Literature Review – Haskins – ‘The Rise of Universities’

In an effort to better increase my understanding of education, liberal arts, and assessment as a portion of my on going career advancement I’ll be reviewing literature in these fields. This may mean an article, a video, in this case a book, or even lectures and discussions. In the future I hope to expand on and share what I am studying.

This first review is for a book by Charles Homer Haskins (an astounding name on all accounts) and his work ‘The Rise of Universities’ published in 1957. The book covers an overview of where universities came from and how they developed. An interesting tidbit from this book in particular was the amount of insight in the day-to-day activities of professors and students. It was written based on a series of lectures from Brown University in the 1920’s from what I can tell (so beware of the conversational tone and possible references to material not in this manuscript).

Edward Dodwell: Views in Greece, London 1821, p. 67

South-east View of the Temple at Sunium

‘Rise’ covers briefly how Greek society did not have a traditional classroom structure that the medieval period had (Haskins, 1). Rather they had call and respond rhetoric based environments. This changed in Europe as the church began to cultivate learning environments. Eventually the first academic centers for non-church learning were set up in Paris and Bologna (2).

However the first real colleges did not appear till the Italian guilds formed to create student housing (9). These guilds soon began fixing prices, providing food, and generally working as a liaison between townspeople and students. I found this interesting as in general that seems like one of the main functions (or at least major) of the modern college was providing just the environment to learn. Teaching is nearly a marginal portion of the process since housing, food, and diplomacy with a township allow for education to continue, occur, and so forth.

Originally the curriculum was short and sweet in Greece with mostly law, rhetoric, and philosophy (Haskins, 4). Between 1100 and 1200 CE universities added what would become the liberal arts with an influx of knowledge coming from Italy. This was a Classical rediscovery that added grammar, logic, arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, and music.

It becomes unclear in reading (while I was reading anyway) what happened to philosophy and law in the process. The final listing of studies included two groups, the trivium and quadrivium, of seven total subjects (27). Thus the core subjects were grammar, rhetoric, and logic under the trivium and arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music in the quadrivium. This was in part because of the writings of Martianus Capella who wrote ‘viaticum’ or a condensed liberal art works(28). He was one of the scholars that helped standardize and collect the works of antiquity in the fifth century for later digestion in the Medieval society (38).

The main focus for much of Medieval study was logic (Haskins, 30). It pervaded the other disciplines and was required for everyone to have some understanding. This made sense as most careers that required a ‘licenctia docendi’ or license to teach (11) required a large amount of logic such as lawyers, priests, and physicians.

As I mentioned earlier, the most interesting part of the book was the descriptions of the lives for students and professors. The book discusses how the most important skill a student could learn was who to write a proper letter in Latin to ask for money from their parents. There was even mention of older students who would write letters on behalf of others (Haskins, 59-93). Student parties and getting into fights with townsfolk was commonplace.

So while things change, it is interesting to see how little they also don’t. A quote from a professor of the time read, “A university would be a very comfortable place were it not for all the students,” (Haskins, 59). Students still bum for food and ask for money from their parents. However, most importantly to me personally, we still study a liberal curriculum.

If one line from this summed up my feelings about this topic it would be, “He is free who feels himself,” (Haskins, 77). To the author diversity and a wide breadth of knowledge is important to the cultivation of an academic career. Through a liberal education one is able to free oneself by knowing oneself. I found this paramount in my review of the history of; the university, liberal art, and education for the past, present, and future. The idea that scholarly pursuits lead to a deeper understanding about oneself rather than just how to get a job or perform a task.

In short, the book is worth a read for the student of history, education, liberal arts, or collegiate parties. I found it informative, philosophical, and at times touching–I highly recommend this piece.


Haskins, Charles Homer. The Rise of Universities. Ithaca, NY: Great Seal, 1957.


EDIT: 06/09/14 — added full citation. I didn’t notice I had left that off. Sorry about that.

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