Debating how many angels could dance on a pinhead, a fallacious reading on medieval education. An argument for the soundness of medieval education.

What I want to argue for is the superiority of aspects of monastic led education to that of today. Not so long ago I saw a television programme about the fall of Constantinople. The presenter, a distinguished scholar claimed that while the city was under siege, the monks in the Hagia Sophia were so completely removed from the reality the awfulness of the siege, that they were distracted by discussions such as “how many angels could stand on pin head”. This calumny directed at monkish education was in fact black propaganda used by the protestant reformers to discredit Catholicism. These unworldly monks would in fact have been very engaged with the circumstances in which they found themselves, knowing that the gold in the Cathedral would make them a target for looters from the victorious besiegers.

This famous scholar was obviously ignorant of the achievements of these monks in mathematics, astronomy and the other sciences. Monks were capable of sophisticated mathematics, calculations would be made using their hands. Not just one to ten, but my giving particular fingers symbolic values or functions they could do advanced mathematics. One monk by observing the lengths of the shadows cast by sticks in the ground calculated the latitude of the Abbey in which he lived. One of the most spectacular medieval achievements was the clock of variable hours at St.Albans Abbey. One problem that bothered the monks was the timing of the prescribed services during the day. This was particularly hard as the days varied so in length. When should the Nones service be celebrated, when given the hours of daylight differed daily, what particular point in the day was midday? If the time of daylight was divided by 12, the difference between the shortest hours at mid winter and midsummer was seventeenth minutes. St.Albans’s answer was a clock of variable hours. This mechanical clock would adjust the length of the hours in the day according hours of daylight. The monks could through a reading the figures off this clock together with a sophisticated system of mathematics accurately calculate the time.

Having now demonstrated that monks and clerics could demonstrate a level of sophistication in their thinking similar to that of today’s scientists. I can now justify my contention about that education in the medieval university could in some respects be superior to that of today. I use my now own experience of university education as proof of my contention. When given an assignment by my tutor there would always be what appeared to be a vast number of books to read. Even selective readings of these texts, that is looking primarily for those phrases underlined by previous readers as significant to note, could be very time consuming. For me at least it was often a matter of quantity over quality. The more references and quotations that I could smuggle into my essay, the higher the grade. Then and now I thought there must be a better way. When I read that for clerics and monks there was one initial essential book to study. Whose study in depth was seen as the basis for a sound theological education, I could only reflect on what I saw as so many hours wasted in study. Paraphrasing an old English phrase, my study was of forests not trees. Incidentally the primary book or books were Peter Lombard’s ‘Four Books of Sentences’. Even today I cannot understand why it was thought necessary by my tutors thought it necessary for me to read every book or article written on a particular topic What benefit is there to be gained by having a wide and superficial knowledge of a subject, as opposed to a real understanding?

The medieval professors on holy days, celebrated them by having free and open discussions with their students. Often these discussions were recorded for prosperity. I have dipped into one such Thomas Aquinas’s “Quodlibetal Questions 1 and 2”. What impresses me is not just the sophistication of the students questions, but the replies given by Thomas Aquinas. He assumes that his students are capable of understanding the most difficult of his ideas. No concessions are made in his answers, he assumes that his students can follow the sophisticated train of his thoughts This experience I can contrast with that of my students peers. One internationally recognised philosopher was complained about by some of my fellow students as giving lectures too difficult to understand. Next year he was replaced by a colleague with a more straight forward exposition manner and who gave out student handouts. Perhaps the difference in the student responses is a matter of respect. Medieval students deferred more readily to authority. However given the frequency of town and gown riots, perhaps this was not the cause. Can I suggest an alternative, in the medieval university the emphasis was on understanding, not the accumulation of knowledge?. Over a period of six hundred years students and society’s expectations of what a degree course entails had changed dramatically.

What I am suggesting is that true education is something other than the accumulation of knowledge. There is a something that resides behind and above the accumulation of knowledge, a something that makes understanding possible. A something that I can describe as a sound method of thinking, a means correct thinking and speaking. A sound technique of analysis and comprehension, the ability to derive knowledge from whatever text of subject is studied.. Real education is something that as Plato might have said, which is not readily explainable, one not given to simple common place expression. It is something whose essence once experienced is never given up. Again I wish to give myself as an example. At university I was a hopeless student of philosophy, one of my lowest marks was awarded to me in my ethics paper. However in that final year of university, I glimpsed a something, which I cannot readily put into words, but which left me with a passion for a life long study of philosophy.

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