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Issues analysis
A cure for the educational crisis: Learn from the extraordinary educational heritage of the West

June 1, 2006
Fred Hutchison
RenewAmerica analyst

In my prior essay, I described seven historical waves of bad ideas for education that are responsible for the American educational crisis. In this essay, I will outline seven historical waves of good ideas that are a gold mine for digging up tried and true ways to revive education.

Seven historical waves of good ideas

The seven best waves of educational ideas in the Western tradition are the following:

1) Alcuin of York and the Seven Liberal Arts (800 A.D.).

2) From Anselm to Aquinas: the Medieval university and the search for truth (1100–1400).

3) From Petrarch to Castiglione: the Renaissance project: A classical education to prepare the Christian gentleman for leadership in government, society, and culture (1350–1520).

4) The Reformation educational program (1530–1650).

5) Private and parochial schools (17th--20th century).

6) Noah Webster, William McGuffey, Horace Mann, and public education (19th century).

7) Home schooling, Christian academies, Bible colleges, the Great Books movement, and the revival of Christian philosophy (Twentieth Century).

The high culture of the Western past was in no small measure the fruit of great education. These seven waves of good ideas led to impressive educational achievements that resulted in the blossoming of Western intellectual, moral, and aesthetic culture.

Due to space limitations, I will concentrate on the Seven Liberal Arts and the Renaissance project. Brief comments about the Medieval university, the Reformation program, and American public schools of the nineteenth century will be included to the extent they are relevant to the discussion.

Now let us consider the historical setting in which the drama of European education begins.

Foundations for the recovery of civilization

During the Dark Ages (circa 500–1100 A.D.) the light of education almost went out in Europe. In many precincts, only the monks cloistered in their fortress-like monasteries could read and write.

Interestingly, during the exact chronological mid-point (800 A.D.) of the Dark Ages, educational foundations were laid that would prove essential for the revival of civilization in the West. Partly because of these solidly laid educational foundations, European civilization revived with amazing speed during the years 1050–1100 A.D.

During the period 1100–1120 the scholars at the brand new University of Paris were debating metaphysics with such passion, alacrity, and sophistication as would astound a modern university debate coach. Europe was intellectually and culturally impressive by 1150 A.D., when a complex new literature was popular and the universities were producing significant numbers of world-class philosophers and theologians. The arts and architecture were also blossoming, as witnessed by the resplendent and glittering Saint Denis, the first church in the Gothic style.

These triumphs of mind and spirit were built upon the foundation of Christian education.

The Christian King as educator

During the second half of the eighth century, Charlemagne (also called Karolus Magnus, Karl der Grosse, and Charles the Great, 742–814) was king of the Franks, a German tribe situated in northern Gaul and the Rhineland. He conquered about two-thirds of Europe and ruled over an empire of many tribes, cultures, and languages.

Charlemagne was a devout Christian, and could read and speak Latin. When he took power, many of the cathedral schools that were established by the Frankish King Clovis in the late fifth and early sixth century had fallen into ruin. Charlemagne decided to sponsor a revival in education. This necessarily meant Christian education, because almost all of the men in the West who were capable of teaching were clerics.

Charlemagne gathered scholars from many nations at his palace at Aachen (Aix la Chappelle). The greatest scholar in this august company was the English-Saxon monk, Alcuin of York (735–804), Headmaster of the Cathedral School of York. In 782, Alcuin came to Aachen, and was installed as the Master of the Palace School. He became a key advisor and spiritual guide to Charlemagne and a teacher of his children.

Alcuin, esteemed by some scholars as the most learned man in the West, was a product of the remarkable revival of scholarship in Yorkshire and Northumbria in the seventh and eighth centuries. This English renaissance of learning was led by the world-famous scholar, the Venerable Bede (672–735).

