What's happened to 'higher' education?
We've traded the foundations of elevated thought for the allure of scientific progress.
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"The learning now in fashion," as Locke put it, was the bequest of the first great and true universities established in the High Middle Ages. These evolved from the abbey schools mandated in the 9th Century by Alfred the Great in Britain and by Charlemagne in Europe. By the 11th Century some of these were already centers of serious scholarship and teaching. The University of Paris, by the 12th century, would come to define the genre, so much so that when Jesuit founder St. Ignatius of Loyola judged his own scholarly preparation to be hopelessly defective, he took himself to Paris.Skip to next paragraph
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From the first, the very atmosphere of higher education was alive with criticism, with the "Sic et non" that conduces not to skepticism but to inquiry; with the "viva voce" that every aspiring don must endure as more seasoned minds test and taunt for the purpose of cleansing and empowering.
Ignatius was not simply studying in "Paris" for some seven years. His principal collegiate affiliation within the University was Sainte Barbe, which, by the time of his arrival, had taken the lead in developing the long-opposed program of humanistic study, and chiefly the study of classical Greek and Latin sources.
These were understood as foundational for all other studies. But defenders had to argue this curriculum into being. One might say that what they were arguing into being was the spirit of the Renaissance itself.
Thus, as early as 1542, Ignatius is found writing to students that it is to be their Latin studies that will ground all the rest, and that these studies are therefore mandatory. The study of Greek would soon be added and for the same reason. All this was in specific opposition to prevailing practices at Italian colleges where students were free to choose to study whatever they wished, in any order and, we might surmise, with no compelling purpose or reason (how contemporary!).
By 1599, there were nearly 250 Jesuit schools. All of them called for scholars in scripture, Hebrew, Greek, theology, mathematics, philosophy, and moral philosophy. Nothing in the curriculum was "sectarian," for a common humanity erases the traditional barriers of sect and party.
All in all, in the long and still intense struggle between urbanity and provincialism, it would be the university that would revise the maps of thought and set loose the instructed mind. Locke's reference to "the learning now in fashion in the schools of Europe" was chiefly a reference to this education, which had been his own: an education that shaped the Anglo-European mind and bequeathed it, with refinements and ever more daring possibilities, to the Founders of the American Republic.
The Scottish influence
The intellectual and philosophical sources of greatest use to and influence upon the American Founders were the productions of the classical world, interpreted and systematically presented in the major works of British – primarily Scottish – and Continental scholars. Much of this was delivered by way of the Scottish Enlightenment and, indeed, by native Scots.
Scottish education, with its distinctively "humanistic Calvinism," was widely adopted in the Colonies and then in the states of the Union. The diffuse influence of Scottish thought, itself beholden to classical sources, did much to immunize the Founders against metaphysical extremes, which were all too often followed by extremes of action. This same influence protected the colonial consumer from most of the products still minted in Europe's frippery shops.