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.

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.

Harvard was first, started by Puritans in 1636. Princeton was begun by Presbyterians, Dartmouth by Congregationalists, and so on. But the schools were not "petty sectarian," as one critic of the time charged, writes Frederick Rudolph, a Williams College professor emeritus of history. In 1830, for example, Harvard President Josiah Quincy left staunch Calvinists gasping with the then-radical announcement that "all Harvard students could go to any church on Sunday which they or their parents chose," Mr. Rudolph recounts.

A Darwinian evolution

But bigger changes were coming. By the 19th century, Charles Darwin's theory of evolution was challenging the biblical doctrine of creation based on Genesis. And the ivory tower felt it. Until then, broad acceptance of "the unity of Truth" meant religion and science could coexist in the curriculum, says Julie Reuben, associate professor of education at Harvard's Graduate School of Education. Courses on moral philosophy and natural theology had allowed scholars to reconcile religious doctrines with secular findings.

By the 1880s, the split between science and established religion could be seen at Harvard, where President Charles Eliot's reforms ended mandatory chapel and would eventually transform the school from a traditional college into a modern research university, where knowledge would stand apart from values.

Today, the notion of educating individual character persists, but remains largely separate from intellectual education. The division widened with the pragmatic Morrill Act of 1890, which created land-grant colleges and expanded access to public higher education. By 1920, religion as received truth had been discarded as a key component of American higher-education curriculum, Ms. Reuben says.

Getting closer to universal

United States institutions of higher learning today attract students from all over the world. Yet their doors were largely closed to women until 1833, when Oberlin College was founded as a co-ed institution in Ohio. In 1837, Mount Holyoke College became the nation's first institution of higher learning for women.

Until World War II, higher education was mainly for the well-bred few, says Richard Freeland, president of Northeastern University in Boston. But the GI Bill turned what had been an elitist activity into a necessity for the masses. Universities mushroomed in American education's "golden age" from the mid-1950s to 1970, he says.

About then the long-standing legal rule of in loco parentis - the school standing in as parent - largely disappeared. Students demanded and won more say over the curriculum and other aspects of university life. Dorms at public universities went co-ed. Access for minority groups increased.

Still, until the 1980s, a minority of American high-schoolers expected to go on to college. But in the past two decades, Americans have decided higher education is vital. Two-thirds of high school graduates today say they'll attend college, compared with about half that in the early '80s. This may hint at a new "golden age" for higher education, Dr. Freeland suggests.

Through it all, from monastery and cathedral schools to online courses, the idea of character education is still pulsing, if weakly. Some cite a fresh push by colleges to examine core values and emphasize community service.

But others detect ambivalence about higher education today. "We seem to be going back to the monastic tradition where eternal values can be examined free of the hurly burly of the marketplace to contemplate ultimate truths," Freeland says. "But ... we're still competing with the land-grant principle of being engaged with society. We're stuck with both ideals."

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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