Let’s Get Medieval On This University!

[Silly rant time!]

The world of higher education is currently abuzz with several related concerns (finances foremost among them). Under increasing market pressure to make degrees more useful for getting jobs* (and thereby to justify the increasing price of education), far too many people have turned lazily to the notion that eliminating “useless” disciplines or programs is precisely the right way to trim the fat and make higher ed a lean, mean, job-creatin’ machine.

There are a number of reasons why this won’t (and can’t, really) work (it begins from a misdiagnosis of the problem, for one thing), but that’s not what this post is about. This post is about getting old school — VERY old school. In fact, it’s a really sloppy little bit of history about how old schooling used to look, and why.

Once upon a time in medieval Europe, where the university as we know it in the Western tradition took form, the basic educational program of the classical liberal arts consisted of two sets of “roads”: the preparatory work of the Trivium and the more advanced work of the Quadrivium. Note that, originally, the “liberal” arts were so called to distinguish the material learned in such study from the work of slaves and those studies aimed at practical tasks. The Trivium included the three sets of skills indispensable to further study: grammar, logic, and rhetoric. A student who had mastered these things was then appropriately prepared for the four disciplines of the Quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, music**, and astronomy. It was only after a student had developed a foundation in the Trivium and Quadrivium that it was possible to move on to advanced study in the disciplines of philosophy (which then also included things like physics, chemistry, and even early notions of anthropology, etc.), law, or theology.

Notice the set of assumptions that undergird such a division of subjects (a set of assumptions derived in large part from the philosophers of antiquity). Before it was possible to study the features of the physical world, it was necessary to learn to speak, to think, and to understand language. This wasn’t just an idle or soft study — the idea was that a person who could not think and communicate effectively simply wasn’t capable of doing proper science, and that a person unprepared in the study of science was therefore not really able to do the higher-order cognitive work of theology/philosophy/law (the fields in which moral concerns are most clearly at stake). Science as studied in the medieval university was not a practical discipline but an epistemological endeavor. Our current way of handling the STEM disciplines would seem bizarre even to later figures like Bacon or Newton, and the way we handle the liberal arts as tangential, “soft,” and impractical (and therefore less valuable) practices would seem utterly mad.***

So, here I am, working in a “soft” discipline****, teaching mostly Gen Ed courses to people who have been trained to believe that learning the content of those courses is a useless but procedurally necessary hoop through which they have to jump in order to get a credential that will increase (they hope) their ability to get a higher-paying job. Grammar is an alien concept that ruins fun writing, rhetoric is what happens at high school speech competitions, and logic is whatever you want it to be, because we’re all entitled to our own opinions. Occam is spinning in his grave.

What the hell happened? The answer to that question takes a lot more than one extremely sloppy blog post, I’m afraid, and greater minds than mine to explain it all. Contemporary universities look very little like medieval and renaissance universities, and there’s no going back. What I’m interested in isn’t what happened — it’s in making a call to recover the educational assumptions and intuitions of the past.

I want to suggest that as we struggle to defend the value of the humanities, there is no better place to look for that defense than to the original purpose of the liberal arts — especially the assumption that a person who cannot think, read, write, and communicate effectively is not fit to do all of those shiny STEM things at which governments and corporations want to throw money. The content of the Trivium isn’t just an enhancement to scientific learning — it is its essential foundation. Taking up that assumption effectively may actually require some serious changes, but not the ones most administrators think we ought to make. For example: it might require the elimination of the concept of a major, and a different way of accounting for and representing the skills that college students actually need and actually acquire.*****

Let’s get medieval on this thing!

*Do NOT get me started on the many, many ways in which this is a misconceived and ultimately doomed effort for most universities, depending as it does on some mistaken ideas about what education does and how it works.

** “music,” in the context of the Quadrivium, is actually an applied mathematical discipline involving the study of proportion, wave mechanics, and harmonics — this isn’t the study of performed song or musical composition or anything of that kind. It’s a study of the physical properties of sound and other related issues. The necessary instrument of this study is the monochord.

***I’m not going into all of the economic and social class issues that are tangled up in this whole business, but it’s worth considering the way in which reimagining higher education as a public good open to all rather than a privilege of the few constituted both a great societal improvement and a serious educational problem (especially insofar as doing so accidentally subsumed theoretical disciplines in practical ones with an eye on outcomes and little regard for how those things ought to be related to each other as a part of an educational process).

****What-the-fuck ever.

*****Eliminating the concept of a major is not the same as eliminating disciplines or programs. It just means that a student’s educational path is no longer dictated by an occasionally rather arbitrary association with a disciplinary marker, and that therefore his/her educational decisions can be decoupled from the whole host of bad job-prep thinking that looks only at labels rather than actually documented skills. What I’m after is a cultural change in the way we view the relationship between education and employment, and eliminating the concept of the major is one possible step in that change.

Yes, I know. I’m CRAZY. This is really just a very weak stab at a solution — but it’s a kind of step that might be necessary.


About L. M. Bernhardt

For a good long while (15 years or so), I taught philosophy at a little private university in northwest IA, and occasionally branched out into playing music, dabbling in photography, experimenting with food, and writing nonsense on my blog. The philosophy teaching part ended in 2017 (program elimination via prioritization), but never fear! I've just finished my MLIS at San Jose State University, and I'm currently on the market looking for new adventures in either philosophy or LIS. Otherwise, I labor to support my dogs in the lavish manner to which they've become accustomed.
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2 Responses to Let’s Get Medieval On This University!

  1. bob-f says:

    I'm certainly no expert on medieval European education, but I suspect one critical difference between our current situation and the past is the democratization of education. When I graduated from high school (not quite medieval times, but nearly) something like 20-25% of students went on to college, while the rest went directly into the workforce or to technical/trade schools. That figure now is about 68%.

    I suspect that neither the commitment to academic pursuits nor the career interests of those new college enrollees has changed all that much. Instead, the credentials they need to get those jobs have been ramped up to include a 4-yr degree, so the students are playing by the rules and going to college.

    In short, the problem may be that we have a college curriculum designed for one group of students that is now being required of a different group, and the inevitable chafe is showing up in unexpected ways. If so, then Ginger is likely correct in arguing that a fundamental reconceptualization of higher ed is called for. Instead of counting courses to determine a student's readiness for moving through the system, maybe we should try to determine her achievement of critical intellectual skills, practical skills and mastery of a body of factual knowledge. Thus, she wouldn't earn a degree because she's spent 4-5 years taking courses, but because she can show that she's accomplished the requisite skills and knowledge, regardless of how long it has taken. This take's Ginger's notion of changing our understanding of the major and applying it to courses as well.

    Good luck with that!


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