Every civilization has its own educational system, its infrastructure for preparing the young to become productive citizens. For most of history, and in most civilizations, these educational systems consisted of a set of wise old men, each teaching a clutch of bright young students. Most of these students would become the governing officials of society, handling the more complex tasks required at the upper levels of government. Some would become scholars or researchers; still others would become teachers themselves. This educated elite never enjoyed much temporal power; instead, they provided the crucial intellectual infrastructure that permitted the rulers to administer their domains. The Chinese, Indian, Islamic, and classical (Greco-Roman) civilizations all relied on this kind of educational system to train their intellectual elites.
All these civilizations offered primary education (reading and writing) to a small subset of the population. Often these were ambitious second sons who could not hope to get ahead on their patrimony. Literacy alone guaranteed a decent living, for there was always a need for people to maintain records, manage communications, and so forth. And literacy was a prerequisite for a successful career as a merchant.
There were only two levels of education in these civilizations: primary and advanced. No formal specifications accompanied advanced education; there were no degrees or certificates of achievement. You studied under the master for as long as you felt necessary, then went out into the world.
But there is another way of assessing the educational systems of the different civilizations: the format of the education — that is, way that intellectual material was organized and presented to students. In all but one of these civilizations, advanced education consisted of mastering “the scriptures” of that civilization. Indian civilization boasted a large literature considered to be “classic” and therefore deserving of mastery by advanced students. The Vedas were at the top of the list, but there were many more classics, such as the Bhagavad Gita, the Sruti, and the Smriti. In Chinese civilization, the works of Confucius dominated, but many other sages such as Mencius and commentators on Confucius were considered part of the Chinese classical canon.
Jewish society had, of course, the Torah and the huge body of commentary literature. Islamic society had the Koran, and quickly developed a large body of commentary that the student was required to master. Islamic scholars also dived into Greek literature, building on it, but religious conservatives eventually snuffed out that line of development.
But Greco-Roman civilization had no scriptures; there was no body of knowledge accorded sacred status. There was plenty of literature, of course, and certainly Homer’s works were greatly respected, but there was no central focus that dominated all the other literature as was the case with Chinese, Indian, Jewish, and Islamic societies.
The Classical Exception
Instead, Greco-Roman education was organized by field, not around a book. Greek education beyond literacy consisted of three subjects: Grammar, Logic, and Rhetoric. These three terms were used in ways that don’t quite correspond to the way we now use them.
Grammar was NOT the rules for assembling words into correct sentences; it was the art of using language precisely. It corresponded to what we now consider to be first-year college English: the skill of writing with clarity and precision.
Logic was the art of thinking rigorously, without succumbing to the common errors that so often lead to error.
Rhetoric was the art of communicating convincingly.
These three skills were considered essential to the success of the educated Greek citizen. Each built on the previous one, so they were often taught in sequence.
Later, four more subjects were added for the very best students: arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. This was not as scattered a set as you might think; all were fundamentally mathematical in style. The Greek approach to music, for example, concentrated on the mathematics of tone relationships. Astronomy was a form of applied mathematics.
The Romans considered the Greeks to be the pinnacle of civilized society, and so they copied the Greek educational format. After the fall of Rome, the tiny vestiges of Western education continued to focus on these seven subjects. During Carolingian times, they were dubbed the “seven liberal arts”; the first three were called the trivium (which is now the basis for our word trivial), and the second four were called the quadrivium.
In those rough times, amassing wealth was seldom accomplished by purely ethical means; a considerable degree of sin was required to accumulate wealth. This, of course, would condemn the wealthy to hell. A ready solution was at hand: if you donated your wealth to the Church on your death, your act of supreme generosity would expunge your sins. Over the centuries, the Church accumulated a vast amount of wealth. In those days, wealth consisted primarily of land; the peasants who worked the land paid fees to the landowner, usually in kind.
These lands had to be managed; records had to be kept, reports sent up the chain of command all the way to Rome. The management of this huge financial structure demanded a large corps of educated administrators. This put the Church into the education business. The system took centuries to work out, but eventually it consisted of a network of primary schools for boys who seemed promising to the local clergy. The brightest graduates were sent to higher education, which in turn required the establishment of universities.
The medieval university was unique in human history; nothing like it had ever been devised by any other civilization. Higher education in other civilizations remained a small-time operation consisting of one sage and a handful of students. But the Church needed armies of administrators, so it had to mass-produce them in large institutions manned by a body of scholars with their own specialties.
The Illuminating Case of China
What about China? It had the same basic economic structure used in Europe. It too needed armies of administrators to handle the even greater organizational needs of a larger population and a more variegated food supply — as well as providing for defense, a task the Church never faced. Why didn’t China develop universities?
The answer arises from two major differences between Chinese culture and European culture at the time. The first was the benefit of education in each of the two societies. In Chinese society, education was the key to entry into the bureaucracy and a lucrative career. In strictly economic terms, education was expensive, but an excellent investment. Moreover, it was the only clear path to wealth. The only other way for an Chinese young man to pursue his ambitions was to become a merchant, but merchants occupied a low position in Chinese society. Often, a wealthy merchant provided an education for his sons so as to raise the social status of his family.
In Christian Europe, education always led to the clergy; although it was possible to obtain an education and remain a member of the laity, it was expensive and almost pointless. After all, once you had your degree, you needed connections to obtain an appropriate position. This was possible if you were from a noble family, but in that case you already had other paths to success. Thus, education in Christian Europe was not an economically promising investment.
The second factor at work was the Confucian emphasis on revering one’s parents. A man was expected to care for his parents in their old age. This expectation was enforced by strong social censure for failing to meet the obligation. Thus, parents could afford to invest in a son’s education, because they knew it would pay back handsomely in their old age.
No such obligations bore on the Christian man. Yes, it was virtuous to care for your parents, but the failure to do so did not attract the social opprobrium that attended such behavior in China. Thus, parents in Christendom had little incentive to invest in a son’s education. Moreover, there wasn’t much of a middle class in Christian Europe at the turn of the millennium: you were either a peasant, a noble, or a clergyman. If you weren’t born noble, then your only way out of becoming a peasant was education, which could only be obtained through the beneficence of the Church.
By the way, you’ll notice that I refer only to males in this discussion. That’s because women in both societies could obtain wealth or power only as “subsidiary men”. A few women with unconventional parents were educated, but usually such education took place at home.
The overall result was that education was a viable investment in China but not in Europe. Both societies needed educated administrators; in the case of China, these were provided by the open market, but in Europe, education had to be provided by the largest governing institution — the Church — itself. The simple economic structure of feudal society did not need many educated administrators — and those few were almost always provided by the Church, giving it additional temporal power.
Thus, the educational structure established by the Greeks was continued right up through the 17th century. The additional innovation of the university gave Christian Europe the power to grind out masses of educated men, and the independence that these universities enjoyed encouraged greater freedom of thought than had been available in any other society.
I believe that this link with the past was absolutely crucial to the progress of Western civilization. If it weren’t for this single link, the Scientific Revolution of the 17th century, the Industrial Revolution of the 19th century, and the Information Revolution of the 21st century would never have taken place.