Alcuin of York and the Seven Liberal Arts

Alcuin decreed that all Cathedral Schools should teach the seven liberal arts. Since the time of Clovis, a cathedral, which was the seat of a bishop, was supposed to have a school. This made the bishop the honorary school superintendent. In some places, education survived in the Dark Ages because bishops occasionally had more power and wealth than the war lords. Bishops were often the product of cathedral or monastery schools and therefore were sometimes advocates of education.

The seven liberal arts were the core of the curriculum of Roman-Christian schools for boys of the late Roman empire. The instruction materials for these subjects for use in the cathedral schools were revised and improved by four generations of scholars--namely, Saint Isidore, the Venerable Bede, Archishop Egbert, and Alcuin.

The Seven Liberal Arts consisted of the Trivium (set of three studies) and the Quadrivium (set of four studies). The Trivium included: 1) grammar, 2) rhetoric, and 3) logic. The Quadrivium included: 1) arithmetic, 2) geometry, 3) music, and 4) astronomy.

The Trivium was regarded as a set of elementary studies that had to be mastered before advancing to the Quadrivium. From the Trivium we get our words "grammar school," "elementary school," and "trivia." The phrase "arts and sciences" was based upon the idea that the Trivium deals with arts and the Quadrivium deals with sciences. Alcuin wrote a manual on the Trivium, and Hraban--a protege of Alcuin--wrote a manual on the Quadrivium.

Grammar concerns the art of reading, writing, and speaking. In Alcuin's time this meant reading and writing in Latin. Alcuin compiled and edited the volume Epistola de Litteris Colenda (785), through which his scholars argued that the right faith and the right thoughts must be clothed in appropriate language, lest it be falsified. Hence, every student in every cathedral school must be taught to read, write, speak, and think in precise Latin.

All students had to read the Roman classics, the fathers of the church, the creeds, and the Vulgate Bible in Latin. They were required to be fluent writers, readers, and speakers of Latin in order to communicate with other scholars from many nations and tribes. In that politically, culturally, and linguistically fragmented world, Latin, the language known to every educated man, was essential for communication and for civilization itself. Alcuin made Latin the lingua franca of Europe.

Due to the British Empire and America's rise to solo superpower status, English is today becoming the lingua franca of the world. Unfortunately, we have no great educator like Alcuin to restore our now-decadent language of English to its former glory--for the benefit of all mankind.

Building on a solid foundation

Alcuin wisely insisted that students gain proficiency in reading and writing before advancing to any other disciplines. Becoming literate is the key to learning every subject.

In contrast, the modern public schools foolishly try to teach a variety of elementary studies all at once. As a result of this lack of focus in the early grades, some students remain permanently deficient in reading and writing. For all the remainder of their dismal time in school, their poor reading skills cripple and frustrate them in their efforts to learn. The solution is not remedial reading. The solution is to teach nothing but reading, writing, and grammar during the first two years of classes.

Educational theory of 800 A.D. was wiser than it was in 2000 A.D. The wisdom of laying a solid foundation of literacy and then building on that foundation is proven by the good fruits it bore through many centuries.

Grammar as the key to rhetoric, logic, and philosophy

Mastery of grammar made it possible to learn rhetoric, the art of spoken word--and the second liberal art. Roman education emphasized the oratorical rhetoric that an aristocrat could use in a speech to the Senate. Alcuin emphasized the academic aspect of rhetoric, instead of the social and political aspect. He was an expert in a subset of rhetoric called dialectics, a back and forth discussion between two scholars in which they would explore, sift, and debate a topic.

Alcuin used dialectics as a teaching tool, in his many scholarly writings, and even in personal letters. In doing so, he laid the foundation for the study of science, philosophy, and theology. Training in dialectics explains why the scholars in medieval universities of the twelfth century were such outstanding debaters. Many European essays in science, philosophy, and theology were written in dialectical form until the seventeenth century. (Galileo got in trouble with the pope, not because of his heliocentric theory, but because he wrote a dialectic in which he put the pope's favorite argument in the mouth of a fool.)

Skillful dialectics required expertise in logic, which is the third liberal art. As the two members of a dialectical conversation ventilated an issue, the ideas best supported by logic would win the debate.

