Authentic Assessment in Directing and Cinema Classes

by Steve N. Jackson

The directing class is a unique educational experience for students. Students in the class are presented a real world setting that closely simulates the experiences they will face on graduate. The course uses active learning, small team integration, service learning, authentic assessment, and a unique professor / student relationship to produce a learning environment that allows students to integrate the knowledge they have gained from previous classes into a single senior level working experience. It also acts as a catch for students whose knowledge and skills may be imperfect, and allows them to learn from their fellow students.

The main course experience revolves around a real-world production environment where a small team of students, lead by a student leader, working on a video production that the students have significant say in its progress and completion. The National Academy of Science says that this learning, which they call authentic experience learning, happens when, “teachers focus inquiry predominately on real phenomena (or in our case, production experiences)…where students are given investigations or guided toward fashioning investigations that are demanding but within their capabilities” (cited in Daniels & Bizar, 1998, p. 171)

The result is that assessment cannot be by simple rubric (where students succeed if they do X) or testing (where students return information on subject Y in the order and manner called on by the professor). Instead, the course judges student performance

based on “intellectual accomplishments that are worthwhile, significant, and meaningful” (Wehlage, Newmann, & Secada, 1996, p. 23). In Directing class this is measured using a four element scale:

1) A formative employee performance review carried out three times during the term based on actual industry review systems used in large corporations.

2) A media review that looks objectively at the proposed product and the final product produced during the class to determine if the final product meets required industry standards. This review is also completed at intermediate stages in the process to provide feed back and course correction for students.

3) Weekly short interactions where the week’s work effort is quantitatively measured against a metric of how much needed to be accomplished to meet project goals.

4) A skills assessment that asks the question: did the student learn their basic skills. This is usually only performed once to determine if skill remediation is needed this late in the game.

Authentic assessment is carried out by using industry standard corporate media assessment instruments that measure worker effort and progress. These assessments are formative in nature, meaning that they do not result in a grade at first offering. Instead, students are directed on how to make changes to their work progress, what

skills they have to acquire moving forward, and what information they are missing. They are also informed what they are doing right, what information they have that is useful and effective, and the positive aspects of their performance. Students then reply with a letter outlining their plans for improvement. When students meet the requirements of this plan of improvement, their evaluations are passed to the professor who changes the formative reviews into a summative grade. In all cases, the students are not penalized for problems at the start of the process, but are rewarded for their work to fix problems that are found by having their record cleaned up.

The production process offers some distinct learning advantages for the dedicated student. Learning outcomes in classes that use these formats are very high. This is because students are not only under the watchful eye of the professor, but are being monitored by a student producer. The chance the student can “slip through the cracks” is limited. The process of active learning assures strong retention of skills and theories, because as they are applied they are moved from short term memory to long term memory, the process being reinforced by practical use of the theories and skills.

Difficulties in the Process

The main difficulties in the process are, 1) student fear of active learning environments based on overexposure to lecture courses and their rigid grading environments, 2) fear of innovative teaching techniques by faculty and administration, because of the possibility of students complaints by students who are scared of the real world contexts of the class, 3) the very real (although relatively rare) chance of student group failure and the resulting failure to produce client product, and 4) the

elevated time requirements on the part of faculty to provide for innovative educational experience. In each case, these objectives can be overcome by communication and education of different publics. Students, for example, need to be constantly made aware than authentic experience classes are formative and informational, and the grade they receive is completely in their power to change. Fear of innovative teaching is another example of a disability classes such as Directing face. It is rarely possible to make every student in a class happy with not following the usual lecture and test format. The results often are single student complaints that when responded to incorrectly can result in the entire class being shut down, ruining the educational experience for many students. The faculty member who teaches using authentic assessment, active learning, and service learning must communicate to supervisors early and often the innovative nature of the class, and seek out ways to impress on them the effectiveness of the methods.


Daniels, H., and Bizar, M. (1998). Methods that matter: six structures for best practice classrooms. Portland, ME. Stenhouse Publishers.

Wehlage, G.G., Newmann, F.M., & Secada, W.G. (1996). Standards for authentic assessment and pedagogy. In F.M. Newmann & Associates (Ed.), Authentic assessment: Restructuring schools for intellectual quality (pp. 75-104). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Alhazen’s Method of Empiricism and its Contributions to Advancing Science

by Elizabeth Anne Rathburn

Throughout human history civilizations experience periods of great intellectual growth: a golden age where scholarship greatly encourages the function and expansion of a civilization. The Muslim Caliphate, known for its great scientific advancements, was a particular civilization made multiple contributions to the world’s human knowledge and education. As Muhammad Saud once expressed, “Islam’s greatest contribution to human history is its sound and healthy concept of God, and a sound and healthy vision of life and society” (1). During the Muslim period of enlightenment, many great thinkers used the resources of their progressive culture to attribute findings in natural science and technology. One such man, known as Alhazen will make such remarkable advancements in the area of the natural sciences. He will later be recognized as one of the greatest scientists known in Islamic history. Alhazen’s empirical method revolutionized the scientific thinking/way to seek knowledge of his time and went on to influence the advancements of later science including seventeenth century Christian Europe.

The Muslim scholar Abu Ali al Hasan Ibn al-Haytham, (ca. 965-1040 CE) better known in Europe as Alhazen or Alhacen (the latin form of al Hasan) was born in the southern Iraq city of Basra. One might think that Alhazen was always a man of science but his early years led him towards another path. His father was a civil servant and Alhazen became well educated (Gorini 53). After completing his civil service education Alhazen was appointed chief minister of the caliphate of Basra. As a part of his role he was required to immerse himself in theological readings, and endless religious debates (Morgan 98).

Having the position of chief minister was a very prestigious role in the Muslim caliphate. After some time Alhazen began to question the arguments of theology he encountered, and wondered “how could something as vast and complicated as the divine be known with any certainty by the mortal mind” (Morgan 98). This was a forward thinking question Alhazen had posed to himself, and he knew, “that there was only a single truth and that the differences of opinions was the result of the different ways adopted to seek it” (Saud 3). Until now, truth was based upon information deduced from what was already known and then theorized upon. Alhazen believed that no man could merely understand the complexities of God and life just by speculating about such ideas. He resigned from his position of power as chief minister and sought to find truth through science. Having a civil service education established Alhazen as an intellectual man, however it is, “apparent from the titles of his own writings that he was widely read in Greek mathematics and mathematical science” (Lindberg 61). Many men would not have given up power for the life of a scholar yet, “the only thing that motivates him is the hunger to know more, to understand the complexity of God’s universe, to find truth where ever it is, no matter the language or the conventional wisdom or the articles of faith” (Morgan 104). Alhazen’s thinking was forward and progressive for his time. It is a perfect example of the dynamic learning scholars and scientists of the Muslim culture were so enthused to pursue. His belief that the truth of God’s universe had its foundation in science and mathematics was dramatically contrary to the conventional and accepted theological teachings of the religious factions present in the caliphate. It was Alhazen who believed that “in rationalism will…the true mind of God be revealed” (Morgan 98). Alhazen became the man to venture away from the belief of undisputed theological truths.

