What to teach and how and why. – Alcuin on schools

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Once again we delve into the history of classical education as I slowly read through The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to Be an Educated Human Being. We now move from the early church into the early medieval period, erroneously called The Dark Ages.

Alcuin of York was a pupil of a great and learned bishop and inherited the schoolmaster position from his master. Alcuin led a revival of learning in England and Europe, earning the title and position of “Master of the Palace School” from Charlemagne, who commended Alcuin’s methods to the various monasteries (which were the centers of learning) across his realm.

What should be taught in classical schools

One selection from Alcuin’s writings is a letter of commemoration he wrote about his own master. In it, he enumerates what his bishop taught his pupils, marveling and commending the broadness of his mind and teaching.

The “diverse streams of teaching” Alcuin was taught and then in turn became master of included

  • grammar
  • rhetoric
  • law
  • singing
  • poetry
  • astronomy
  • geology or earth science
  • biology (study of animals & man)
  • geometry
  • mathematics

These “varied dews of learning” Alcuin writes, caused kings to try to keep the master for themselves so as to “irrigate their lands with learning.”

How and why classical teachers teach

Another selection is a letter Alcuin wrote to a fellow teacher establishing a monastery school. He advised that separate divisions be made in instruction and that masters of each area teach the various classes. The three divisions he recommends are between those who read books, those who sing chants, and those who teach writing. It’s not clear if by writing he means composition or simply copying of manuscripts, but given the historical context and the categories he makes, I’d assume he means copywork, since that would be a skill separate from reading & discussion and since that was a primary function of monasteries at the time.

In the end, though, he says that the goal of each of the schools and masters must be to

teach the boys and young men diligently the learning of books in the way of God.

Later, he uses the analogy of feeding for teaching:

It is a great work of charity to feed the poor with food for the body, but a greater to fill the hungry soul with spiritual learning.

But the master is not above his pupils in their hunger and their need for nourishment. For a teacher to masterfully perform his duties, he too must be a participant and a learner:

He who does not sow, neither shall he reap, and he who does not learn cannot teach.


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