Education Revisited – Lessons to Learn from the Medieval Curriculum

IMG_4084In the De artibus liberalibus (On the Liberal Arts), Grosseteste positions the Liberal Arts as having their proper, natural place in scholarly thought and the educational curriculum. In the set of the seven Liberal Arts, the so called trivium of grammar, logic and rhetoric is complemented by the mathematical arts, that is, the quadrivium of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. Mastery of the Arts equipped the medieval student for the study of the natural world and all matters moral; as Giles Gasper said, students spent a long time working on the Arts before they were first introduced to what one might consider the really important issues of natural and moral philosophy.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHortus_Deliciarum,_Die_Philosophie_mit_den_sieben_freien_KünstenAuthors like Martianus Capella and St. Augustine contributed to the Liberal Arts playing a constitutional role in education, and under Charlemagne, Alcuin of York constructed the Carolingian curriculum in accordance with them. Until the end of the 12th century, the Liberal Arts had been deeply engrained in metaphysical conceptions and hence had unquestionably been integral parts of the educational curriculum. However, Sigbjørn explained that when nominalist currents emerged, their more individualist perspective spurred the need to newly justify the Liberal Arts’ shaping of the curriculum – and this is the goal that Grosseteste pursued in the treatise we looked at in Lincoln.

Whether Grosseteste’s argumentation in the De artibus liberalibus should be considered convincing is something I cannot comment on. But, as a modern day student, I do find it interesting that in the medieval world, teaching was heavily focused on transferring a skill set Photo0044that would allow students to express themselves well, to construct logical arguments, and to understand mathematical and geometrical relations. What makes this interesting is that the teaching of a fundamental toolkit is in many ways not what modern education chooses to put its focus on. I’ve repeatedly been finding that basics such as how to give a good presentation, using a well put together slide show, are not what students receive any formal teaching in. I’m aware that there’s huge variance across institutions, but it’s nonetheless curious that these sorts of skills are not as deeply engrained in the syllabus as for example maths in schools and statistics in university psychology degrees.

IMG_1932On this point, I’d like to briefly share some personal experiences. My secondary school had not quite got the point of realisation that computer skills might come in handy in most career paths its students would go on to take. Presentations were done with posters drawn by hand, and when I was later first confronted with the task of creating a PowerPoint presentation, I spent twenty minutes figuring out how to add a new slide. That said, having acquired the skill of creating a multi-slide PowerPoint presentation only paid off twice during my undergraduate degree in Psychology and Philosophy at Oxford, and neither of these occasions was linked to any formal requirement of the course. Now I’m doing a Psychology Masters at the University of Mannheim in Germany, and the number of slide shows saved on my laptop has grown exponentially. At this stage, I’m simply expected to know how to create a good presentation – no one ever taught me how to design informative slides with an effective signal-to-noise ratio regarding their content.

20140320_105531Despite the moany undertone of what I just said, I do not expect to be spoon-fed and I do appreciate the benefits of learning-by-doing and self-teaching. However, having sat through countless presentations with slides crammed full with words that no one actually listening to the speaker will be able to read, interspersed with some more slides showing incomprehensibly labelled graphs and tables, I do think that there could be some utilitarian value in teaching people how to use slide shows as effective means of facilitation for bringing their point across. Following my rant on the often 20140320_105555unsatisfactory state of affairs regarding presentation slides, the actual giving a talk has not been featuring in my formal training either! Sure, I’ve given quite a few now both in school and in university seminars, but sadly there have only been few instances when there has been any effort to give proper feedback regarding our manner of speaking, body language or choice of words. This lack of formal instruction stands in stark contrast with the fact that communicating information in presentations seems to be an inevitable part of almost any job, as much in academia as in any other field.

Judging from the educational curricula at school and university, more important than training in presentations skills is acquisition of knowledge about theories and facts. I do agree that this is essential. But I also think that learning is all about pushing the boundaries of our knowledge, and that this is facilitated by people talking to each other, sharing questions, explanations and ideas. A prerequisite for effective communication is the ability to clearly bring your point across, and presentations are a means of conveying to a group of others what one has to say about a certain topic. If the goal in education is to maximise students’ knowledge and capacity for understanding, I do think that equipping students with a well-developed communication skill set would be time and effort well-invested.

Before coming to an end, I’d like to add to my complaints about the teaching I’ve been going through that in other crucial aspects such as being able to put thoughts into words and on paper, I’m more than grateful for what I learned both at secondary school and during my undergraduate degree. Regarding the latter, three years of an essay a week, each of which tutors gave their feedback on, have hopefully provided me with a resource to draw from that is as important for communicating ideas as presentation skills are.

IMG_4074The bottom-line of what I’ve been trying to say is that the educational curriculum in the Middle Ages, being based on the Liberal Arts, focused much more on teaching students basic communication tools than contemporary curricula do. Only once students had developed these skills well, they were considered capable of dealing with questions about morality and the natural world. Having gone through the modern day curriculum myself, I feel that we need to appreciate more the value that these fundamental skills have in the broader context of acquiring and sharing knowledge. In terms of learning what to teach, modern education might have a lesson to learn from the allegedly so dark Middle Ages.

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