The expanding university
The liberal arts have spread far beyond their monastic, male origins
Trace the roots of "character education," a phrase that pops up in the glossy brochures of today's leading colleges and universities, and you may find yourself back in the year 1000, when "higher" education still meant secular teaching interwoven with church doctrine.Skip to next paragraph
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Whether in Christian cathedrals, Muslim mosques, or Buddhist temples, intellect and inner man were one. In Western higher education, the golden thread that stretched from the Middle Ages through the 19th century was the expectation that Christian principles would shape intellectual and moral development.
While the ties that bind those elements are no longer as strong, the fundamental goal - to shape thinking people who will forward society's progress - has proved long-lasting. Lifestyles have certainly changed (with a few notable exceptions, such as the prevalence of alcohol abuse on campus). But one of the most significant developments has been the opening of higher education's doors in the past 50 years to masses once excluded.
As the church's grip loosened on higher education in the 12th century, the first universities were born in Europe. Universitas, or "community of scholars," was a term first embraced by faculty and students at the University of Paris.
Early universities had no dorms, no laboratories, no classrooms, not even indoor plumbing. Those first "undergraduates" could not have dreamed that air-conditioned, Ethernet-wired, refrigerator-equipped dorm "apartments" would be de rigueur to the 21st-century college student.
Higher learning in those early days was a damp, cold, and often rowdy affair. Students lodged in unheated rooms or inns in places like Oxford, England and Bologna, Italy. The faculty taught not on a "campus" but in hired halls.
Hunched over their textbooks, scribbling carefully each word of their masters' lectures, young scholars strained to memorize the trivium, or three-part curriculum - grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Those who succeeded were rewarded with the quadrivium - arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. These seven subjects are the forebears of today's liberal-arts curriculum.
Middle-Ages 'Animal House'
But higher education was not all about studying. Teaching masters were not paid regular salaries. So they sometimes "resorted to cheap tricks and attention-getting appeals in order to attract a large audience," writes Willis Rudy in "University of Europe, 1100-1914: A History."
On the other hand, students are said to have "whistled, hissed, shouted ... and even thrown stones at lecturers who were inaudible, who spoke too slowly to cover the material fully, or who lectured too fast...." Mr. Rudy recounts.
Drunkenness, fighting, and womanizing (the students were all men) attended university life, sometimes with dire consequences. Students were even killed in riots when residents got fed up with their "Animal House" antics. Cambridge University formed around 1209 when some scholars fled town-gown violence in Oxford.
Students then were younger than they are now. Oxford admitted 15- to 17-year-olds - a good thing, considering courses like theology could take as many as eight years to complete. At one English college, some students attended 20 to 50 years without getting a degree.
Footing a tuition bill for that long would be nearly impossible today. But there's at least one common experience then and now: Undergraduates' letters home. Handwritten or zapped across the Internet, they have arrived with the universal plea: Send Money!
By the 18th century, London, Paris, Rome, and Halle, Germany were vibrant with university life. European institutions were still the intellectual gold standard. By comparison, prior to 1776, North America had just nine "colonial colleges" - all formed by religious denominations.