Education in Middle Ages Far More Demanding Than Today

Higher education during the Middle Ages was no joke. It was intense perhaps at times even brutal. But it developed the wholeness of a person to be humble before God and to be a positive influence on others. For example, before beginning higher education at Oxford University, Richard of Wallingford (1292-1336) was expected to have mastered reading, writing, and speaking Latin. Throughout a three to four year journey to a bachelor of arts degree Richard was required to master the trivium (first three of the seven liberal arts), i.e. grammar, dialectic (logic), and rhetoric. The grammar was a particularly rigorous style of Latin. Dialectic was very advanced logic. Rhetoric included polished oratory, learning to construct arguments and the correct form for writing letters.35 Bachelor’s level, courses taught:

  • Grammar-how to write
  • Dialectic-how to think
  • Rhetoric-how to speak well and persuasively

Vintage books in a row

Graduation required passing an aggressive oral exam and submission of a certificate of good character and morals. The process educated the whole person for the purpose of being a better person and a positive role model for others, goals largely unknown in modern schools, lost in the intellectual overemphasis on a career-building academics.

Becoming a master of the arts required another three years of intense study during which Richard would learn the last four of the seven liberal arts known as the quadrivium, the mathematics component. They included arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. In addition, he would learn the three branches of philosophy—natural philosophy (intellectual), ethics (emotional), and metaphysics (spiritual).36 Far beyond basic calculations, arithmetic of the time included algebra and theoretical mathematics, a broad term that included a study of prime numbers and perfect numbers. Today, the discipline is more often referred to as number theory. Geometry included an in-depth study of the massive works of Euclid. Music had little to do with learning music performance. Instead, students focused on the theory of harmony and an “appreciation of the rhythms of the universe.” 37 The study of astronomy was equally rigorous, despite the erroneous notion that the earth was the center of the solar system and all other bodies orbited around the earth. The educational process was extremely rigorous. Nothing about it would support the claim that this was the “Dark Ages.”

Moving forward, the holistic educational process integrated knowledge, morals, and religion continually through the earliest American settlements and the founding of the United States until just the last few decades. Major universities, including most of those known today as Ivy League schools were founded to prepare young people for the ministry. Harvard University proudly proclaimed, “Let every student be plainly instructed and…consider well, the main end of his life and studies is to know God…” and required students to read the Scriptures twice a day. Yale University proclaimed, “Above all, have an eye to the great end of all your studies, which is to obtain the clearest conceptions of Divine things and to lead you to a saving knowledge of God…” and required all scholars to “…live a religious and blameless life according to the rules of God’s Word…” Princeton University required every student to attend daily morning and evening worship. What do you think?

10 thoughts on “Education in Middle Ages Far More Demanding Than Today

  1. Jamie

    The college I obtained my bachelor’s degree from was a Christian college, and instead of requiring Psychology and Sociology we were required to take Old Testament and New Testament. I really enjoyed both classes. We would pray before class which I thought was priceless. I really think Old Testament and New Testament should be offered at all colleges as electives, so people can at least be exposed to them. In my opinion schools have become more about the money and less about the education. There are so many more colleges out there today and a ton of online schools too. When I was in high school it meant a lot when someone told you they had a bachelor’s degree as opposed to today where almost everyone has two or three of them. I also find it amazing how many people don’t actually work in their field of degree. Two of my neighbors both have healthcare degrees, but work in computer programming.


  2. Interesting comments, Jaimie. There is another blog post indicating that education and religion are inseparable. Most education today focuses on the building the intellect, primarily because that is what has value in the marketplace. However, it’s equally important to build the intellectual, emotional, and spiritual aspects of who we are as a person. Education is incomplete unless it seeks to build the whole person. Such a holistic approach, as was common in the middle ages, grows an individual into a better person, a better citizen, and enables him or her to better enjoy the fullness of the human experiences.

    The marketplace responds to the flow of supply and demand. Since a higher percentage of the population is getting a college degree than ever before, the supply of graduates increases and consequently the value of a degree decreases. As such, today, a masters degree may be required to achieve the same competitive advantage as a bachelor’s degree 30 or 40 years ago.

    Many people do end up working in areas outside their degree experience. From an employer’s viewpoint earning a degree is evidence of a person’s willingness to set a goal and endure whatever is necessary to achieve that goal. That level of demonstrated commitment has value in the marketplace. Years ago, I provided regular environmental consulting services to a large paper mill. One of their best “engineers” actually had a degree in music. He had learned the requisite engineering principles on-the-job. What do you think?


  3. Scott

    What is your opinion about schools not teaching children how to write in cursive? They feel that print is only necessary because we have become a computer and tech society.


    1. Good question. Letter writing is an art every bit as much as painting, writing a poem, or composing a song. It’s an art that is being lost, especially as we sacrifice cursive writing in favor of printing or texting. A well written letter paints a word picture. Cursive amplifies the emotions of the word picture in a way that cannot be captured by printing or texting, both of which sacrifice the emotional and spiritual aspects of the message, in favor of the intellectual communication.

      There was a detective series on TV in the late 50s and early 60s called Dragnet. Sargent Joe Friday was played by Jack Webb. When interviewing witnesses who tended to stray from the immediate subject, Friday’s famous tagline was, “Gimme the facts ma’am, just the facts.” Similarly printing and texting focus on just the facts and leave out the soul of the message.

      I used to have a book of love letters written by famous men during wartime to their wives back home. They were powerful letters unlike anything written today. For now go to Read the final letter written by Major Sullivan Ballou to his wife. He was a major during the Civil war; he would die just seven days later. It is one of the most powerful letters ever written, expressing his conviction that he was following God’s plan and his love for his wife and children. It is powerful reading on the Internet. Now, just for a moment, imagine it written in cursive. How does the message change? Could it be that there was more of himself in the handwritten letter than in the typed version that you are reading? After all, it was his pen and his hand that touched the paper held by his wife before and after his death.

      I’m convinced that sacrificing cursive takes the humanity and even the soul out of the message. The schools should not discontinue it. What do you think?


      1. Anonymous

        I agree wholeheartedly. In our household we teach our kids to write in cursive whether the school will do it or not. In my opinion, it’s just another erosion and chipping away at our intellect.


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