Mastery of logic is the foundation for the study of philosophy. Interestingly, correct grammar is just as vital to philosophy as are rhetoric and logic. Formal logic is impossible without precise language that depends upon correct grammar. One is unlikely to understand Aristotle's syllogism (a method of logic) without literary competence in language.

Furthermore, grammatically correct speech embodies several essential principles of metaphysics. For example, the correct use of the verb "to be" provides key insights into ontology, or the study of the nature of being. One is not likely to understand Aristotle's distinction between "existence" and "being" without crisp language skills. However, we unknowingly make these distinctions every day if we speak with good grammar.

The correct use of the verb "to know" provides important clues for epistemology, the study of what we can know and how we know it. One is unlikely to comprehend Aristotle's distinction between our knowledge of "essences" and "accidents" if he flunked grammar in school. But those who speak with good grammar unknowingly make these distinctions every day.

Alcuin and the rise of universities

Alcuin's insistence upon crisp, correct Latin laid the foundations for the explosive developments in philosophy in the decades following the year 1100 A.D. During the early decades of the twelfth century, the new universities gave their greatest honors to philosophers who were champions in public debate before cheering fans. The honors were more than a prize for the champion of debate as a sporting event, or mere fascination with ideas and the display of genius. The pursuit of truth had a nobility that transfixed the debaters and their public audience.

Philosopher Peter Abelard (1079–1142), the champion debater of Europe, was unequaled in rhetorical powers and incisive logic. He reigned supreme in academic glory until personal scandal and heresy brought him low.

Theology soon supplanted philosophy in the seats of highest honor at the universities, and theology became known as "the queen of the sciences." St. Thomas Aquinas (1224–1142) was perhaps the greatest theologian of all time, and was the absolute master of the logic of the syllogism.

Alcuin's view on church, state, and school

Alcuin's genius was to find the best ideas of past thinkers, to learn and master their works, and to brilliantly disseminate them to students. His attitude was similar to John of Salisbury (1115–1176), who said, "We are as dwarves standing on the shoulders of giants." John thought Alcuin was one of those giants.

Alcuin, as an indispensable advisor to Charlemagne, had a respected voice in the councils of government. On matters of policy, Alcuin deferred to Eusebius of Caesaria (275–339) who said the task of Emperor Constantine was to ensure the religious well-being of his subjects. He said that divine grace provides reformatio and renovatio, but that the Christian King supplies correctio, admonitio, and emendio. The order, correction, guidance, discipline, right thinking, and right living that comes through the supervision of a wise and just prince provides the communal context in which spiritual grace is to operate and bear its fruits.

One of the means that the king has for this task of correction and instruction is education. Eusebius carried forward the idea of the Roman Stoics that learning and wisdom help to bring about an improvement of public morality. There is a link between disciplined clarity of thought by citizens and social order. American public education of the nineteenth century involved instruction in basic social morality, on the assumption that a virtuous citizenry is essential to the survival of Democracy. Freedom and order cannot subsist within a democracy unless the citizens have an education that improves the mind and the character.

The kind of supervision that Eusebius called for was too authoritarian for a modern democracy. Therefore, the task today falls all the more heavily upon the churches as moral guides and upon the schools as trainers of the mind. However, Eusebius had an insight we might profit by. He said that the intellectual, social, and moral order of a society deeply influences the ability of the church and the schools to carry out their missions. When social order is lost, the church and the schools are thrown into a state of emergency and their mission is at risk.

Saint Isidore, Archbishop of Seville (560–636), said rulers are useful if they establish norma recte vivende--meaning norms of correct living, or norms of living with rectitude. "He who does not correct, does not govern," said the saint. Interestingly, Isidore himself wrote texts on the seven liberal arts. This demonstrated his conviction that education is an indispensable means by which kings and bishops rule.

