A History of Education: European Influences on the American Educational System (Universities and the Middle Ages)

[Editor’s Note: This blog is a supplement to the 13th in a series of blogs that examine how education developed throughout history until the present. Links to previous blogs are included at the bottom of the post.]

The “university” as an institution was established in Europe during the Middle Ages, and in the 1100s, they broke into specialty areas:  Bologna for law, Paris for theology, and Salerno for medicine. It’s important to understand, though, that universities at that time were considered a group of faculty members, not just a group of buildings. It’s only in modern times that that “universities” can be defined by a physical location.

By around the eleventh century, educators developed Scholasticism, a method that combined inquiry, scholarship, and teaching. The scholastics, as the clerics were known, viewed faith and reason as complementary sources of truth, and schools were both governed and protected by the church. That made theology the single most important subject in Medieval universities.

As an example, the Dominican theologian Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274) taught at the University of Paris and made his philosophy of Realism, which portrayed education as concrete and visual, acceptable to Christianity. He believed humans possessed not only a physical body, but also a spiritual soul. The teacher’s vocation, therefore, combined faith, love, and learning.

The Medieval contribution to all of western education has had several lasting effects. Foremost must be the preservation and institutionalization of knowledge by presenting it within an organized framework. Within the structure of the university, Medieval educators not only passed on knowledge to their students, but also preserved that knowledge through recording and codification.

Another contribution was the formalization of courses of study, examinations, and degrees. In fact, the cap and gown modern graduates wear at their commencement ceremony is a reflection of the dress code students in the Middle Ages wore at their university.

But perhaps the most lasting contribution is the founding of the university as an institution in its own right, a place of higher education where students could learn new thoughts, facts, and ideas that could then be applied to the society in which they lived. Though much has changed in education since the Middle Ages, the fact that knowledge still persists and grows can’t be overstated.


To read part 1: Introduction, click here.

To read part 2: Purpose of education, click here.

To read part 3: Prehistory to pre-industrial, click here.

To read part 4: Mesopotamia and the Sumerians, click here.

To read part 5: Ancient Egypt, click here.

To read part 6: Ancient Greece and Rome, click here.

To read part 7: The Greek philosophers, click here.

To read part 8: China, click here.

To read part 9: The Olmecs and the Maya, click here.

To read part 10: The Islamic World: Basics, click here.

To read part 11: The Islamic World: The Golden Age, click here.

To read part 12: The Renaissance, click here.

To read part 13: American Educational System Overview, click here.



[1] Jocic, Ljubinka. (June 15, 2004). History of American Education Web Project. Retrieved from https://www3.nd.edu/~rbarger/www7/medieval.html.


Author: AceReader Blogger

The AceReader blogging team is made up of specialists in a number of different areas: literacy, general education, content development, and educational software. For questions about posts, please submit them in the form below. For suggestions about blog topics, please email them to blogger@acereader.com.

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