During the tenth and eleventh centuries, Greek literature was highly influential in Islamic life. The Abbasid Caliphate (from 750) opened its borders to a wide expanse of foreign culture and knowledge. The Islam culture, “adopted Greek concepts and methods of reasoning into the disciplines of theology and law” (Lindberg 67), which proved to be most influential. A result of these adoptions gave way to the rise of philosophy in Islamic culture, directly accompanied by the “reception of Aristotelian canon of rational sciences” (Lindberg 67). The Aristotelian teachings permeated into Islamic culture, influencing also the theological debates within the religious caliphate. Like many other scholars of his time, Alhazen began his search for truth by finding “solace in the thoughts of Aristotle” (Morgan 98). Over the years Alhazen becomes a well-versed man of science as he “expounded the theories…of Aristotle, Galen and Ptolemy and was devoted on philosophy, physics, medicine, optics, astronomy, and mathematics” (Gorini 53). Alhazen’s life works were extensive, as many as two hundred works, many of which will eventually be lost, yet his seven volumes on optics will survive and be widely considered his most important intellectual contribution to a particular field of study (Morgan 103). Alhazen was entranced by the very complexity of light and visual perception. His seven volumes on optics as a complete work was entitled Kitab al-Manazir, translated into The Book of Optics. It is because of the extensive work Alhazen performed that he is considered to this day by many as “one of the most significant figures in the history of optics between antiquity and the 17th century” (Gorini 2003). His Kitab goes on to alter the thinking of many European scholars centuries after he has pioneered the field of study. Alhazen’s scientific advances contributed a vast supply of knowledge “in the history of both medicine and optics and [had] modified the idea that ancients had about light” (Gorini 53). Along with other significant findings, Alhazen disproved the ancient Greek notion of the visual perception of the human eye. Light was Alhazen’s primary interest and he sought to discover the truth whether it was contrary to the Greek theories like those of Ptolemy and Aristotle.

During Alhazen’s time Greek literature and influence was a primary source of knowledge. If it wasn’t for scholarly men, such as Alhazen, future scholars would have relied on this same scholastic form of education: the same ancient text translated from one language to another undisputed. Alhazen took a bold step in the opposite direction of founded knowledge by rejecting all known knowledge. He wished to seek the truth and further understand concepts himself. In his particular investigation into optics Alhazen turned to the early writings of Ptolemy and Aristotle. Until Alhazen delved into the matter of optics, an unsupported and metaphysical based idea of how the eye perceived images was commonly accepted.
The concept of visual perception, accepted by the Greeks, was known as the extramission theory. Many Greek scholars, including Ptolemy, disputed this particular theory. It was, “supposed that the eye sends out rays of light to view the objects.” Aristotle advanced this theory called the “Mediumistic Theory by which the eye receives rays rather than direct them outward. In particular…in the process of human vision the object being looked at somehow altered the medium between the object itself and the viewer’s eye” (Gorini 2003 53). Both theories proved to provide insufficient evidence and support and thus according to Alhazen’s belief the theories had to be rejected.

The Greek scholars made connections between the light and eye sensations but failed to actually explain how it connected to vision perception. Alhazen based his studies on Aristotle’s initial theory, yet instead of basing theory on speculation, he wished to validate his theory upon scientific outcome. In his Kitab Alhazen gives his observations about the nature of light on the human eye:
“We find that when the eye looks into exceedingly bright light, it suffers greatly because of them and is injured; for when an observer looks at the body of the sun, he cannot behold it well, since his eye experiences pain because of its light. Similarly, when he looks into a polished mirror, above which rises the light of the sun, and his eye is in the place to which the light is reflected by the mirror, he will again experience pain because of the reflected light reaching his eye from the mirror, and he will not be able to open his eye to observe that light” (Lindberg 62).

This writing supports Alhazen’s findings, leading to the intromission theory, that the eyes receive rays of light rather than emanating rays in order to visually perceive objects. Through extensive and carefully planned investigation, “Alhazen’s most effective refutation of the extramission theory was his own positive intromission theory” (Lindberg 67). Alhazen provided an answer to the question of vision that was founded in the physical proof of the natural science. Unlike his predecessors he realized more truth was yet to be discovered and, “held that visual perception is not a mere sensation but is primarily an inferential act of discernment and judgment (El-Bizri 344). Alhazen recognized that in order to understand optics, one must make greater connections between light, mathematics, and the anatomical properties of the human eye. The refutation of the extramission theory was one of Alhazen’s multiple contributions to the understanding of optics. Alhazen’s unique methods led to what Lindberg believed to be one of the principle merits of Alhazen’s theory of vision in which he, “successfully integrated the anatomical, physical, and mathematical approaches to sight” (67). No other man before Alhazen utilized many areas of study to define so thoroughly the concept of optics. His extensive scientific work proved to be important because it challenged the works of his Greek predecessors.

In all of his studies Alhazen restricted his knowledge to the physical limitations of the natural sciences. According to Saud, Alhazen recognized that, “in the works of Greeks…Physical knowledge is found to be mixed up with metaphysical speculations” and instead of accepting the knowledge of his Greek predecessors sought to advance it. He did this by substituting “free investigation for authoritarianism” (Saud 10). This relates back to Alhazen’s initial hunger to seek truth despite what knowledge society deemed to be absolute. Alhazen will one day be recognized as the man to, “shrine empirical method over faith and unsubstantial theory” (Morgan 2007). To look at one of his works it would be apparent that Alhazen developed a revolutionary way of investigating theoretical hypotheses of natural science. These developments paved the way for a new dynamic way of scholarly learning.

Alhazen brought Middle-Eastern scholarship out of the educational system of scholastic research clouded with metaphysical speculation, and into a sphere of dynamic experimental science. In order to pursue his own studies Alhazen developed a precise and controlled system of empiricism in which his conclusions were founded upon investigation and experience. Facts were not valid unless verified through personal experience and so “the core lessons of his writings is that science must be based upon empirical methods” (Morgan 103). According to Alhazen, this was the only way scientific knowledge could be validated. The Greeks did have an understanding of empiricism, but were prone to intellectual theorizing rather than gaining knowledge through research. It is important to understand that Alhazen, “did not rely upon authority in scientific conclusions but believed in direct study of Nature” (Saud 1990 7). Alhazen’s ‘against the grain’ method of learning could be viewed as only an attempt to end the quarrels he had once been immersed in as chief minister during theological disputes. These quarrels were only the result of the lack of progressive thinking necessary for a methodical system of dynamic learning. It was Alhazen who advanced this new concept in Muslim culture.

Alhazen acknowledged the lack of method and definition in the way his culture sought knowledge and ultimately succeeded in a remedy. Alhazen “was the pioneer of the modern scientific method…established experiments as the norm of proof in the field” (Gorini 2003 55). Today’s scientific method is directly reflective of Alhazen’s methods as written in his Kitab in which he outlines his empirical method:
We shall commence our investigations of the existing objects through induction and by searching for conditions of the visible objects and by distinguishing between the characteristics of individual objects. And out of the characteristics associated with sight we shall inductively select those which are permanent and immutable and those which are quite clear and not ambiguous during the process of seeing. Then we shall advance in investigation and syllogism gradually and in order, criticize the premises and secure conclusions against errors (Saud 33).
This passage can be divided into a series of steps Alhazen took to investigate a particular study. According to Saud, first was the formulation of a Hypothesis and its Verification, second the Observation of Particulars, third the Classification and Selection of relevant data, and lastly Gradual Induction (34). Alhazen’s method was so exact that if certain observations were not in cohesion with a hypothesis, that particular hypothesis was rejected. Gorini also supports the modern reflection of Alhazen’s method in which it, “consisted of a repeating cycle of observations, hypothesis, experimentation and the need for personal verification” (55). Alhazen can be attributed with some of the initial use of scientific words that are commonly used today as he, “accurately employs the terms experiment, experimentation, examiner, obersver, and find in his study of optics and visual perceptions” (Khaleefa 4). These terms could only be found in the writings of a dynamic scholar, for it is already justified that the Greeks had no ambition like the Islamic people to pursue scholarly research. In his Kitab, he writes:
Let an experimenter take a solid body, make a tiny hole in it, then hold it opposite the sun. He will find that light goes through the hole, moving along a straight line. If he tests the light as it extends through space, he will find it to be perfectly straight. It is therefore clear from all this that the light of the sun only extends along straight lines (Morgan 104).
The basic idea of light travelling in straight lines, so common to us now, was not accepted and had not been proven until Alhazen sought to prove it through his unique empirical method. Alhazen was a prolific writer, whose empirical and rationalized research went to cover multiple facets of the study of optics, and whose influence spread past the borders of the Muslim world, into the beginning of the European Scientific Revolution.

