In this article, Ong builds on themes from earlier articles (such as "Ramus:  Rhetoric and the Pre-Newtonian Mind" and "Renaissance Ideas and the Catholic Mind") and dispels the theory that educational reform is a trend only for contemporary times.  In fact, Ong asserts, the push for educational reform is as old as the university itself, and current reformers would do well to know this history when discussing their objectives for reform.

Ong begins his survey of educational history from medieval times to the present with a description of the curriculum at the oldest university in the world, the University of Paris.  In medieval times, the curriculum at University of Paris was primarily the study of Latin and philosophy (mostly logic and physics), with little emphasis on theology.  While the basics of the medieval university were similar to what universities consist of today, the medieval university was unique in that it was not meant to be a "center of universal learning" but a corporation, in which groups of students hired teachers to whom the students were apprenticed.

Although there were students in the medieval university who did not plan to teach after graduation, the official aim of the university was to produce teachers, so much so that students at the University of Paris were required to take an oath promising to teach for at least two years (a promise often excused later).  This idea, that students came to the university to learn to teach even if that was not actually the case, remains in our current educational system, where we refer to graduates of medical schools by a title (doctor of medicine) that implies the students will be teachers of medicine; actually, few M.D.s ever do much teaching.

This "teacher-centered" approach to the medieval university is also evident in the prominence of logic in the arts curriculum.  This logic, which was not "simply Aristotelian logic" but logic defined as the "art of discourse" (or dialectic), put heavy emphasis on methods of teaching.  In essence, nearly everyone in the medieval university, regardless of discipline, took what we refer to as education courses today, classes that teach teachers to teach.  While it is clear that the medieval university was dominated by educationists, people often think that when the Renaissance humanists first attacked and then reformed the medieval educational system, the university was no longer under the grip of educationalists.  In fact, the humanists were educationalists.  While they were more pupil-centered and less concerned with producing teachers, the humanists did introduce a new method for teaching, a grammatical/linguistic model that replaced the medieval logic method.

In both the medieval and Renaissance eras, Ong adds, there was a tension between specialization and generalization in education, and no one was sure which extreme was better.  In the medieval period, logic was the generalizing device, but because the medieval system was increasingly specialized over time, logic eventually could no longer function as the generalizing device.  Similarly, in the Renaissance period, grammatical/linguistic studies started out as a generalizing device, particularly through the use of Latin in all subjects, but as the vernacular languages became more popular, this generalizing device became a specialization.  Furthermore, both the educationalists of the medieval period and those of the Renaissance were attacked for the same reasons:  their use of a specialized jargon that a person of normal intelligence could not understand.

After presenting this argument, that the dominance of educationalists in education theory stretches back at least to the medieval period, Ong concludes that regardless of the theory advocated by educationalists during a particular period (the most current being an emphasis on social skills), all educationalists are ultimately interested in human communication.  Ultimately, Ong believes, educational systems cannot be ruled by anyone but educationalists, and perhaps those who are "anti-educationalist" will be more accepting of the educational system once they understand the history of the field.
 

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