Wednesday July 06, 2022

Medieval European universities

November 30, 2017
In 387 BCE, Plato (d 348 BC) founded an Academy at Athens for the teaching of Philosophy. In this respect, he deviated from his teacher Socrates (d 399 BC), who preferred to impart philosophy by adopting the methods of dialogue and conversation.
Greek philosophy was based on rationalism without any interference of deities. The credibility and tolerance of Plato is evident in the fact that he produced Aristotle (d 399 BC), who remained his student for 20 years and mercilessly criticised and rejected the philosophy of his teacher. Throughout the Roman Empire, Plato’s academy continued to be the centre of philosophy and students from all over the Roman Empire used to go there to study.
In 311 CE, the Roman Empire converted to Christianity but it could not immediately reduce the status of the academy. However, when Justinian became the emperor, in 529 he closed the academy because it was the centre of pagan philosophy which contradicted the Christian faith. Its closure plunged Europe into darkness. Faith overpowered rationalism and the Church became the custodian of education.
In medieval Europe monasteries and cathedral schools emerged, which were controlled by the Church authorities. The curriculum was designed to strengthen religious beliefs. Though the philosophy of Aristotle was Christianised by the Church, his views that were contrary to the Christian teachings were deleted from the syllabus. As a result, Aristotle’s philosophy dominated education for nearly a thousand years. In the Cambridge universities, students were warned not to criticise and challenge his philosophy.
Philip Daileader in his lecture on the ‘High Middle Ages’ points out that the system of teaching gradually changed under the supervision of the Church. In the monastery schools, the teacher read out the text from some religious book and students were supposed to listen silently without asking any question. However, in the city schools, the method of teaching was

changed. The teacher selected two texts which contradicted each other and asked students to resolve the contradiction. They either used philology or logic to prove that there was no difference between the two texts.
Another method which was adopted by the teacher was to present two texts on certain issues – such as: lying was bad in all cases or that lying was necessary in some circumstances. These two contradictory texts were presented and students were asked to give their arguments either in favour or in opposition. This was known as ‘disputation’. A student was asked to write down the arguments of both sides. The teacher after the class studied the discussion and later on pronounced his judgment in the class. This system enabled the students to analyse, interpret and challenge the texts.
In medieval Europe, the tradition was that a single teacher would found his own school to teach his favourite subject. The result was that students had to go from school to school to get their education from different teachers. Under the circumstances, the idea of a university emerged where teachers could be employed to facilitate students to get knowledge on different subjects under one roof. Therefore, in twelve centuries, two universities emerged. One in Paris and the other in Bologna.
Paris University became the centre of theology while Bologna focused on medicine and law. Both were completely under the supervision of the Church. During the lecture a priest used to sit outside the window of the classroom and listen in so as to ensure that the lecturer would not deviate from the church teachings. Later on, 30 universities were founded throughout Europe. Latin was the medium of instruction in all these universities as these institutions were controlled by religious authorities. There was no academic freedom or religious tolerance. Adam Smith (d 1790) who studied at Oxford, went on to say that he had learned nothing from his professors. According to Edward Gibbon (d 1794), he wasted his two years at Oxford.
Credit goes to Renaissance scholars, who were known as humanists, who made efforts to change the curriculum by introducing philosophy, literature, history and geography – known as the humanities. The division of the Christian world between Catholics and Protestants also changed the character of the universities. The more radical change, however, occurred as a result of Enlightenment and the scientific revolution, which liberated the European universities from the clutches of the Church and gradually converted them into secular institutions.
Keeping in mind this background, when we study the structure of our universities, their curriculum and system of teaching, we find that these institutions are heavily controlled and supervised by an ideology that does not allow teachers and students to challenge and criticise it. There is no system of disputation and students are not allowed to ask questions and challenge the authority of their teachers. Research is motivated by self-promotion and not to enlighten society. Plagiarism is common. Creativity is discouraged. The result is that our universities are not producing capable students who can understand the complexities of society and create new ideas and thoughts to solve the political, social and economic problems.
As the state surrenders its responsibility to ensure education, private universities are emerging as commercial institutions to educate students for the corporate sector. In many private universities, there is little to no emphasis on social sciences or humanities both of which are important elements of an enlightened education. Bereft of these subjects, students are taught IT and Management which make them into robot-like humans without feelings and sensibilities. When education remains no longer relevant to society it becomes a tool for exploitation which can then harm the cultural and moral values in society.

The writer is a veteran historian and scholar.