Learning from the past – France Catholique

Western organized instruction resulted primarily from the studio generalia European monastic communities. The studio was open to both lay people and monks and was the response to two forces at work in Europe during the Middle Ages.

The first was a growing interest in classical authors and ideas, caused by interaction with Islam. Arab scholars are said to have been centuries ahead of their northern neighbours, not only in the translation of Greek and Latin texts (where they were aided by Syriac Christians) but also in the important work of developing and to apply the scientific theories of Aristotle, Galen and others.

The second force was the expansion of monastic enterprises, which integrated science, arts and commerce. Whatever they did – cultivation, winemaking, brewing, translation – the monks used the latest knowledge.

What happened to enlightened, forward-thinking, scientific Islam in later centuries is a subject explained in detail by Robert R. Reilly in “The Closing of the Muslim Mind: How Intellectual Suicide Created the Crisis of modern Islam,” and it’s a cautionary tale, given our current “culture of erasure” — a reminder that any culture can decline when it becomes more ideological and iconoclastic.

A higher education has been a Western ideal that emerged as early as the 7th century and Charlemagne. Not only did the love of studying this great king influence the development of writing, with the innovation of Carolingian writing, and of literature – from the encouragement of troubadours to the opening of libraries – but it has also affected the structure and institutions of higher education. It was with the encouragement of Charlemagne that the English monk Alcuin introduced a rudimentary program of letters and social sciences and humanities into the palace school.

But education was valued above all else, not so much because it could make a man a more effective professional, but because it could make him a better human being. We see it in the work of clergy writers such as Chretien de Troyes. “Early novels, the romances of antiquity,” wrote historian Stephen Jaeger, “had two themes: love and chivalrous combat. But a very different theme enters the novel with the works of Chrétien de Troyes: the instruction and moral formation of the knight. Mere knightly activity without higher motivation leads the knight to disaster.”

We live in a time that is hardly different from the medieval period. The internet is the new scriptorium, where civilization is both preserved and created – for better and for worse. The original scriptorium was the room in the monastery (usually adjoining the library) where scribes copied manuscripts. This was essential since any volume in a library had to be handwritten until Gutenberg invented movable type and started printing books after 1450.

A “book” – each one rare and valuable – was borrowed by the scriptorium, and a scribe copied it – usually colorfully illuminating the initials – for inclusion in the monastery’s own collection.

We should hasten to rediscover the virtue of education in the humanities and social sciences, in order to appreciate life and not only the career plan. I am not denigrating professional education, but to be a cultured person is to have been educated liberally (in the intellectual, not political sense). No other type of learning really edifies.

Whether or not one receives this education at school does not matter. And that’s a good thing, given that most colleges and universities have abandoned teaching embedded in the traditional trivium (grammar, rhetoric, and logic) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy).

The first real university was established in Bologna at the end of the 11th century, followed by foundations in Paris and Oxford. In each case, the universities were extensions of cathedral schools or the studia of a monastery, and the curricula focused primarily on theology and law. But as they began to attract scholars from around the world, men who brought with them expertise in a wide variety of disciplines, universities developed programs of study in what became known as the liberal arts, that is to say, an education worthy of a free man (from the Latin liber).

Today, some students are fleeing public schools for traditional private and parochial schools, for experimental non-traditional schools and even, in increasing numbers, for home schooling. Even as we begin to experiment with reforms such as school vouchers or private contract schools, we must remain aware of the important role that “free” public education has played in making American democracy work. (I put free in quotation marks because nothing – and certainly not schooling – is really free.) We can recognize to one degree or another the failure of public education, but, in such discussions, we could fail to remind us how successful it was and how essential it was to American ascendancy.

As Thomas Sowell recently pointed out (in his book “Private Contract Schools and Their Enemies”), private contract schools in New York, which operate in the same buildings as public schools, cost nothing more taxpayer, and whose students come by lottery from the catchment area, perform surprisingly better on all academic criteria than children receiving state-regulated curricula from union teachers.

Today, what is in danger in education at all levels is learning for the sake of learning. Saint John Henry Newman, writing in “The Idea of ​​a University,” expresses his belief that adopting diverse study programs should never detract from the purpose of a university: to educate the whole person. Newman believed that what was wrong with much of the thinking about higher education, as well as the idea of ​​the gentleman (and which he discusses in this same book) was the absence of truly higher education and a higher way of life, the absence of which means too much specialization and too little religion.

Newman knew that teaching – without the vision of its proper ends – is mere dilettanteism, just as it is true that a gentleman without a chivalrous spirit is only a mere dandy.

Learning from the past – France Catholique