Good Medieval Universities And The Timeless Challenges Of University Student Life Essay Example
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Today, the university landscape looks very modern, full of computers, the latest robotic technology labs, and convenient online classes. However, the structure of the university, its culture, and many of its traditions are based on medieval universities. Furthermore, student life is also similar; full of challenges, opportunity and conflict. Students face many of the same challenges and difficulties today that they did eight hundred years ago, including cramming for exams, finding suitable housing and getting into trouble. The process of leaving home and going away to a university is something young people have been doing for over eight hundred years. Moreover, university student life is much the same as it was over five centuries ago. The challenges are the same and so are many of the tradition and rituals associated with higher learning. In fact, “The legacy of medieval universities lives on in the academic gowns, commencement processions, and gothic towers of modern college campuses (Byrd 1).
During the later years of the Roman Empire, the availability and quality of higher education deteriorated, with fewer paying pupils and a lack of qualified tutors (Jaeger 14). Out of necessity, the church created cathedral schools to educate clergy. The first cathedral school was established in Visigothic Spain in 527 (Feingold 15). These early schools focused on religious learning. Around 600 A.D, English cathedral schools were built in Canterbury, Rochester and York, which are the three oldest continuously operating institutions of higher learning (Feindgold 16-17). However, higher education did not grow or expand, and remained largely ecclesiastical. In 789, Charlemagne, the King of the Franks and later Emperor of the Western Roman Empire, wanted to create an educational system for both the clergy and the nobles. He issued decrees, known as the Admonitio Generalis, a document which mandated that monasteries and cathedrals provide education (Feingold 21).
Many of these cathedral schools evolved into Medieval universities, which were
private corporations of higher learning that were created during the Middle Ages. These institutions were modeled after cathedral schools and cropped up throughout Europe from A.D. 1000-1200. In 1895, scholar Hastings Rashdall, an authority on medieval universities, suggested that the development of medieval universities in the eleventh century was the turning point in the intellectual history of Europe, a type of proto-Renaissance (Byrd 8). At this time, there was “a renewal of interest and a revival of learning, brought about partly by the influence of great thinkers like St Anselm and Abelard, and partly by the discovery of lost works of Aristotle” (Rait 15). The curriculum was law, theology, medicine, philosophy and the arts. From these early origins, the Western-style university organization model spread around the world (Feingold).
The medieval university “was a distinctive and original contribution to the institutionalization of higher education. It was organized for the dissemination of many branches of knowledge to a large number of students as cheaply and systematically as possible’’ (Byrd 8). However, it was the “Dark Ages”, and women were not admitted to university. Today, these same ideals of providing a broad curriculum to many students is the model that universities follow. Over half of the students on university campus today are women (Borzalecca).
Life during the middle ages was, in the famous words of Thomas Hobbes, “nasty, brutish, and short.” The average life expectancy for males born in England in 1300 was thirty-one years"(A Millennium of Health Improvement"). As a result, university student during the Middle Ages started young. Students began their university education between the ages of twelve and sixteen. These young students were immature and faced the same challenges college students face today. They were living on their own with limited supervision. At the time, university students represented the elite of society. Most people were illiterate farmers, while students were part of a privileged class. Like students today, many students at medieval universities were rebellious and experimented with alternative lifestyles (Rait 12-13). They often has a hostile relationship with the local townspeople, and engaged in fights and brawls with the local townspeople. Today, there is often tension between university students and the local population. In Cambridge and Oxford, there has always been significant conflict between the “gownies”, who go to college and wear academic robes; and “townies,” who live in town and are often from a difference socioeconomic class (Duby 490).
Today when students break the rules or the law, it is often the campus police who first become involved. Likewise, medieval universities had “proctors and of the principals of halls to investigate into, and to report the misdeeds of scholars who broke the rules of the University or lived evil lives” (Riat 16). There is a list of penalties and fines drawn up in 1432 that used economic pressure to force the students to behave properly:
There was a fines of twelve pence for threatening violence, two
shillings for wearing arms, six shillings for a blow with a stone or
stick, ten shillings for a blow with a sword, a knife, a dagger or any similar "bellicose weapon," and twenty shillings for carrying bows and arrows
with evil intent (Rialt 18).