Within a culture, new eras of enlightenment can generally be believed to begin with the adoption and integration of foreign ideas. Just as the Muslim empire received teachings from the Greeks, Persians and other civilizations, so had the Christian European Empire began to receive Muslim influences. Omar supports the correlation of the European scientific revolution with Islamic influence in which, “the revival of scientific activity in Europe in the thirteenth century followed the translation into Latin of many Arabic works on optics, astronomy, mathematics, and medicine” (68). For hundreds of years while Islam enjoyed years of enlightenment and advances in scientific study, Europe sat in the dark ages. It was the works of Islamic scholars like Alhazen, whose Kitab al-Manazir was translated into Latin by the Polish scholar Witelio in 1270 (Gorini 54), which contributed greatly to the new thinking of Europe. The integration of new ideas took time. For many generations the European education system was based solely on the religious teachings of the Christian belief. However, one must also recognize that the scholastic teachings of Europe should not be seen in an entirely negative light. It was the scholastic learning of the European churches that not only preserved knowledge, but also served as the foundation for later dynamic learning. It can be believed then that “the first Christians of Europe cared little for secular knowledge” (Saud 6). It was in the beginning of the twelfth century that medieval Christians began to acquaint themselves with such works as Alhazen’s, practically three centuries after his death. These works however certainly, “dealt a blow to the medieval synthesis of knowledge, and helped the Western scholars to get a true conception of the physical science” (Saud 7). Europeans began to expand their thinking past the Christian foundation, and began to form new understandings. Many scholars through time have wrongly accredited the ideas of Muslim scholars to later European scholars between the thirteenth and seventeenth century. As this Western belief is no longer strongly believed, works and theories very similar and almost identical to those of the great thinker Alhazen are traceable in the works of later Western scientists (Saud 42).

Preserved in his writings Alhazen’s empirical method influenced the works of European methodologists such as Galileo, Roger Bacon (c. 1214-1294), and Johannes Kepler (c. 1571-1630) as well as many others. All of these men studied the works of Alhazen and it is believed by Selah Omar that, “all other Latin works before then [17th c.] repeated Alhazen’s experiments, expatiated his theories, or simply misunderstood much of his work” (69). However, while these men were not the innovators of such a useful scientific method, many European scientists used Alhazen’s influence to better scholarly research and education. It was Alhazen’s mathematical and optic theories that would, “lay the foundation…for Galileo and Copernicus to understand the true relationship of the earth to other heavenly bodies” (Morgan 97). Roger Bacon who was commonly believed by the English to establish empirical method, produced his own writings which “are largely commentaries on [Alhazen’s] writings”, and like Alhazen recognized that problems were still beyond the reach of human capabilities of the time (Khaleefa 3). It wasn’t until Johannes Kepler, a German Mathematician and Astronomer who was perhaps the first European to master Alhazen’s experimental approach to science as well as further the great Muslim’s studies (Omar 68).

Johannes Keper lived during the seventeenth century, the peak of the scientific revolution, where new European knowledge was fully intermixed with the lasting knowledge of its predecessors. Having been influenced by the works of Alhazen, Kepler pursued his own method of rigorous scientific empiricism and, “by insisting upon more rigor and consistency than the medieval perspectivists themselves had been able to achieve, he was able to perfect it” (Lindberg 208). Kepler’s primary achievement was his theory of retinal images. One of Alhazen’s experimental devices he created, the camera obscura, helped define the properties of light and led scholars such as Kepler to the initial concept of the camera. Kepler’s theory for retinal images, “was the natural outcome of comparing the eye to the camera obscura and applying to the eye the knowledge of image-formation acquired in solving the problem of the camera” (Lindberg 205). Kepler provided European education new ideas connected to those once established by Alhazen. At the peak of Europe’s scientific revolution Kepler was able to apply more rigor and make his own advances, “but did so without departing from the basic aims and criteria of visual theory established by Alhazen in the eleventh century” (Lindberg 207).

Through the scientific revolution, it was Alhazen’s new method of epistemology based upon empirical method that “gave sense-perception its proper role in the process of cognition, a role which has…been totally…subordinate to intuition on the Aristotelean theory of knowledge. This theory gave Greek its ‘axiomatic’ approach, so valuable for mathematics, but so stultifying for natural science” (Omar 69-70). From the beginning it was Alhazen who turned away from the idea of self-evident scientific law and turned knowledge rather into validated and probable theories in the realm of natural science.

Not only his theories, but also the knowledge of his work in optics, astronomy, and mathematics became the basis for education throughout history. Alhazen and other Islamic scientists advanced the knowledge of their time. Ancient works such as those of the Greeks were understood through the perception of centuries of Islamic influence and thought. Alhazen was a dedicated scientist whose consistency in precision made him one of the greatest innovators of his time. He came from a culture that held the general belief that knowledge revealed the whole of nature in all honesty. Therefore he refused to be content with the ideas associated with authoritarianism and only accepted the theories of his predecessors after personal verification through inductive methods. The entire lengthy work of Alhazen’s is the ultimate source for the application of his empirical method. His methods of empiricism will go on to be adapted to field of study outside of the ancient areas of knowledge. Western culture would sustain Alhazen’s experimental science through out generations, and it would to be adapted and applied to modern issues. Alhazen’s empirical method would remain to be one of the fundamental concepts in scientific research and education.



El-Bizri, Nadar. “Ibn al-Haytham , or Alhazen.” Medieval Islamic Civilization, An Ecyclopaedia. 1. New York: Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, 2006. Web. 24 Jan 2012. < Islamic Civilization – An Encyclopedia.pdf>.

Endress, Gerhard. “Aristotle and Aristotelianism.” Medieval Islamic Civilization, An Encyclopaedia. 1. New York: Routledge Taylor and Francis Group, 2006. Web. 24 Jan 2012. < Islamic Civilization – An Encyclopedia.pdf>.

Gorini, Rosanna. “Al-Haytham the Man of Experience First Steps in the Science of Vision.” Journal of the International Society for the History of Islamic Medicine (JISHIM). Vol. 2. No. 4 (2003): pg. 53-55. Web. 21 Jan. 2012. < used/not used/JISHIM VOL.2 NO.4 PDF.pdf

Khaleefa, Omar. “Who is the Founder of Psychophysics on Experimental Psychology?.” American Journal of Islamic Social Sciences. 16.2 (1999): 1-26. Web. 22 Jan. 2012.

Lindberg, David C. Theories of Vision from Al-Kindi to Kepler. 1st. ed. London: University of Chicago Press, 1976. Print.

Morgan, Michael Hamilton. Lost History The Enduring Legacy of Muslim Scientists, Thinkers, and Artists. Washington D.C.: National Geographic Society, 2007.

Omar, Selah. “Ibn al-Haytham’s Theory of Knowledge and its Significance for Later Science.” Arab Studies Quarterly. 1.1 (1979): 67-82. Web. 25 Jan. 2012.

Rashed, Roshidi. “Ibn al-Haytham (Alhazen).” Encyclopedia of the History of Science, Technology, and Medicine in Non-Western Cultures. Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1997. Web. 21 Jan 2012.

Saud, Muhammad. The Scientific Method of Ibn al-Haytham. First ed. Pakistan: Islamic Research Institute, 1990. Print.

Tbakhi, Abdelghani, and Samir S Amr. “Ibn Al-Haytham: Father of Modern Optics.” Arab and Muslim Physicians and Scholars. 27.6 (2007): 464-67. Web. 21 Jan. 2012.