The Venerable Bede, who was inspired by Isidore, wrote that the king should ensure that there is an educated and disciplined clergy as a means of teaching and correcting the greater populace. Like Isidore, the Bede created scholarly materials for teaching the seven liberal arts. Echoing Eusebius, he noted that education is necessary because it is difficult to instruct unlearned and ignorant people in wisdom and righteousness.

Interestingly, this principle of the Bede was also a principle of the Reformation program of education. Another principle of Reformation teachers was that the education of ordinary people is necessary, so that everyone can read the Bible.

The contributions of Alcuin and his scholars

Alcuin left a significant legacy to Western leaning. Among his immense accomplishments were:

1) The renovation of the cathedral schools and the revival of education.

2) The teaching of the seven liberal arts.

3) Making Latin the lingua franca of the West.

4) The perfection of the copyist's art and the preservation of the Latin classics.

5) Hundreds of precise copies of Bible books. These new copies were made from older copies made at the time of Constantine. Alcuin's copyists ensured the survival of the New Testament. All the major Bible translations that followed depended upon the massive textual foundation they laid--until older manuscripts were discovered in the twentieth century.

6) A major revision of Saint Jerome's Vulgate bible. The new version was an important, heavily copied, and widely distributed edition of the Bible in the Latin Language. It was of high literary quality, set a standard for precise Latin, and was heavily furnished with marginal notes by leading scholars.

7) The development of the Caroline minuscule, a new book hand for copyists. Our lower-case letters were developed from the Caroline mimiscule and our uppercase letters are Roman.

8) The standardization of the liturgy.

The Republic of Letters

Petrarch (1304–1374) and Boccaccio (1313–1375) were arguably the two greatest men of letters of the fourteenth century. Both men were native to Florence, Italy; were personal friends; and had extended conversations about the future of education. They were among the few men who understood that the age in which clerics provided much of the civic leadership was coming to an end and that a new era in which Christian gentlemen would provide leadership was near at hand. True to their prophesy, the period 1400–1800 would prove to be the age of the gentleman par excellence.

Petrarch and Boccaccio corresponded during the years 1350 to 1375 to discuss their ideas for classical scholarship, including the question of how a Christian gentleman should be educated. A little group of scholars formed in Florence, centered around these two great men. Many of the scholarly and educational achievements of the early Renaissance realized the hopes and dreams of this little circle. Therefore, one might denote this twenty-five year period as the Florentine proto-Renaissance.

Petrarch was mentor to two great proteges. Boccaccio was partly a protege of Petrarch and partly his intellectual associate. Coluccio Salutati was a much younger protege of Petrarch who was groomed for political glory. Salutati (1331–1406) was the first of three great Chancellors of Florence. Leonardo Bruni (1369–1444) was the second great chancellor, and Poggio Braccioli (1380 -1459) was the third. These men were the founding fathers of the Florentine "Republic of Letters." Kenneth Clark said:

    For thirty years the fortunes of the Republic.... were directed by a group of the most intelligent individuals who have ever been elected to power by a democratic government. From Salutati onwards, the Florentine chancellors were scholars, believers in the studia humanitas, in which learning could be used to achieve a happy life, believers in the application of free intelligence to public affairs, and believers, above all, in Florence.

Actually, the era of the three great Chancellors ran eighty-four years (1375–1459), which includes gaps when lesser men served. We might define this period as the Early Renaissance. The three premier Italian schools for Christian gentlemen were founded during this period. Without excellent institutions of education, there will be neither studia humanitas, nor "the application of free intelligence to public affairs."

Salutati, Bruni, and Braciolini were pioneer scholars of classical letters, and innovative political leaders, an exotic combination that is exceedingly rare in history. All three were serious Christians, and all at some point were directed by the pope to perform scholarly services that were vital to the church. All made important contributions to the program of the education for the Christian gentleman who was to be groomed for political and cultural leadership.

Salutati, a master of philosophy and textual criticism, was a collector of classical manuscripts, an obsession of Florentine humanists. Salutati and other humanists accumulated one of the greatest collections of classical manuscripts in the Library of San Marcos in Florence. The revolution in education would not have been possible without great libraries.