Medieval students appear to have been a much more violent student body.
Finding suitable housing is a also a common challenge for college students (Haskins 203). Students are not always capable of living alone, however, they also treasure their independence. During the Middle Ages, living on campus was seen as a hindrance to the students newly found freedom (Rait 14) In letters the sent home, students complained of prison-like conditions and a lack of privacy (Haskins 205). As a result, many students found lodgings off campus, where they could pursue illicit extracurricular activities without the watchful eyes of their masters. This conflict between a desire for independence and a lack of responsibility necessary to live alone, is a dichotomy that exits for students today. One major difference between university life today and during medieval time is the curriculum. Getting a university degree has never been easy, however, students at Medieval universities had it much tougher than students today. They worked extremely hard and were required to memorize entire texts (Haskins 204-5). Moreover, students could choose which classes to attend, and need to make sure they were prepared for a comprehensive final exam. The courses a student took was irrelevant, the student needed to pass a lengthy exam to earn the equivalent of a bachelors degree today. In his book Life in the Medieval University, Ronald S. Riat outlined the rigors of daily life for a student during the Middle Ages:
He has duly attended the prescribed lectures—not less than three a week.
He has gone in the early mornings to mass, then to spend some two hours listening to the "ordinary" lecture delivered by a doctor in his own house or in a hired room. The rest of his morning and an hour or two in the afternoon have also, if he is an industrious student, been devoted to lectures, and he has not been neglectful of private study(Riat 15).
However, much as it today, a bachelors degree was not enough to enter a professional career like law of medicine. For medieval students pursuing a professional career, they continued to study for four more years to earn a doctoral degree (Riat 17).
Many of the requirements for graduation are still around today. The modern tradition of “defending” an academic thesis arose during the medieval time, when all students were required to be skilled orators and debaters (Riat 17). Medieval academic debates could last for days. Medieval higher education was difficult, but it became increasingly popular throughout the Middle Ages. The university continued to spread throughout Europe and the rest of the world, accelerating during the intellectual awakening of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment (Riat 22). Today, the system of education is remarkably similar to the ones students experience during the Middle Ages.
Leaving home and going to a university is a process of transition and transformation. Students must navigate a challenging new world, with relaxed restrictions and a new sense of freedom. There are also academic challenges that may not be as tough today as they were during the Middle Ages, but it still requires a relatively serious student to graduate college. Universities still enforce rules and impose penalties, although they probably do not have to fine students for “carrying bows and arrows with evil intent” (Rialt 14). The reasons we have universities and why we attend them today are largely the same as they were almost a thousand years ago. Charlemagne recognized that higher education was a basis for a good society. Today, there are debates about educational equality and accessibility, because this idea that education is important is still an integral part of societies belief system. The University of Bologna, founded in 1088, is still operating today (Byrd 8). Other schools - from Oxford to online colleges – follow the traditional medieval model. Today, students at modern universities are going to an institution that is very similar to the ones that existed in the Middle Ages. The roots and foundations of our modern institutions of higher learning are firmly based on medieval universities.
"A Millennium of Health Improvement." BBC News. BBC, 27 Dec. 1998. Web. 10 Feb.
Borzalecca, Daniel. "The Male-Female Ratio in College." Forbes. Forbes Magazine, n.d. Web. 09 Feb. 2015.
Byrd, Michael D. "Back to the future for higher education: Medieval universities." The Internet and higher education 4.1 (2001): 1-7.
Feingold, Mordechai. History of Universities. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005. Print.
Georges Duby, ed., trans. by Arthur Goldhammer, A History of Private Life, vol. II: Revelations of the Medieval World (Belknap Press, 1988) p. 488.
Jaeger, C. Stephen. The Envy of Angels: Cathedral Schools and Social Ideals in Medieval Europe, 950-1200. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2000.
Haskins, Charles H. "The Life of Medieval Students as Illustrated by Their Letters." The American Historical Review 3.2 (1898): 203-229.
Rait, Robert S. Life in the medieval university. Cambridge University Press, 2012.
Rashdall, Hastings. The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages: Salerno. Bologna. Paris. Vol. 1. Clarendon Press, 1895.
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