this association persists, as medieval universities effectuated sweeping scholastic changes: they educated hundreds of thousands of pupils and devised innovative mechanisms to do so. A hallmark of medieval university ideology was the doctrine that all knowledge—whether under the realm of the art, law, theology or medicine—be an articulate science readily imparted in discussion, debate, or argument. In terms of its institutional impact on modern learning, medieval universities’ paramount contribution was, well, themselves. While we may have altered some of their methods, incorporated new styles and technologies, added new programs and majors, and expanded our resources and facilities, the underlying concept of a medieval university as a place where a motivated novice can acquire a mastery of his field has endured to this day. Arguably, contemporary universities are our age’s most medieval institutions.
Just as modern academia comprises various fields of study, early medieval education encompassed seven liberal arts deemed befitting of “free” men, subdivided between the trivium and the quadrivium. The trivium—composed of grammar (conversational and written Latin), dialect (reasoning skills), and rhetoric (logical and philosophical speaking methods for governmental and civil issues of import)—resembles our present-day general higher education stipulations, whereas the medieval quadrivium—formulated of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music—no longer lies at the core of our university experiences, although they may be individually pursued at will. I was astonished not only by the medieval university’s classification of music within its numerical quadrivium, but also by the clout of music within the seven liberal arts as a means to “harmonize different tones in songs of pleasing accent” (p. 10, Daly). Whether on its mathematical foundation or purely on its moving aesthetics, it is regrettable that music—while still a prominent field within specific university sects—is by and large overlooked by the preponderance of students nowadays. Despite educationalist John of Salisbury’s comprehensive defense of the trivium and quadrivium while bishop of Chartres, subsequent universities’ emphases on dialectic and philosophy were advocated in lieu of the seven liberal arts model—no doubt spurred by the discovery and utilization of the entire corpus of Aristotle’s works on the subjects.
Twenty-first century private universities are fundamentally corporations, a token of the University at Paris’s corporate evolution depicted in their adoption of an official seal, first codification of written law, and legal right to sue or be sued. The “Magna Carta” of Paris University was the channel by which the pope authorized the university (now a fully-fledged intellectual corporation) to form its own rules and laws for coursework and studies, provided it with a separate jurisdiction, and expanded its curriculum. This doctrine indisputably informed our current campus police system and the overall notion of studying and residing within a “university bubble.” According to the jus ublique docendi privilege, graduates of the medieval era’s most prestigious universities at Paris, Bologna, and Oxford were essentially entitled to teach anywhere in the world; needless to say, these elite institutions were in turn wary of hiring just any alumnus into their faculty without a potent showcase of his competency before the school’s prestigious professional ranks. A comparable resumptio persists to this day amongst Ivy League institutions, whose professors must not only bear the requisite degrees from elite colleges, but are more or less obliged to be well-known in public or academic spheres for their published works or societal presence.
The culture and framework of our contemporary universities owe much to their medieval forefathers. Save for schooling for all, which was not integrated into policy until the late nineteenth century, there is scarcely a concept, institution, or practice of modern education that cannot be ascribed to medieval universities. Analogous with the modern-day students’ entitlement to drop a class if need be, at Bologna the right was comparably boosterish and allotted for the attendance of fifteen classes before any payment was due. The medieval manual De Disciplina Scholarium delineates customs remarkably aligned with our campus culture, including hazing rituals and a litany of the omnipresent obstacles to learning (e.g., alcohol, sex, and lack of focus). The formalized medieval letter-writing rules—beset with students’ petitions for money, a plea with which current students can plainly empathize—were so complicated in their construction that wholesale “model” letters were published in copybooks: veritable CliffNotes Guides in contemporary terms. At their core, medieval hospicia were college residence halls similar to our universities’ dormitories, albeit more aligned with modern universities’ Greek societies in the sense that medieval-era students from the same parts of Europe were housed together (by virtue of their presumed common bonds of language, heritage, and customs).
