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Joseph S. Freedman

The Origins of the Humanities (Studia Humanitatis) and its Relevance for the Undergraduate Teaching of the Humanities in our Time
Wednesday, 13th September | 9:00 – 10:30

Late Medieval Universities formally taught their students within the context of (as many as) four academic faculties:  Arts, Jurisprudence, Medicine, and Theology.  From the end of the 15th century onwards almost all new academic subject-matters / knowledge fell within the domain of the Arts.  This included the Studia Humanitatis (the precursor of the humanities) where languages and literatures (Latin, Greek, and Hebrew) and history were introduced as new subject-matters.  In the course of the following two and a half centuries, Studia Humanitatis was sometimes confined to (for example, Jesuit) pre-university instruction but in other cases was also offered at the university level.

This proposed contribution will discuss how the Studia Humanitatis (humanities) interacted with (other) sciences during the early modern period.  Here it can be noted that the introduction of the humanities acted as a catalyst for the general replacement of the late medieval interdisciplinary arts curricula with a group of specialized subject lecturers (later: professors); subject-matters not represented by a lecturer / professor were generally not (or: no longer) officially taught at universities.[1]  When new subject-matter was introduced in Arts (later renamed: Philosophy) faculties, new disciplines and sub-disciplines were created.[2] This disciplinarity has generally remained with us to this day.

It is in large part via such academic disciplines that undergraduate students, including those students who are specializing in non-humanities fields, are taught humanities today.  These students may not all be interested in the humanities disciplines that we are paid (and often tenured) to teach.[3]

Here it can be asserted that there is no one single way to interest students in the humanites. How this might be done will depend on many factors, including the teacher, the specific humanities subject-matter and course, the prior knowledge and abilities of the students.  My own views and strategies have evolved over many decades (and continue to evolve further).

When teaching non-humanities majors in a two-semester World History course sequence, I generally give them a wide range of choices for their assignments (for example, a choice of a journal article as well as a research project topic).  I meet with each student for one hour near the beginning of the semester.  Usually my first question is “What is your major subject of study?”  But sometimes they prefer other topics (for example, music or theater history).  If they are able to chose topics for (what essentially are) their own projects, they usually will relate well thereto.

But in my view one often neglected component of the Studia Humanitatis is worthy of emulating: its focus on action, on participation in public (non-academic) life.  Public (non-academic) life is the future of the majority of the undergraduate-level students that we teach.  Public life options can include internships in non-profit organizations (for example, archives and museums focusing on a broad range of subject-matters) and businesses; these internships can lead to employment.[4].  And the knowledge that we gain through our institutional participation in such internships can help us place humanities within broader contexts, academic as well as non-academic.

[1] For example, refer to the discussion and documentation provided in Joseph S. Freedman: Philosophy Instruction within the Institutional Framework of Central European Schools and Universities during the Reformation Era, in: History of Universities 5 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985): 117-166.

[2] The early history of this development in Protestant Central European universities is examined by Detlef Döring: Die Anfänge der Ausdifferenzierung der modernen Wissenschaftsdisziplinen an den deutschen protestantischen Universitäten 1670-1720, in: Joseph S. Freedman:  Die Zeit um 1670: Eine Wende in der europäischen Geschichte und Kultur?  Wolfenbüttler Forschungen 142, Wiesbaden: Harrosowitz, 2016.

[3] The following article still can be said to have currency: Jeffrey C. Alexander:  The Irrational Disciplinarity of Undergraduate Education, in: The Chronicle of Higher Education, Volume: 40, Issue: 15 (December 1, 1993).

[4] Worthy of mention are the continuing efforts of the American Historical Association to promote the study of history via public history:  https://www.historians.org (Search AHA: Public History) [accessed 14 February 2017]