The Academy of Jundishapur

by Jazmyne M. Sturgeon

The Academy of Jundishapur stood proud as a temple of learning in the Persian Empire. The Academy was founded by Khusru Anusharvan in the city of Jundi Shapur during the Sassanid Dynasty at around the mid 200’s A.D., although the exact date is unknown. Khusru encouraged the advancement of learning throughout Persia with the foundation of the Academy (Arberry 1953). The Academy of Jundishapur was a place of learning, a place where ideas gathered, smoldered, and blossomed; because of this, The Academy of Jundishapur impacted future developments of Islamic medicine and arts.

Perhaps the most prominent feature of the Academy is its impact on medical society. The Academy of Jundishapur is considered the most advanced center of higher education in 6th century Persia. Scholars from various backgrounds had gathered at Jundishapur to share manuscripts and exchange ideas; those scholars included Greeks, Jews, Christians, Syrians, Zoroastrians, Hindus, and Persians. It is interesting to note that even though Jundishapur collected knowledge from many different cultures, the Academy did not adapt cultural aspects, especially those that conflicted with Islam and the Quran (Stanton 1990). In the pharmaceutical world, names are most commonly Persian, as opposed to anatomical terms that are of Greek or Latin origin. This should not come as a surprise seeing that such an important school of medicine, the Academy of Jundishapur, is in the Middle East (Arberry 1953). Because of its location, the Academy of Jundishapur was able to combine Greek, Indian, and Iranian medical traditions in a cosmopolitan atmosphere, which laid the foundation for future developments in Islamic medicine (The Cambridge History of Iran 1975).

Ibn Bukhtishu was a famous doctor during the time of al-Mansur who headed the medical school until his death in AD 771. The Bakhtishu family carried the medical traditions of Jundishapur when they served several Abbasid caliphs as their personal physicians (The Golden Age of Persia). The Cambridge History of Iran expands:

The members of the Bukhtyishu family were directors of the Jundishapur hospital and produced many outstanding physicians. One of them, Jiris, was called to Baghdad by the Abbasid caliph al-Mansur, to cure his dyspepsia. Due to his success he becamse court physician of the caliphs, and after them the whole school was transferred to Baghdad marking the real beginnings of Islamic medicine. (The Cambridge History of Iran 1975)

The Abbasid Dynasty began its rule in AD 750. Under the rule of the Abbasid caliphs, the Muslim nation stretched from Asia to as far as the Atlantic Ocean at one point. The Muslim nation flourished and reached its peak; features included a stable, universal currency, multi-ethnic and multi-religious political systems, a strong legal system, and a trade route that stretched from Africa, to China, to Northern Europe (Jackson 2012). For the Bukhtishu family to serve as an Abbasid caliph’s personal physician is a high honor; and the education Bukhtishu’s received from Jundishapur gave them the ability to fulfill that role.

The Masuyas were a Christian family of Persian origin. The father was a genius who received his medical knowledge through experience at Jundishapur. He later moved to Baghdad where his three sons also became physicians. One of which, Yuhanna b. Masuya, was the first in Islamic civilization to perform animal dissection and write on ophthalmology, or the study of the eye (The Cambridge History of Iran 1975).

Sabur b. Sahl was another Persian physician of Jundishapur. He wrote one of the first books on antidotes called Aqrabadhin, which inspired many successors (The Golden Age of Persia 1975). Of course, the Academy of Jundishapur produced many fine students who made major impacts in Islamic society in the field of medicine and other studies.

Many scholars have agreed on the Academy of Jundishapur’s lasting impact on the hospital system. The Cambridge History of Iran states:

To a very large extent the credit for the whole hospital system must be given to Persia. The hospitals of the Mohammadan period were built very largely upon the ideals and traditions of the Sasanian hospital of Jundishapur.’ The well-known hospitals of ‘Adud al-Daula in Shiraz and Baghdad, as well as the later hospitals of Damascus and Cairo, were based upon the Jundishapur model. The first products of Islamic medicine were also from this important medical centre. (The Cambridge History of Iran 1975)

A.J. Arberry concurs in his work The Legacy of Persia. His assertion is that the greatest and longest lasting legacy that Persia contributed to Europe was their conception of hospitals. Arberry also claims that the modern hospital is a direct growth from Persian foundations, especially from Jundishapur (Arberry 1953). When it comes to medical and biological sciences, Jundishapur was a thriving center where medicine of many traditions have been preserved alongside Persian and Indian traditions, making the transition from the world of ancient science to the modern Islamic science flow naturally (The Cambridge History of Iran 1975). The Academy of Jundishapur was a thriving hub of medical knowledge. It took in vast amounts of information from a multitude of cultures and combined them into what was to become Islamic medicine. The medical center at Jundishapur, along with the medical knowledge that thrived there, had lasting impacts on European medicine.

Although medical studies were the Academy of Jundishapur’s cornerstone, it did have a range of other studies, including the arts. Persian weaving industry boomed in the city, and the native craftsmanship was celebrated in the West (Arberry 1953). Also, various types of fine silk were woven for export and personal use: the Sassanid weaves created in Jundishapur birthed a new type of decorative silk that would later influence medieval silk weaving in Syria, Egypt, Byzantium, and other places further west (Jackh 1952). Apart from weaving, The Academy of Jundishapur also toyed with astronomy:

In complete contrast to the impossibility of giving a clear and straight-forward account of early Abbasid astronomical theory, the materials on astronomical observations, although incomplete, are ample and precise… The earliest reported activity supplied a link with the Sasanian past. About AD 800, one Ahmad Nihavandi was making observations of the sun at Jundishapur, the garrison town and centre of medical studies established in Khuzstan by Shapur I. This is the only mention of the place in connection with astronomy, and subsequent reports for a long time thereafter are centered upon in Baghdad. (The Cambridge History of Iran 1975)

Cultures traveled from regions as far as Asia and the Atlantic Ocean to share their knowledge at The Academy of Jundishapur. The Academy served as a nesting ground for information to gather and flourish. Later, medical facilities based their hospitals on the Jundishapur model and used much of Jundishapur’s medical knowledge to increase their own. The Academy of Jundishapur produced many noteworthy students, some of which whose family went on to do great things. All of these things have contributed to making the Academy of Jundishapur Sassanid Persia’s center medicine and the arts.


Arberry, A. J. The Legacy of Persia. Oxford: Clarendon, 1953. Print.

Frye, R. N., ed. The Cambridge History of Iran Volume 4: The Period from The Arab Invasion to The Saljuqs. London: Cambridge UP, 1975. Print.

Frye, Richard Nelson. The Golden Age of Persia: The Arabs in the East. New York: Barnes & Noble, 1975. Print.

Jackh, Ernest. Background of the Middle East. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1952. Print.

Jackson, Steve N. “The Thin Tweed Line: The Caliphate and the Muslim Renaissance.” DHC 261: The University. Black Hall 151, Ellensburg, WA. Jan. 2012. Lecture.

Stanton, Charles Michael. Higher Learning in Islam: The Classical Period, A.D. 700-1300. Savage, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1990. Print


by Kyle Perra

There is much to say of the many famed philosophical thinkers of previous generations who set the standards on knowledge in the world we know and cherish today. These celebrated persons, such as Sir Isaac Newton, Galileo Galilee, William Harvey, Thomas Aquinas and countless others have long been studied and their works analyzed by many thousands of people. These philosophical thinkers and scientists alike surely deserve their fame, which they have earned through strong critical thought and experimentation, however I am left uncertain on whether or not everyone within the long chains of philosophical practice have each had their fair share of credit, in which the big names I have mentioned I believe unfairly hold too much of. How it is possible that a person who began or influenced greatly the ingenious ideas of evolution, the concept of momentum, algebraic problem solving, the multiverse and many others could slip under the radar so severely is beyond my imagination. Moreover, the fact that I did not know of the man Ibn Sina who is credited to be “the most universal thinker and man of science in Islam,” by Olaf Pedersen in his book The First Universities, published in 1997, and Ibn Sina’s many contributions to everything I have mentioned thus far is completely embarrassing. Without this man Ibn Sina, who I can now hold in high regard, our world and the way that we can systematically understand it would have been dramatically affected. Furthermore, the scientific understanding of the human species and it’s biological make up would surely be severely lacking. Ibn Sina died almost one thousand years ago and he likely knew more regarding our existence as humans within his primitive world than many could possibly fathom today; the fact that he came to so many intellectual conclusions without the technology we take for granted today should attest to his genius.

