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A liberal education

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Radcliffe Camera, built to house a science library at Oxford, was paid for by a donor.

In 1188, 27 years before Magna Carta, a group of students launched Oxford University. In 1209, Oxford students who had tussled with townspeople left and founded Cambridge.

Students wanted to get a liberal education. In Britain at that time, Christians believed that liberal meant free to enquire and to investigate. A liberal education was meant to free a student from the chaos of irrationality.

On 4 August 1265, Piers de Montfort - a future friend of Oxford - was one of the young bachelor knights who fought for political reform and parliamentary representation against overwhelming odds at Evesham. He was wounded, and he lost his inheritance, becoming one of "the Dispossessed".

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Aerial of Merton College quads
Image: Sacred Destinations

Piers later managed to regain his home, and he gave money to help build Merton College. His friend, Walter de Merton, had the idea of a self-governing community of scholars living together in a college that consisted of a series of halls built around a quad, or court. Merton’s idea was translated into stone, and his plan became a university model.

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Merton College

At Oxford and Cambridge, the colleges were built with fields for student exercise and games.

Four kings, 46 Nobel Prize winners (and counting), several great poets, the inventor of DNA fingerprinting, and three saints have studied or taught at Oxford since its founding.

Cambridge University today numbers over 100 departments, colleges, and research institutes and more Nobel Prize winners than any other institution in the world. Many of the world’s major scientific discoveries were made at the university's Cavendish Laboratory, including splitting the atom.

I'm bowled over by the desire for learning, vision, common sense, and private and personal generosity that built these and other universities.

Instead of peering into the foggy future to learn what a liberal education might be, I think I might take a thoughtful look at the past.

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