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How ‘trivia,’ ‘alma mater,’ ‘liberal arts’ and religion are tied to the medieval roots of modern higher education

Museum in Palazzo Poggi, Bologna, Italy, is shown in 2015. It is the headquarters of the University of Bologna and of the rector of the university.
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Although struggling recently to cope with the global COVID-19 pandemic, universities have long been important institutions not only in the West but internationally.

How long? No direct link exists between today’s universities and either the Academy of Plato or the Lyceum of Aristotle. Instead, the origins of the modern university lie in the medieval period.

The term “universitas” itself seems to have been coined in Italy, in connection with the establishment of what is still known today as the University of Bologna. Focused initially on civil and canon law and featuring teachers recruited from the area’s lay and ecclesiastical schools, Bologna is often considered the oldest continuously-functioning degree-granting institution of higher education in the western world. Its official seal features not only its name and the traditional year of its founding (1088) but the motto “Alma mater studiorum” (“Nourishing mother of studies”) — and, of course, we still use the phrase “alma mater” in connection with schooling to this day.

Basic studies at Bologna and at subsequent medieval universities focused initially on the “arts,” and specifically upon the threefold “Trivium” — from which we derive our word “trivial” — of rhetoric, grammar and dialectic (or logic). Thereafter followed the “quadrivium” of astronomy, arithmetic, geometry and music. Together, these were regarded as “the seven liberal arts” — “liberal” because mastery of them was thought to equip a person to be “free.” But the real glory of the medieval university came in the specialized higher studies of medicine, theology and law — by which was intended both civil law and ecclesiastical or canon law.

The overtly religious character of the second oldest Western university, the University of Paris, is clearer than that of Bologna. Perhaps already in the sixth century, monks and nuns taught classes in so-called “monastic schools” or “cathedral schools.” Founded in 1150, the University of Paris appears to have grown directly out of the cathedral school of Notre Dame, and it was officially recognized by Pope Innocent III in 1215. For many generations, it has also been called “the Sorbonne,” which is, strictly speaking, the name of its medieval theological college.

The oldest institution of higher learning in what is today the English-speaking world is the University of Oxford. Its founding date is unclear — teaching in Oxford is attested at least as early as 1096 — perhaps because there wasn’t a single, specific founding. But when, in 1167, King Henry II banned English students from attendance at the University of Paris because of his war with Louis VII of France, Oxford really took off. Its Latin motto, visible on its “arms” or seal, is the opening words of Psalm 27, “Dominus Illuminatio Mea” (“The Lord is my light”).

In the midst of violent altercations between students and ordinary citizens in Oxford, though — “town and gown” frictions were common wherever medieval universities were established, and often still are — a number of faculty and students found refuge in Cambridge, where England’s second-oldest university was founded in 1209. Astonishingly, Oxford and Cambridge became so powerful that no additional English universities were permitted to compete with them or even to exist until the early 19th century. The University of St. Andrews was established in 1413 — but St. Andrews is a city in Scotland.

The oldest institution of higher education in the United States was founded in 1636 and named after an English-born Cambridge-trained minister named John Harvard (1607-1638) who had been serving in the Colonies and whose will bequeathed half of his money and his entire library to the newly-founded school. Newtowne, Massachusetts, accordingly (and ambitiously) changed its name to “Cambridge.” In its early years, Harvard College served principally to train Unitarian and Congregational clergymen.

Yale University, founded in 1701, was also intended to train Congregational ministers; initially, its curriculum focused entirely on theology and the biblical languages (such as Latin, Greek and Hebrew). Its seal still reflects its roots, with the motto “Lux et Veritas” (“Light and Truth”) displayed beneath a book bearing the Hebrew words “Urim ve-Tummim” (roughly “Lights and Perfections”). Like Harvard, Yale has an important divinity school.

Established by Presbyterians in 1746, Princeton University was, once again, initially created to train men for the ministry. And still today, the very influential Princeton Theological Seminary — autonomous but closely related, having been founded by the University’s eighth president in 1812 — sits nearby.

Some question whether religiously oriented colleges and universities are fully legitimate. For most of the history of higher education, however, there was no other kind.

Daniel Peterson teaches Arabic studies, founded BYU’s Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, directs MormonScholarsTestify.org, chairs interpreterfoundation.org, blogs daily at patheos.com/blogs/danpeterson, and speaks only for himself.