Much to my surprise, medieval students were allotted many entitlements that today’s college students can only consider as fantastical pipe dreams. The Charter of Emperor Frederick I, confirmed by Pope Alexander III, accorded students as a special class exempted from civil courts and entrusted with the citation option as defendants before either their masters or bishops. Innocent IV furthermore excused Parisian students from ecclesiastical courts outside of the city to wherever their studies beckoned (via jus non trahi extra). As evidenced by the recent Casey Anthony debacle, this is certainly no longer the case. When contemporary students opt to travel abroad, they are required to have some proficiency in their destination’s native tongue. The standard medium of Latin within the medieval classroom armed students with the continental language of all educated Europeans, so the scholastic world really was their oyster. In striking contrast to our county, state and federal governments’ widespread axing of educational funding, Philip VI of France bestowed exemptions from taxation upon individual students, university corporations, and the workers therein. While our college campuses abide by bureaucratic frameworks, medieval universities were professor-driven in statute, wherein students held the privilege of seeking out, paying, and firing teachers directly.
Prior to studying medieval universities, I had not realized the deep roots of our cooperative study measures; indeed it was William of Wykeham’s promotion of mutual help and charity at the College of St. Mary of Winchester in Oxford that heralded current campuses’ peer-tutoring programs and writing centers. The enduring contribution of medieval universities comprises neither its scientific discoveries nor its medical conquests, but rather its legacy for all generations thereafter to pay deference to the laws of thought and to protect them against the force of language. As such, while we may be unable to glean much from their academic materia, their forma has mightily shaped our higher learning ideals.
Note: Since writing this blog just after President Obama’s visit to Scranton on Wednesday, the Senate failed to pass Senator Robert P. Casey, Jr.’s bill to extend and expand the payroll-tax cut and provide $1,500 to the average working class family. Despite the imminent expiration of the middle class tax cut, Scrantonians are optimistic that Senator Casey will reach an auspicious agreement in time to safeguard Pennsylvania families and create employment opportunities.
Although I was born and raised in Scranton, Pennsylvania, throughout the 2008 election cycle I lived and worked in New York City and, much to my chagrin, was unable to see (then candidate) Barack Obama discuss his ambitions apropos my hometown’s most pressing issues. It was deeply heartening to be back home in Scranton this week to witness the vitality and spirit of the President, his confidence in our country’s eventual triumph over the political partisanship throughout our economic recouping, and his connection to our local workforce concerns. Scranton is by no means a wealthy area, so it is of little surprise that the crowd hailed for the President’s fiscal policy defending the middle class and summoning more from top-tier earners. As evidenced by Wednesday’s turnout, Scrantonians feel connected to the Obama Administration—no doubt a token of Vice President Biden’s upbringing in Scranton and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s roots in our area—and we hold their policies heretofore in the highest regard and have tremendous hopes for the passing of future initiatives. The President couldn’t possibly find a more receptive audience to launch an urgent and passionate two-week campaign for the payroll-tax cut extension, the unemployment-insurance extension, and transportation spending… granted that Congress gets on board in time for the holidays.
On Wednesday afternoon, Scranton’s economic hardship and earnest desire for passing President Obama’s reforms were palpable by the crowd’s roaring enthusiasm throughout his case for an extension of the payroll-tax holiday legislation sponsored by Scranton native Senator Robert Casey. With about 10,000 people out of work in Lackawanna County alone, this payroll-tax cut would directly benefit local employees and their employers. Putting about $1,500 into the pockets of average workers would catalyze our economic recovery—especially for citizens of lesser education, who are inevitably faced with the most adverse ramifications of our current financial structure. Last year’s cut of the payroll-tax from 6.3% to 4% only set the groundwork; a further reduction will predominantly impact the livelihood of lower and middle class workers and their families. Politically speaking, Scrantonians’ propensity toward pragmatic, nonideological tenets will serve the President well. The Wyoming Valley simply wants to see fair and effective policy come to the fore and finds little value in Congress’ ideological brawls; the image of Republicans pauperizing working Americans during the holiday season prompted a tangible anxiety in the audience. However, a sudden sense of hopefulness overcame the gymnasium when the President appealed the crowd to take action: “Send your senators a message. Tell them, ‘Don’t be a Grinch.’ Don’t vote to raise taxes on working Americans during the holidays.”