Bruni, who was arguably the greatest of the three chancellors, was an advocate of studia humanitas, or education in the classical humanities, which earned him the title of the leading Renaissance "humanist." Bruni believed human nature is malleable and can be perfected through education.

The goals of Bruni were political, intellectual, and cultural. He sought to use education to train a generation of gentleman leaders who would oversee civic improvement and cultural renewal. Bruni stressed the importance of practical experience and historical studies. He insisted that the thoughts and deeds of great men of history be taught to students.

In On the Study of Literature, Bruni enumerated the principles for a literary education. The student is to read the "authorities," presumably commentaries by literary masters on classical literature. The students should read classical texts aloud, to poetically taste the words and hear their lyrical music. Aesthetic taste must be nurtured by experiencing great literature. In order to conceptually understand the text, the student must analyze what he reads, so that he can clearly and eloquently express its meaning.

Bruni said that excellence comes from the width and breadth of knowledge. The gentleman is to be well-rounded and widely cultivated--a versatile polymath. This idea was given its fullest expression in Castiglione's The Courtier (1528). The versatility of gentlemen-leaders was a distinguishing feature of the culture of the Europe during the period 1400–1800.

Poggio Bracciolini, the third great chancellor, was a leading recoverer of classical texts and a scholar of classical antiquities. His most important discovery was a complete copy of Quintilian's Instutio Oratio, a classic on rhetoric, educational theory, and curriculum. Bracciolini personally recommended the study of Quintilian to the founding headmasters of the first two elite schools for Christian gentlemen.


Marcus Quintilian (35–96 A.D.) was Rome's leading teacher under emperors Vespasian, Titus, and Domitian. Quintilian educated a generation of Roman aristocrats, many of whom followed the Stoic philosophy-religion of virtue. Quintilian's reform of Roman education led to a Renaissance of intellectual culture and civic virtue in the second century A.D.

Although Quintilian's Intitutio Oratio was ostensibly about rhetoric, it is a comprehensive work that encompasses a major part of the Renaissance concept of a liberal education. The humanists of Florence had a complete manuscript in hand seven years before the first new school of the humanities was founded. This was enough time to build Quintilian's ideas into the study plans for the new schools.

In spite of Quintilian's masculine Roman-stoic quality, Renaissance education shifted away from the Latin-centered approach of Alcuin of York to a more Greek-centered emphasis. The seven liberal arts of the Renaissance were grammar, rhetoric, poetry, moral philosophy, history, music, and mathematics. In keeping with the Greek emphasis, poetry replaced logic, moral philosophy replaced geometry, and history replaced astronomy. The enlightened new education combined Roman discipline and virtue with the Greek humanities.

Schools for the Christian gentleman

Vittorino da Feltre (1378–1446) was the greatest humanist schoolmaster of the Renaissance. He was invited to come to Mantua in 1423 by the heir of the Marquess of Mantua. A beautiful palace with gardens and fountains was provided for the new school, which da Feltra called La Giancosa, meaning "The House of Joy."

The splendor of La Giancosa glowed in the imagination of every humanist with images of how agreeable a classical education can be. The arduous process of educating a gentleman can be sweetened and beautified with splendid settings and aesthetic and moral illumination. Learning and maturing can be an aspect of the pursuit of happiness. To the humanists, the good life requires the full development and use of human faculties. Therefore, education can be the glory of culture and civilization, and the crown of a life well lived.

La Giancosa was the first school to employ the humanistic educational program in all its universality and diversity. The goal was to train young men to become Christian gentlemen of the highest and best kind. Rigorous studies in Latin and Greek literature were required for every student. The school placed a heavy emphasis on history and rhetoric. Plutarch's Lives of the Noble Greeks and Romans offered biographic examples of the manly virtues.

Da Feltre followed the Greek view of education that involved the training of mind and body. La Giancosa was one of Europe's first elite boarding schools and was complete with playing fields for sports. It was the precursor to schools like Eton and Harrow in England.

