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Education in Europe

From The Renaissance To The Enlightenment

The Renaissance created an educational revolution by adopting a classical curriculum for its Latin schools. This happened in Italy in the fifteenth century and in the rest of Europe in the sixteenth century. Renaissance Latin schoolmasters discarded the medieval curriculum, with a handful of exceptions at the primary school level, in favor of the works of Virgil, Cicero, Terence, Julius Caesar (c. 100–44 B.C.E.), and other ancient authors. Most were Latin; Greek authors were introduced as teachers of Greek became available. These ancient authors taught grammar, rhetoric, poetry, history, and moral philosophy, which together comprised the studia humanitatis (humanistic studies) based on the standard ancient authors in Latin and, to some extent, in Greek. The classical humanistic curriculum remained the core of Latin education for the elite of Europe well into the twentieth century.

The Latin that Renaissance students learned was very different from the clear and functional but seldom elegant medieval Latin. Renaissance students learned to write Latin in the ornate and complex style of Cicero, as found in his Epistolae ad familiares (Letters to friends) and his speeches, which had been unavailable in the Middle Ages. Humanist pedagogues sought guidance on ancient education from the Institutio oratoria (Institutes of oratory) of the Roman teacher of rhetoric Quintilian (c. 35–100 C.E.). Italy adopted the classical Latin curriculum in the fifteenth century, and the rest of Europe followed in the sixteenth.

The Renaissance humanistic curriculum promised more than learning to read and write like the ancients. Italian and northern European humanists argued in a series of pedagogical treatises that reading the classics would teach boys, and a few girls, wisdom as well as eloquence. The classics would inspire readers to live honorably and well. If well instructed, they would do what was morally right and would be loyal to family, city, and country. The goal was humanitas, the knowledge of how to live as cultivated, educated members of society.

However, the Renaissance humanists papered over a basic contradiction. Western European Christianity viewed salvation after death as the ultimate goal of life. But ancient pagan authors as Cicero, Terence, and Virgil did not teach readers to love enemy and neighbor and to seek union with God. The texts of ancient Greek and Rome emphasized education for this life. They endorsed worldly ambition so long as it was achieved by legitimate means, and they featured acts judged sinful by European Christians. Nevertheless, Renaissance educators convinced themselves that the classics and Christian doctrine taught an identical morality of honesty, self-sacrifice for the common good, perseverance, and family and civic responsibility. The restoration of the pagan classics inserted a secularism into European schooling that never disappeared, however much Catholic teaching orders and Protestant schoolmasters emphasized religious doctrine and practice.

From the Renaissance onward, the classical secondary school was the center of European elite education. Educational leaders and probably the majority of society believed that learning ancient languages and literatures offered examples of the highest human culture in the original language, developed mental discipline, and imparted good moral and civic values.

Additional topics

Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Dysprosium to Electrophoresis - Electrophoretic TheoryEducation in Europe - Greek Education, Roman Education, Education Of Women In Greece And Rome, Medieval Education, From The Renaissance To The Enlightenment