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.