“Graduating in Paradise”: Robert of Sorbon and the Importance of Universities in the Middle Ages

“Graduating in Paradise”: Robert of Sorbon and the Importance of Universities in the Middle Ages

By Jean-Luc Solère

Originally published as “Etre licencié en Paradis: la prégnance du modèle scolaire au Moyen Age d’après un sermon de Robert de Sorbon”, in F. Jacquet-Francillon and D. Kambouchner (eds.), La Crise de la Culture Scolaire. Origines, interprétations, perspectives (Paris, 2005)

Introduction: Medieval thought was seeing itself as a school (“scholastic”) thought. This came from the fact that the very idea of « school » was a novelty. More accurately, the new idea was that of university: this recently created type of institution had no equivalent in earlier ages. Admittedly, the schools of Antiquity and the monastic schools of the High Middle Ages were settled in permanent places and either possessed private resources (like Plato’s Academy) or were supported by the political or religious authorities (as the civic and imperial chairs in the Roman Empire, monastic schools in the Middle Ages). But these schools were rather instances of traditional education, that is to say, of personal transmission from master to disciples. The nature of the medieval universities was radically different. They resulted from the grouping of all of the students and teachers present in a city (hence the term universitas: the ensemble), united in an intellectual and legal community. They were conceived as a corporations or guilds of sorts, integrated into public life (in some cases as a political counter-force), carrying their own jurisdiction and their own regulations, defining study programs, organizing exercises, examinations, degrees. Our educational system is still shaped by these medieval innovations, as the vocabulary shows it: institutions (universities, colleges, faculty), curricula (“liberal arts” as “core curriculum”), degrees (Bachelor of Arts, master, doctorate), processes of teaching and the literary genres (lectiones/lessons, text readings, commentaries). The sense of being a community and the constant exercises of discussion such as the disputations favored an intensification of researches, a progress of knowledge in all directions. Marked as it may have been by brilliant individuals, or by particular groups such as the mendicant Orders, the medieval university was a place of collective thought, of perpetual debate and intellectual effervescence par excellence. No similar organization was found elsewhere, in Islamic or Byzantine lands, and some attribute to this creation the intellectual impetus—and soon the lead—that would be the West’s.

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