Ibn Sina, often referred to as his Latinized name, Avicenna, lived during a time of great intellectual advancement known as the Islamic Golden Age. As proclaimed by Soheil Afnan in his book Avicenna: His Life and Works, published in 1958, during this time, many cultures such as Zoroastrianism, Buddhism, Manichaeism, Nestorian Christianity and Islam blended and worked together in order to form the foundation of many facts we know about our world and ourselves today. Avicenna’s father, who was appointed as a local governor in Kharmaithan, obviously was of some high standing. It was here in Kharmaithan that Avicenna and his younger brother were born. Shortly after, they moved to Bukhara, a known Buddhist center at the time due to Arab conquest, and thusly a place of large Islamic study. The origin of Avicenna’s father is not quite clear because so many cultures have claimed Avicenna to be of their own kind. It is notable though, that during Avicenna’s wanderings, he deliberately avoided Turkish areas and sought the company instead of Persian rulers. Also notable when considering what culture Avicenna might have been born into is his mother’s name, Setareh, a pure Persian word meaning star, suggesting her Persian descent.

Avicenna’s early years were met with long hours of studious tasks, as is mentioned by Farhang Zabeeh, in his book Avicenna’s Treatise on Logic, published in 1971. Avicenna’s father took the education of his sons very seriously and sent them both at early ages to initiate their education. As Avicenna mentions in his autobiography, which was depicted by his long time pupil Gorgani, “During a period of ten years I learned the Koran and the belles-lettres. I surprised everyone by my aptitude for learning the various sciences.” Unfortunately for Avicenna, his region in which he grew up was marked by religious unorthodox – an important thing to note as to possibly explain his difficult life, with no shortage of persecution. While his father belonged to the Ishmaeli section and often attempted to expand his beliefs onto his sons, Avicenna withheld. Avicenna notes that, “Often he (Avicenna’s father) discussed the Ishmaelian concept of the nature of the soul and the intelligence with my brother. I listened and thought, but was never convinced, and, although they tried to convert me to their religion, their efforts were useless.” This however did not discourage Avicenna’s father from continuing his stubborn son’s education and he “discussed geometry, philosophy and Indian arithmetic and it was he who sent me to a grocer to learn Indian numerals which I mastered quickly.” Around this time a man named Abu Abdullah-Natali, whom gathered some fame for his philosophy, came to Bukhara. Avicenna’s father immediately sought him out and encouraged him to stay at his home in hopes that he would instruct young Avicenna on philosophy. Avicenna quickly picked up on what Natali had to offer him. In his autobiography, Avicenna mentions that, “I made an original inquiry into the problem of genus (which refers to the types of different things) which surprised my teacher.” Natali, whom was nervous that Avicenna’s father might discontinue Avicenna’s education, quickly encouraged the father to not engage Avicenna in any other occupation. From this plea and on, Avicenna began his life as a great polymath who would affect the world over greatly.

Eventually Natali left Bukhara, and his young pupil Avicenna then began an energetic spree of learning across many subjects such as arithmetic, astronomy, medicine, logic, metaphysics and so many more, all on his own and on his own time. Avicenna had an obvious desire to learn, and over the rest of the entirety of his life he did so vigorously. It was due to this attitude that Avicenna was able to contribute on many important things we know today. The idea that space is larger than any human can fathom, even with the technology we obtain today, is firstly due to Fakhr Al-Din Al-Razi’s famous concept of a multiverse. However, possibly even more important was the foundation Al-Razi worked on top of with his astronomical questions: the Aristotelian and Avicennian Geocentric Model of our world. The Geocentric Model, often referred to as the Ptolemaic System, “is the superseded theory, that the Earth is the center of the universe, and that all other objects orbit around it.” This idea served as the dominant cosmological system in several ancient cultures, such as Ancient Greece. When considering the Geocentric Model there were two observations made that led to the universal acceptance of the theory. Firstly, it was observed that the stars, the sun and other planets seemed to revolve around the earth each day. Furthermore, every star was on a ‘celestial’ sphere, which lined up when using the North and South Pole as an axis. Secondly, the Earth does not seem to move when observed from the Earth itself. Both observations thusly led to the idea that the Earth was the center of the universe. Al-Razi noted the Aristotelian and Avicennian model and took to the study on his own. When considering the concept, Al-Razi used his knowledge of atomism to state that there are “a thousand thousand worlds (alfa alfi ‘awalim) beyond this world such that each one of those worlds be bigger and more massive than this world as well as having the like of what this world has.” To support his argument, he cites the Qur’anic verse, in which he was well knowledgeable on, “All praise belongs to God, Lord of the Worlds,” pointing closely to the term “Worlds.” Through his religious and celestial knowledge, Al-Razi rightfully predicted the Geocentric Model to be inaccurate and while he did prove Aristotle and Avicenna to be incorrect, it was through their observations that Al-Razi was able to claim the vastness of our universe and the possibility of multiple universes.

Avicenna’s yearning for knowledge didn’t end there and, in fact, he had much more to observe about the world he lived on. In one of Avicenna’s many books, The Book of Healing, Avicenna reflects on the concept of momentum in a way that many today might recognize as an early version of what Galileo Galilee and then, eventually, Isaac Newton had to say on the theory. While following closely with Aristotelian Dynamics, Avicenna was able to contribute to the theory of Impetus, which was developed by John Philoponus in the 6th century. Avicenna was credited with the development of a strikingly different theory than Philoponus however, in which he made a distinction between the inclination and force of a projectile, and concluded that motion was a result of an inclination ( mayl ) transferred to the projectile by the thrower, and that projectile motion in a vacuum would not cease. Furthermore, Avicenna also referred to mayl as being proportional to weight times velocity, which is obviously the basis for our concept of inertia today as well as Isaac Newton’s concept of momentum. The Avicennan-Buridan self-conserving impetus theory initiated one of the most important thought-experiments in the history of science, namely the so-called ‘tunnel-experiment’, so important because it brought oscillatory and pendulum motion within the pale of dynamical analysis and understanding in the science of motion for the very first time and thereby also established one of the important principles of classical mechanics. Without Avicenna it is unclear where the state of these theories, hugely important to our existence, might be today. It is possible that Isaac Newton without the Impetus Theory might have never bothered with the classical mechanics we know today. It is certain though that without Avicenna this subject would have required much more ground work and thusly would have taken famous thinkers such as Galileo Galilei, Rene Descartes and Isaac Newton longer to develop.