As a swing city in a battleground state, a stroll around Scranton’s Courthouse Square is revelatory of our steadfast labor roots—home to the tributary statue of United States labor leader and United Mine Workers president John Mitchell—and the site of Mitchell’s contentious negotiations with mining industries, wherein President Teddy Roosevelt personally intervened in Scranton. On account of Mitchell and Roosevelt’s momentous resolution stipulating a minimum wage and an eight-hour workweek at the Lackawanna County Courthouse, the “Champion of Labor, Defender of Humon Rights” Mitchell statue and the Lackawanna Courthouse are registered National Historic Landmarks. When the President engaged the gymnasium gathering by asking, “What does it say about our priorities when we’d rather protect a few really well-to-do people than fight for the jobs of teachers and firefighters?” a full-out standing ovation ensued. He truly struck a cord with Scrantonians when he further posed, “What does it say about our values when we’d rather fight for corporate tax breaks than put construction workers back on the job rebuilding our roads and our bridges and our schools?” The President hit home.
In the face of the devastating effects of NAFTA, CAFTA, PNTR with China and other such unendurable policies, during the George W. Bush administration my family was forced to sell off our multigenerational apparel manufacturing business in the Wyoming Valley. Since then, my mom, Janie Alperin, established an internationally-acclaimed housewares and gift boutique, Jane Leslie & Co., based in Kingston, PA. The Obama Administration’s American Jobs Act and appeal for the furtherance of the payroll-tax cuts would be exponentially beneficial for her small business. The President’s Remarks on The American Jobs Act on Wednesday also resonated with my friends who accompanied me to the speech: Megan Davidovich, 20 (President of the University of Scranton College Democrats) and Robert Bresnahan, 21 (Chief Financial Officer of Kuharchik Construction, Inc. located in Exeter, PA). For Megan, the President’s comments on college loans were especially apposite—words moreover met with roaring acclamation from Scranton High School students and teachers bullish on the prospect for education reform. Robert’s spirits were raised by the President’s bid for infrastructure revitalization and construction initiatives. In an age of partisanship, I was profoundly inspired by Robert’s open-mindedness as a young Republican, “I advocate for the greater good of the economy and [construction] industry. As CFO of a construction company, I have first-hand experience with workers who need to be kept on the job, hence the imperativeness of this often forgotten aspect [infrastructure], which is significantly dependent on federal intervention.” Robert’s nonpartisan and objective convictions are archetypal of Scranton, where there are scores of unemployed and underemployed blue color workers (particularly construction workers), whose skillsets the President intends to utilize by funding $100 billion toward infrastructure.
The message of rendering our country’s income inequality into a more equitable model fired up attendees; if 38% of our corporations that eschew income tax payment began doing their fair bid for the country, it would ease the burden on the working people of Scranton. Radical actions that put men and women on the job—like repairing the unsound national infrastructure within the constraints of a massive five or ten-year repair program in tandem with training unemployed people and returning veterans—would not only boost our economy, but would uplift Northeast Pennsylvanians’ confidence both in our country and of our global standing.
Updated: President Obama’s statement on the Senate’s failure to pass his plan to extend the payroll tax cut for working Americans:
“Now is not the time to put the economy and the security of the middle class at risk. Now is the time to rebuild an economy where hard work and responsibility pay off, and everybody has a chance to succeed. Now is the time to put country before party and work together on behalf of the American people. And I will continue to urge Congress to stop playing politics with the security of millions of American families and small business owners and get this done. Tonight, Senate Republicans chose to raise taxes on nearly 160 million hardworking Americans because they refused to ask a few hundred thousand millionaires and billionaires to pay their fair share. They voted against a bill that would have not only extended the $1,000 tax cut for a typical family, but expanded that tax cut to put an extra $1,500 in their pockets next year, and given nearly six million small business owners new incentives to expand and hire. That is unacceptable. It makes absolutely no sense to raise taxes on the middle class at a time when so many are still trying to get back on their feet…”