The Long History of Practical (University) Education

Over the past few years, newspapers, blogs, and other media sources have recounted the endemic problems associated with the underemployment of university graduates. One of the latest pieces to explore this topic was CBC’s The Current with Anna Maria Tremonti, which aired last week and focused on the income gap between tenured-track professors and adjunct or sessional instructors. The vast majority of commentary has highlighted the “gloom and doom” of humanities and liberal arts graduates. Many are quick to point out that humanities students are less likely to find a well-paying job following graduation, while others show that graduates in history or philosophy are almost always paid less than those with degrees outside of arts or humanities. Still others, like The Current, have focused on those people at the problem’s apogee: PhDs in the humanities.

We are by no means impartial on the topic. Each of the collaborators on this site is a PhD candidate in history and we are cognizant of the challenges we face in the increasingly dismal job market. However, education is never for naught and very few voices in the media have shown how important humanities degrees are to a vibrant and modern society. Even fewer, if any at all, have shown how the crux of the problem lies in how Canadians (and westerners in general) perceive university education. There is an unfortunate disconnect between higher education's original intentions and its current state. This will be the topic of two upcoming blogs.

The earliest centres of education in Europe were monasteries in which the learned copied manuscripts. The church saw manuscript copying as laudable, and often attached the reward of salvation to it, because it multiplied tracts and books for a slightly wider readership. A French monk in eleventh-century Arras, for instance, wrote that “for every letter, line, and point a sin is forgiven.” The church’s connection between learning and disseminating knowledge, and salvation imbued in monks a sense of privilege and honour over the rest of illiterate Christendom.

The earliest universities in Europe were established by the medieval church to serve the church’s interests, and they were probably medieval Europe’s most enduring legacy. During his pontificate in the twelfth century, Pope Celestinus III issued the privilegium fori for “the clerks who reside in Paris,” which exempted university students (who were also clergy) from being tried in a secular court.

Originally, monastery schools were established out of simple necessity to teach practical skills to monks, like reading, writing, counting, and singing. As John C. Scott has shown, over time that mandate broadened to include more precise skills for would-be clerics as the church became more involved in secular life and politics. In this way, a university education was also vocational. Because of the intimate connection between church and education, the church provided the framework for how individuals should be educated and the universities were all established to serve the church’s pastoral and intellectual needs—to produce parish priests or other types of ecclesiastical bureaucrats. From the very beginning universities were established for their own interests and were attended by very few fortunate enough to escape the difficult life in medieval Europe.

Institutionalized education underwent a tremendous change during the so-called Renaissance in the Italian city states. Because of the political situation facing places like Florence or Venice, and under the influence of humanism, education sought to teach skills that would help wealthy patricians (the rulers of these city states) enter what we would call the public service. Rhetoric and oration were rendered essential for men who needed to lead their people. Skills that were once primarily esoteric had now become incredibly practical—they had a utility beyond the confines of the “ivory tower.”

The history of university highlights how skills were imparted to a select number of medieval and early modern Europeans and how this was typically done within the framework of ecclesiastical or political institutions. In other words, a university education was always acquired against the backdrop of state/religious institutions.

One of the most significant transformations for European universities came during the Enlightenment (c. 1750). During this period, western European states underwent important political and legal changes that affected the ways universities were managed. One of the most substantial changes was the degree to which the Roman Catholic Church oversaw administration. To speak of the de-Christianization of the universities is misleading, but during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries there were certainly strong forces in favour of becoming increasingly secular. For the German states, the Protestant Reformation reinforced Christian values in university life and, in some ways, this was an unusual deviation from the patterns found among their Catholic neighbours (like France, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Burgundian Netherlands).

In many ways, Canadian universities are ironically patterned on the French university system, which during the Enlightenment sought to reduce the influence of the medieval church and produce civil servants rather than ecclesiastical ones. Notker Hammerstein wrote an interesting essay entitled “Relations with Authority,” which appeared in the collection A History of the University in Europe: Universities in Early Modern Europe 1500-1800 (Cambridge, 1996), in which he addresses this shift. Nonetheless, this is particularly surprising when one thinks of most Canadian universities’ Anglo-Saxon and Protestant histories. One of the most crucial differences in university culture lies in the outcome of a university education, namely that most students today seek secular over religious employment. However, university culture remains similar in a few important ways and this is particularly evident when we look at the responsibilities of students. One area of continuity between the medieval and modern university system is the considerable lack of accountability for tenured faculty and staff.

For the sake of brevity, this has been a truncated exploration of how universities have evolved during the medieval and early modern periods. In a later post, we’ll show how university education has evolved in the modern era. In doing so, however, these posts highlight that the skills universities have always imparted onto its students have always been meaningful, practical, and possessed a utility for applications beyond the classroom. The skills of a humanities education have always been useful and continue to be. The democratization of university education has altered perceptions of the university’s role in society, but has not wholly transformed it. It remains a place of learning, personal advancement, and a vital institution that contributes to the success of the modern state.