Avicenna was largely known for his treatises on logic, in which he followed closely with Aristotelian views and beliefs. Being the polymath that he was, it was essential for Avicenna to debate what knowledge is, and what could make something knowable. In Aristotle’s De Anima (On the Soul), Aristotle divides the mind into three parts: sensation, imagination and intellection; moreover, when one perceives an object, his mind composites a sense-image. When he remembers the object he previously sensed, he is imagining its form (the image of the imagination is often translated as “phantasm”). When he extracts information from this phantasm, he is using his intellect. Through the ideas Aristotle and also with the help of later commentaries on Aristotle’s work, Avicenna was able to develop a strong theory for his own beliefs on epistemology. This epistemology of Avicenna’s is founded on the theory that the soul is independent of the body and also capable of abstraction. This theory is where Avicenna developed his so-called ‘flying man’ argument and thought experiment, which can be found in his writing Fi-Nafis/De Anima (Treatise on the Soul). The experiment questioned that if a person were created in a perfect state and condition, blind and also suspended mid-air causing this person to be incapable of understanding anything through their senses, would this person be able to confirm their own existence? Even in this state, the argument would be that the person could identify themselves through their thinking, thus confirming their existence; however, the experiment substantially confirms the importance of the soul. This theory inevitably develops the ideas of hylomorphism, in which both Avicenna and Aristotle were involved. It is often thought that Aquinas simply followed Aristotle with his doctrine on Intelligible Species. However, this is not the case. There were many doubts had about the Aristotelian corpus, in which Avicenna studied closely. Those who followed Aristotelian thought tried to resolve the problems of intellection and hylomorphism. This scientific experimentation done by Avicenna and a man by the name Averroes led to a result of denying Platonic forms and affirming hylomorphism; these scientific observations were directly drawn from for the development of Aquinas’ doctrine of Intelligible Species. Thusly so, without Avicenna, Aquinas’ heavily discussed doctrine of Intelligible Species either would have contained some of the inaccuracies of Aristotle from his original theories on hylomorphism or the doctrine would have not been constructible altogether.

Interestingly so, none of the above contributions in which I have spoken in depth on are of the fore front of Avicenna’s treatises and theories. In fact, the man Avicenna who is given little credit in our modern era for the many things he has accomplished and theorized would only and mainly be known for his huge contributions to medicine, which cannot be overrated. Avicenna is often referred to as the father of modern medicine and the father of aromatherapy for the creation of his ‘Kanon.’. In the four centuries that followed Avicenna’s life, his Canon would be the main treatise for reference in medieval medicine. “In his five books Avicenna gave a clear picture of general medicine, pharmacology, pathology, nutrition, and hygiene, all based on a synthesis of Hippocratic and Galenic observations and on Aristotle’s ideas on biology. With its clear clinical descriptions and precise therapeutic notes, the Canon gave the art of healing in the middle ages a solid foundation – more solid perhaps than the theories on which it was based. Its importance… can hardly be overrated, and to this day it is read with respect as the most superior work in this area that the past has ever produced.” The medical encyclopedia as previously mentioned was contained in five books, each broken apart to deal with separate but confusing issues. The first reintroduced the Galenic ideas of four temperaments, or humours, alongside some general anatomy and physiology. The second introduced clinical pharmacology, in which the original Galenic ideas of four humours was severely lacking of. Alongside this the second book introduced pharmaceutical sciences and the hugely important theory of inductive logic, which can be seen as critical for the scientific method. Book three contains the function and diseases of each organ head to toe, a diagram in which many of those who sought out medical careers took to heart. Book four contains information on diseases that might affect the entirety of a person’s body such as a fever. The last book contained an extensive list of compound drugs used to treat several diseases and was also among the first writings to suggest remedies for cancer and other tumors. Not greatly mentioned in the Kanon, but heavily practiced by Avicenna was what can be seen as some of the first successful surgeries, a practice which Avicenna encouraged – a severe contrast to physicians at his time.

Avicenna’s Canon, and namely his sections regarding anatomy directly influence the ideas of Ibn Al-Nafis whom was greatly involved in William Harvey’s later theorized systemic circulation – critical to medicine as it describes the process of the heart and of blood throughout the body. It is in Avicenna’s section on anatomy, pathology and physiology that historians find the first descriptions of pulmonary circulation. Al-Nafis, whom would write a commentary on the Canon’s anatomy section states that, “…the blood from the right chamber of the heart must arrive at the left chamber but there is no direct pathway between them. The thick septum of the heart is not perforated and does not have visible pores as some people thought or invisible pores as Galen thought. The blood from the right chamber must flow through the vena arteriosa (pulmonary artery) to the lungs, spread through its substances, be mingled there with air, pass through the arteria venosa (pulmonary vein) to reach the left chamber of the heart and there form the vital spirit.” Al-Nafis took Avicenna’s foundation, as many philosophers and physicians did and are still doing today, and grew upon it, introducing their own ideas and observations that later lead to the theories of people we are more inclined to know of today. In this situation it is William Harvey whom used the foundation of Avicenna’s, and then Al-Nafis’, in order to directly involve his own theories in modern medicine today; and while the first discussions on pulmonary circulation will be credited Avicenna and Al-Nafis, it is Harvey who is today famous for his systemic circulation: a complete description of the properties of blood being pumped through the body by the heart. This science is well known today and is taught scholastically in our schools as matters of scientific fact. Thusly, without Avicenna our knowledge on how the different parts of our body receive nutrients and oxygen would had to have been the work of someone else, whom would have been severely late on the subject and also possibly severely lacking.

Some might say that it was Galen’s ideas with his four temperaments that truly influenced the ideas of medieval and then modern medicine and that Avicenna merely hopped onto the bandwagon. However I would argue that Galen’s methods were missing what is possibly the most important part of the entirety of the Canon of Medicine: clinical pharmacology. In Galen’s practice, if a person was ill then there was a systematic way of understanding what disease the person was ill of and what could possibly be the best way to treat them. Not a bad system to have in place. However it was when Galen was unable to treat a patient where I can personally see the main flaws of his practice. Simply, Galen had no means of trial and error, and everything that was stated about his four temperaments was expected to be followed in the same manor for every person under the classified disease regardless of previous treatments and their fatalities. In Avicenna’s clinical pharmacology, there were seven things to consider when treating a person.

  • “The drug must be free from any extraneous accidental quality.”
  • “It must be used on a simple, not a composite, disease.” 
  • “The drug must be tested with two contrary types of diseases, because sometimes a drug cures one disease by Its essential qualities and another by its accidental ones.”
  • “The quality of the drug must correspond to the strength of the disease. For example, there are some drugs whose heat is less than the coldness of certain diseases, so that they would have no effect on them.”
  • “The time of action must be observed, so that essence and accident are not confused.”
  • “The effect of the drug must be seen to occur constantly or in many cases, for if this did not happen, it was an accidental effect.” 

“The experimentation must be done with the human body, for testing a drug on a lion or a horse might not prove anything about its effect on man.”

There is very little evidence of people acknowledging the necessity of clinical pharmacology that is except for the great mind, Avicenna.

Avicenna’s careful practice of medicine helped him gain the favor of many high courts during his long life, without which it is likely that he would have never been able to accomplish the many works he created, including his all-important Canon. Without Avicenna, many things that we know today in modern medicine would be lost. More importantly though, Avicenna and the development of, not just the Kanon, but all of the theories in which I have mentioned, directly influenced the education system of his time and the many centuries to come. His philosophical ideas and clinical observations have led to a history of both scholastic and dynamic learning. Scholastic in such a way that his Canon was a must-know for anyone whom knew anything about medicine – a huge piece in what people believed should be studied at the time in order to be a truly educated being. Dynamic in such a way that while not all of his theories are recognized as facts today, these same theories challenged the knowledge of likely thousands of educated persons and built the foundation for which much of what we recognize as fact today is built on. Without Avicenna, I believe there would have been a huge delay in the mass education of people, thus possibly leading to a downfall in intellectual thought all together. Luckily for us, the man Ibn Sina did in fact live and did all of what I have mentioned for the human kind. He lives on today through his many ideas, which are still very relevant within our society and also through the many institutions based on Unani medicine in which Avicenna’s ideas directly influenced. These same institutions of which there are hundreds dedicated to the advancement of the four temperaments are still very prominent today throughout the world and especially in the world’s eastern half.

