NEW VIDEO: Christian Origins of the University System

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By Jeff Kenney

Our topic this time around lends itself well to one of our “mythbusting” Christian history videos, but we’re taking a different angle here, even though one of the most persistent myths in modern Western culture is the idea that Christendom – the age of what might be called the peak of Christian influence across Europe – simmered in a period of ignorance, superstition, and anti-intellectualism so hopeless that it’s aptly been called The Dark Ages.

And, I love Monty Python as much as the next person, but it’s just one of a slew of movies, books, and other sources which have not only misled generations, but completely missed – well, a LOT of facts! 

But in this case, the fact that the university system which acts as the central means of transmitting the highest intellectual knowledge available in the Western world…was STARTED by Christians in general, and the Catholic Church specifically. 

By the way, in case you’re inclined to think that prioritizing education and academic inquiry was some new invention in the Church in the 12thcentury, which is when universities began, it’s worth noting that everyone from the early Church Fathers to the early and later monks who preserved the great classical works of antiquity by writing them down repeatedly in that age before the printing press, was already engaged in serious philosophical, literary, artistic, and scientific study. 

Which is a really good point to make clear, here. Not only was what might be called a “liberal arts” approach to study not a NEW thing in the Church, it also was THE thing from the very beginning and up through history, at the universities. 

What I mean is, even though the university system really owes its origins to the explosion of Cathedral Schools in the 12th century, which were a response to the need for more and more clergy as city populations boomed, by no means were these universities mere propaganda houses for religious dogma. 

Just as is the case in Catholic seminaries today, subjects for study were wide and varied in the early universities. They included medicine, science (which in those days was known as natural philosophy), logic, mathematics, law, the classics of the Western world from antiquity…the list goes on.

Part of the process in the early Catholic university system was not only attending lectures from professors and other scholars, but also arguing through a disputed question with fellow students in order to come to a resolution through understanding the complexities and nuances of rational arguments on both sides of an issue. Doing so was a requirement for obtaining a degree, in fact. 

Boy, you can sure see how ignorance and superstition flourished in those terrible old DARK ages of the Medieval period, right? And yes, it’s true, such efforts existed primarily in the domain of academia back then…not like today, when the average person on the street is highly accustomed to working through important and complex issues by carefully studying both sides. You know, because…oh, wait…maybe not. 

By the way, this might be a good opportunity to address the notion that non-academics were kept ignorant and uneducated out of some vast conspiracy which was only made all the worse by the fact that so much of the knowledge imparted was done so in LATIN, or all things. 

But let’s remember that the printing press was only invented around 1440. Before that, books had to be copied down by hand – and once again, WERE copied down by hand on a regular basis in monastery scriptoriums. Books were indeed chained up in churches and libraries, simply because they were rare and valuable, and NOT to hide them from the common folk, who couldn’t have read them anyway. 

And Latin, of course, was the one language able to be read by anyone literate across the diaspora of varied languages and dialects throughout Europe, much as music can be read across languages and cultures today. So use of Latin, rather than PREVENTING people from accessing knowledge, was meant to make that access as universal as possible. So…so much for that. 

Anyway, these early, Catholic universities also established our familiar categories of undergradtuate and master’s degrees quite early on. 

As is the case today, early universities had to obtain a charter to be considered valid institutions of higher education. For a long time, the Catholic papacy was the primary creator and encourager of universities, though many charters would also be granted by kings or emperors as well. For example, Pope Innocent IV granted the charter for a little upstart school known as Oxford University in 1254 AD. 

All in all, it’s ironic that those terrible, ignorant middle ages actually gave the entire world the great gift of the existence of universities, which still utilize much of the structure and details of the old models, right down to graduation attire. Check out our other video on that subject. 

In fact, check out ALL our other videos and hit the ‘Subscribe’ button and give us a share on the social media platform of your choice. 

By the way, I’m indebted to author Thomas Woods and his book, “How the Cathoilc Church Built Western Civilization,” for some of the information in this video. Go buy a copy for a much more detailed treatment of this and other subjects. 

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