The students at La Giancosa were deeply aware of their master's earnest care for their welfare. His nurture of young Christians in the faith played a part in the bonding of teacher and student. Da Feltre trained future Italian rulers and scholars, who retained nostalgic memories of their splendid school days and were easily persuaded to sponsor educational programs.

The second great elite school for gentlemen was established in 1429 by Guarino da Veronese (1374–1460) at Ferrara. Da Veronese went to Constantinople to study Greek and the classics. He returned with a valuable collection of Greek manuscripts. He helped to bring Renaissance mastery of Greek to the level at which Alcuin's students mastered Latin.

Da Veronese's son, Battista da Veronese (1434–1513), was a premier Renaissance scholar in his own right. Battista wrote an account of his father's school, De Ordine Docendi et Studendi (Concerning the Order and Method to be Observed in Teaching and Reading Classical Authors, 1459), which became a indispensable text for humanist educators.

Marsilio Ficino (1433–1499) became headmaster of the Platonic Academy of Florence in 1462, the third great humanistic school. The academy was founded by Cosimo Medici (1389–1464). The Medici family, the Platonic Academy, and the library of San Marcos made Florence the center of scholarship and creative thought during the early Renaissance.

Ficino distinguished himself in philosophy, theology, and linguistics. He was a great scholar of the Greek classics, especially the works of Plato. His commentaries on Plato and Roman Neoplatonism stimulated a Platonic revival in Florence that influenced European culture for two centuries.

Ficino attempted to reconcile Plato with Christ and produce a Christian Platonism--or perhaps a Platonic Christianity. He sought to build a philosophical foundation for Christianity using Neoplatonism. Ficino's Christianized Platonism led to the concept of "platonic love" in poetry and literature.

Platonism is doctrinally problematical for the Christian, but it has a powerful stimulus on culture. For example, the artist Michelangelo was apprenticed under the Medici family in Florence, where he absorbed Ficino's Neoplatonism. Michelangelo's art and poetry was powerfully influenced by Christian Neoplantonism.

As one of the most religious of the Renaissance humanists, Ficino wrote Liber de Christiana Religione (Book on the Christian Religion). Ficino said that the highest form of human love and communion is based upon the soul's love of God.

The limitations of Renaissance elitism

One reason why the Italian Renaissance did not last long by historical standards was that it was built on too narrow a base. Only a minuscule percentage of boys could attend the elite schools. There was too wide a gap in knowledge, intellect, and spirit between the brilliantly educated gentleman and the butcher and the baker.

In contrast, the Reformation program of education had an enduring influence for five centuries because it brought literacy to the child of every church member. American public education of the nineteenth century, which was built upon the foundations laid by the Reformation program, was offered to every young citizen.

The decisive influence of a few

Twenty-five years of discussion between Petrarch, Boccaccio, and their small circle inspired the three great chancellors who founded of the Republic of Letters at Florence and set the agenda for a new kind of school. Boccaccio's Decameron and Castiglione's The Courtier were essentially the record of brilliant discussions of small circles of intelligent men and women. The Decameron was the prologue to the Italian Renaissance, and The Courtier was the magnificent closing act of the Renaissance as the curtains were coming down. The French Enlightenment was built upon the discussions of an incredibly small circle of brilliant individuals. In each case, intelligent conversation of a small circle of intelligent people turned the cultural tide of history.

If American education and culture is to be decisively renovated, it must begin with intelligent discussions by small groups of people who are worried about the dismal condition of American education and culture. My two essays on education are designed to facilitate such discussions.

RenewAmerica analyst Fred Hutchison also writes a column for RenewAmerica.

© 2006 Fred Hutchison

The views expressed by RenewAmerica analysts are their own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Alan Keyes, RenewAmerica, or its affiliates.  -  Home  -  Alan Keyes Archives  -  Forum  -  Message Board  -  Declaration Project