The Madrassa of Al-Qarawiyyin

by Kyle Perra

Education surely has been, and hopefully forever will be, a main concern for the human race. Since even before the beginnings of what we could call civilizations, people have sought out knowledge in hopes to better understand themselves and the world in which we live. Being that education is as important as it is, there has always been much debate over what the best teaching method may be. While everyone seems to have their own ideas and interpretations of this method, it would be most intelligent to turn to history instead for that answer. I believe that I have found that answer in the world’s oldest continually operating university. The Madrassa (educational institution) of Al-Qarawiyyin, also known by its westernized name, Al Karaouine, was founded in 859 C.E. as a religious university which I believe attests to its lengthy duration. However, there are many that consider religious universities to be flawed in their pedagogy and, more recently, even dangerous for the rest of the world. Such universities and, more importantly for this essay, those which are tied in with the Islamic religion, have been under great speculation recently for the supposed teachings of dangerous and hateful ideas towards western society. It will be the point of my essay to educate naysayers of religious teaching on the Madrassa Model as a whole, in hopes that their better understanding of the subject will lead them away from stereotypes. Moreover, I will explain how a student’s understanding and dedication to the sacred does absolutely nothing but further enable knowledge acquisition. Through these arguments I will also show that knowledge and the sacred are largely inseparable.

For well over twelve hundred years now, Al-Qarawiyyin has been in operation as both a place of worship and higher education. The mosque as a whole is of the typical madrassa style as it is greatly distinctive in its architecture, which has been changed a few times within its lengthy existence. The mosque itself also has an interesting beginning, which sheds light on some on the great benefits of being a part of the Islam society during this time period. The madrassa was founded in 859 C.E. as previously mentioned, in Fez, Morocco by a young princess, Fatima Al-Fihiri. The young princess migrated to Fez with her father, Mohammad Al-Fihiri, from a town named Qairawan (present day Tunisia). Mohammad Al-Fihiri was known as a successful businessman and, at the time of his death, passed along a great fortune to Fatima and her sister, Mariam. Both sisters were believed to have been well educated, as is typical in Muslim society, and decided the best way to spend their inheritance would be the building of a large mosque in their new hometown. They decided to name the mosque Al-Qairawaniyyin, which was slowly shortened to Al Qarawiyyin due to the fact that many people of their old city Qairawan now resided with them in Fez. Originally the mosque was built of only medium size when compared to its sister madrassas which were mainly on the eastern half of what was known as the Greater Middle East. From the mosque’s history, we are able to see that women played a large role in many factors of Muslim life and the fact that the two sisters were even able to be educated attests to the greater amount of equality within Muslim society. Also interesting, when considering the history of Al-Qarawiyyin, is the devotion that people had towards education. These two sisters could have spent that money for their own personal gain, but chose to better their society’s educational prospects instead. Fatima and Mariam were also not alone in their contributions, as various sultans did not delay in providing the mosque with subsidies, gifts and sometimes with treasures, especially books.

After its completion, Al-Qarawiyyin quickly developed into a place of religious instruction and political debate, gradually extending its curriculum to include the natural sciences as well. Among the subjects taught, alongside the Qur’an and Fiqh, were courses on grammar, rhetoric, logic, medicine, mathematics, astronomy, chemistry, history, geography and even music. The great variety of topics that were able to be deeply explored quickly drew in scholars from the entirety of the Muslim world, which was quite huge during this period. Eventually the number of applicants became so overwhelming that the university had to introduce a much more rigorous selection system than it previously had which included many things, but primarily required a completion of learning the entire Quran. This rigorous system did not go to waste, as Al-Qarawiyyin quickly attained prestigious fame for producing a number of high profile scholars and pioneer scholars: Abu Abullah Al-Sati, Abu Al-Abbas al-Zwawi, Ibn Rashid Al-Sabti, Ibn Al-Haj Al-Fasi, Abu Madhab Al-Fasi, Ibn Maimun (Maimonids), and Al-Idrissi. Sources also list a number of peers such as Ibn Al-‘Arabi, Ibn Khaldun, Ibn Al-Khatib, Alpetragius, Al-Bitruji, Ibn Harazim, and Ibn Wazzan, all said to have all taught in Al-Qarawiyyin.

A university with such a high number of scholars who would inevitably shake the foundation of the world over with their treatises, experiments and conclusions surely had a great pedagogy and there were many factors to the madrassa model that would inevitably demand its fame for teaching. The madrassa model was also very distinct at the time of its creation for not just being heavily involved with spirituality and the sacred, but also for having almost its entire curriculum based on the teachings of such. This is where the madrassas gain most of their negative speculation, however I believe that this is where the madrassas also gain most of their benefits.

There are many strengths, alongside with having your education based on religious devotion, a few of which I will be addressing in this paper. First and foremost, the enthusiasm and determination in which Muslim students place upon their education is completely outstanding when compared to students in an educational system without religious devotion. This is because of many things, but primarily because of what the entirety of the Muslim religion is all about: a person’s submission to god. A submission to god requires many things within the Muslim religion, one of them being a devotion to the acquisition of knowledge. Before a Muslim student can even begin their path towards higher education, that same student must first go through the basic and elementary teachings of the Quran. The Quran will eventually become the students guide book to life not only in a moral sense, but also in an educational one when considering many upper division classes use the Quran as their textbook. It is only after the student has mastered the Quran and its verses that this student may then begin their application process to one of the many mosques that involve themselves higher education. When a student is put in a classroom and is asked to participate in the enhancement of their knowledge it is surely beneficial to have sufficient reasoning. This is exactly where institutions without religious devotion severely lack behind the madrassa model, for it is the initial focus of the student that will lead to their better acquisition of knowledge. This is why parents are always so greatly connected to the educational system, for without religious devotion it becomes the parent’s job to encourage their children to sit in a classroom all day when they could be involving themselves in the simple pleasures of childhood. When you are able to connect education to the purpose of someone’s existence, it surely makes a great impact on that person’s thinking. Children within Muslim society quickly learn of the necessity of their devotion to God and when it states in a person’s guidebook to life, like the Quran is for these Muslim children, that a person must educate themselves, they gain an initial enthusiasm which will push them to surpass those without it. This kind of determination is key to the success of the madrassa model and can also be shown within many factors of it. For example, a Muslim child reads the Quran and follows the society in which he or she was born into. This same child eventually succeeds into higher education and performs their devotion to God. Now that this person has followed through with their education, they many now go into one or many of the several working positions of the Muslim society. For the purpose of this example, let’s say this person decides to become a teacher. Now we have the initial factor – children who believe they are doing God’s work by receiving education, and we have a secondary factor – the teacher who believes in the same submission to God. Both of these factors can only be benefited by their respective enthusiasm and determination, thusly leading to just one of the many great strengths of the madrassa system.

