Philosophy & Religion

Philosophy Monday: The Birth of Education

Go up to any student of a modern literature course as ask what their reading. Perhaps you’ll hear about Shelly’s Frankenstein or Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment or perhaps Orwell’s 1984. Regardless of which works make their reading list, if you ask this student if what they’re reading is ‘True’ with a capital T you’ll likely get a questioning look. Frankly in the context of modern education it rarely makes sense to ask if what you’re learning is True, often we discuss a more graduated form of truth where interpretations are made based on evidence. Where there is no room for a universal truth in what we learn. While this is easy to see in literature where the subject material is—by definition—fiction, it is no less true in other disciplines.

Take physics, for example, where you’d learn about the Universal Law of Gravity. Surely within a subject such as physics there would be some Truth. But even here in a ‘hard’ science we find a truth that only exists as a gradient from less supported to more supported. Nevertheless we accept lessons on these materials as education even though none of them are True, but why is that? Do we somehow accept that we are taught nothing but incomplete truths and lies? No, rather we objectify education and the lessons we’re taught so that we can take bits and pieces of them to improve our understanding. Through objectifying the material we open up a space from which the merits of this debate or that can be decided. In fact, it allows us to argue a question from either side. While we take it for granted today, this form of education hasn’t always been around.

Starting in the twelfth and maturing in the thirteenth century, a revolutionary development in the relationship between education and the student took place. This development, which can be seen as either a natural progression stemming from the early universities or as instigated by the same social forces that formed and popularized the universities, mark a line of stark contrast between early medieval thinking and mid to late medieval scholarship.

Before discussing the change itself it will be important to cover a little bit of background regarding the state of education leading up to and into the 12th and 13th centuries. Who did the teaching, what was the material and why did they care?

StarsEducation leading up and well into the 12th century almost entirely took place in monasteries around Europe. Monastic enterprise and education were one and the same; a trend reaching back to some of the early priests and temples in Rome, Egypt and China to name but a few. But all that was about to change. With the rise of more complex societies and new technologies of the middle ages (imported from the Arab world), more and more aristocratic and moneyed families were having their sons educated by tutors. This growth in popularity led to an evolution of the educational structure into corporations of individuals. Presto, the first universities were born.

A university–in the context of the 12th and 13th centuries–was nothing more than a group of individuals unified with a common goal. There were no buildings associated with these groups, and in fact they were quite mobile. When tensions between students and a town grew too high (which was known to happen quite a bit), the students and faculty would simply move to a new town.

It was here in these new social constructions that education took on a new role. Previously in a monastic setting, the reason behind learning was to become a better monk and to personally become closer to God. Every lesson revolved around this premise; and in fact, the teacher was expected to know the ‘soul of the student’. Here in the monasteries education was a deeply personal and internalized entity which was pursued for only one reason: God.


As education became a social and corporate activity, the lessons taught were adapted to a new role. The goal behind the lessons became less about the soul of the student than for the betterment of the mind. Suddenly we see a shift from education of the internal to education of the objective. Students were encouraged and required to debate questions from both sides and to breakdown their opponent’s arguments. They were no longer fighting for Truth, but rather for some qualified truth. The movement here from the internal to the external permitted new ideas to emerge and education became an objective exercise of the mind. The tools that the students learned could just as well fight for one side of an argument or the other, and this lead to the formation of new arguments and new ideas. Recognize anything of modern education here? The topics covered in lessons no longer had to be true, rather they were filled with the foodstuffs for debate, thought and ideas. Cogito ergo sum, maybe.


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