Now that we have both students and teachers essentially working with the enthusiasm one might work with when considering the entirety of one’s purpose, the madrassa model can really start to pick up pace. This initial enthusiasm to submit one’s self to god, which as I have shown eventually leads to the enthusiasm in everything a Muslim person might do, only benefits virtually every factor of Muslim education. The required completion and understanding of the Quran in its self can also be shown as a benefit to the Madrassa Model. It is widely known today that a person’s reading is directly relevant to that same person’s intelligence. It is through this and the idea of cognitive development that the madrassas of Al-Qarawiyyin’s time period were able to gain the interest of Professor Glenn Hardaker of the University of Huddersfield. Professor Hardaker took note of how, “The level of memorization that students can achieve and the importance of orality in transmitting the sacred text underpin the teaching. For example, a typical student of al-Qarawiyyin is able to memorise a page of text in approximately five minutes.” This is an incredibly remarkable task that was likely only possible during the period in which Al-Qarawiyyin was first constructed by the methods of the madrassa model. Professor Hardaker went on to explain that, “Our observations found that Islamic pedagogy shares many similarities with the cognitive perspective to learning theory… Chomsky (1962) claimed that higher learning could only be achieved through a combination of conditioning and the internal mental state of the learner, which, he argued, should also be analyzed and understood. This view is extended by research into cognitive learning styles that also identifies the increasing importance of cultural sensitivity (Evans and Cools, 2009). The notion of ‘conditioning’ and ‘cultural sensitivity’ can also be seen in the context of the educational environment of al-Qarawiyyin, where pedagogic strategies for influencing the internal mental state of the learner are adopted.” Alongside this, the separation from the modern environment in Fez, Morocco completely compliments these ideas of ‘conditioning’ and the ‘internal mental state of the learner’ both physically and spiritually. It is physically supported through Al-Qarawiyyin’s lasting architecture, which for example does not allow automobile access. It is supported spiritually through how “classes are scheduled around the five daily prayers, and the call to prayer (adhan) sets the rhythm of the day.” This type of approach on education also reflects the importance of the cognitive learning theory. Professor Hardaker shows this by mentioning how, “al- Qarawiyyin supports the belief of knowledge and the sacred through the daily recitation of the Qur’an from sunset or maghrib prayer. For some the education of the day is reinforced by the continual recitation of the Qur’an… The cognitive perspective adopted by many educationalists has similar constructs of importance and for some an acceptance of spiritual belief playing an important part in the cognitive learning process. The concept of self-efficacy, a learner’s belief that they can positively take action to manage a situation, was central to the development of the theory. In our experience at al- Qarawiyyin we felt that the institution’s pedagogical model provides a unique insight into such an application, in particular, through memorization and the potential for the embodiment of knowledge.” Al-Qarawiyyin’s unique construct and the entirety of the madrassa model surely thusly can be shown to greatly improve a student’s perception, attention, memory, language and thinking; all a part of cognitive psychology.

Perhaps one of the greatest parts about the madrassa model’s ability to develop a student’s cognitive skills is that the development of those skills were likely started at a very early age. Furthermore, this cognitive ability would have already been at least slightly developed by the time the student went into higher education as the recitation of the Quran is required for the madrassas that dealt with higher education. Considering this, it can be assumed that when a Muslim student was deemed ready for higher education, that same student had the determination of his life goal carrying him and his cognitive ability was at least slightly matured. This brings us to the next strength of the madrassa model, which is simply the madrassa’s basic format: the Halaqat al-‘Ilm (Halaqa for short).

The Halaqa was and still is today possibly the most distinctive part of the madrassa model. Halaqa, which can literally be defined as ‘a gathering of people seated in a circle,’ or ‘a gathering of students around a teacher,’ was essential to the means of a Muslim education. The ‘study circle’ as it is sometimes referred to, has many strengths behind it and was possibly one of the greatest reasons as to why Muslims dominated education during the time of Al-Qarawiyyin’s initial construction. Part of this is because of the close connection between the students and their teacher. Firstly, the environment is obviously extremely informal, allowing both the students and the teachers to feel more at ease. This informal environment was essential to the pedagogy of Muslim education, as much of what was taught was taught through debate. Allowing both the teachers and students to be more at ease would insure that these debates not be quiet by any means and, “Although the teachers were in charge of the Halaqas, the students were allowed – in fact, encouraged – to challenge and correct the teacher, often in heated exchange.” Knowing that a person wouldn’t be discouraged then for their comments or questions surely led to a strong teacher-student connection. This brings us to the second strength of these Halaqas – these teachers were likely greatly respected by their students. Especially at a young age, the teacher becomes an instant role model for their students, whether they like it or not. Everything that teacher therefore does will reflect directly upon to the students. Considering this, I cannot think of a stronger bond than that of a teacher and student, other than those of family. When you add that type of bond to the enthusiasm in which both persons are reacting, something truly special must have been created. Such relationships were a standard for the madrassa model and when such a relationship is used educationally, the possibilities surely must be endless. Students would automatically be more at ease, which in turn relaxes the teacher. With the teacher relaxed, discussions go more smoothly. When students are more at ease they are more likely to speak their mind, resulting in more advanced and complete discussions. When these same students speak their mind, their vocational skills mature and the cycle continues. All of this complimented by the fact that both teacher and student believe they are acting upon God’s will, and such an act is the purpose of their life – the submission to God.

Such a system continued itself into our own present day, giving us with the longest continually operating educational institution of the world. But could anyone be surprised that such a solid pedagogy became what it is today, for I surely am not. However there are still those naysayers who don’t believe such a system should be acknowledged for its accomplishments and there are still those who believe that it’s nothing but dangerous to teach opinions of how to live as absolute fact. I might agree with the latter, but not with the Muslim religion. Furthermore, I would point out of any of the Ten Commandments can be found in multiple places of the Quran. Therefore, if these Muslim schools have no place teaching religious items as absolute fact then neither do the Christian ones of the western world. Also, to those who would mention that knowledge and the sacred should simply be separate of each other, I would say that their separation is clearly impossible. Although there are those who have completely de-sacrilized knowledge after being formed as such by modernization, “the root and essence of knowledge continues to be inseparable from the sacred for the very substance of knowledge is the knowledge of that reality which is the Supreme Substance, the Sacred as such, compared to which all levels of existence and all forms of the manifold are but accidents.” Considering that intelligence is the tool of man towards knowledge, and that intelligence can also and is also used every day to try to define the Absolute, I must inevitably find them inseparable. Regardless of this idea, I believe it must be allowed, for not only Al-Qarawiyyin but by all religious universities, that such universities exercise their own pedagogy. For that of Al-Qarawiyyin and the rest of the madrassa model, I believe the system by which they teach their students must be recognized firstly by its unprecedented success. Furthermore, the religious aspect of the madrassa model must be recognized solely by its ability to inspire not just students but the entirety of that educational system.

The Mathematics of The Quadrivium

by Brian K. Davis

Arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music are the four subjects that make up the quadrivium. A term first coined in the medieval period, it still carries weight today. Although it would appear that the quadrivium is made of two mathematical subjects and two non-mathematical subjects, astronomy and music are also based in math. Thus the quadrivium was solely based in the art of mathematics. Math has evolved over time and is still evolving today. The first known study of math came from Mesopotamia in 3,000 B.C.E. with the Babylonians and the Egyptians (Kline 3). However this math was basic and relied mostly upon counting. Math would not grow as a subject until the time of the Greeks in about 775 B.C.E. but would be lost to the world until the fifth century when Anicius Manlius Severinus Boethius (c480-524) began translating the Greek works (Kline 201). After Boethius’ translations of Greek math into Latin do we see the rise of math in Europe to help explain the universe. The use of the quadrivium would give scholars the mathematical ability to analyze the physical world around them, the first of these scholars being the Greeks and Plato’s Republic.

Plato’s book the Republic was centered on creating a utopian society for the people of Greece. Plato would also go on to describe a perfect school system to teach those who would eventually lead society. In his definition of education, comes the first inkling of the quadrivium, although not outright stated. When talking about education, Plato believes that the science of arithmetic is wholly concerned with numbers and the quality of numbers leads to truth (Plato 161).

Plato believes that by understanding numbers, people can better understand the truth and gain insight into the world. Plato would also go on to state that numbers are important for generals as well as philosopher, “For a soldier must learn them (arithmetic) in order to marshal his troops, and a philosopher, because he must rise out of the region of generation and lay hold on essence or he can never become a true reckoner, (Plato 161)” Plato believes that understanding arithmetic will better organize the troops in battle. However the nuance of truth keeps cropping up in Plato’s statements as well, “This branch of learning (arithmetic) should be prescribe by our law and that we should induce those who are to share the highest functions of state to enter upon that study of calculation and take hold of it, not amateurs, but to follow it up until they attain to the contemplation of the nature of number, by pure thought, not for the purpose of buying and selling, as if they were preparing to be merchants or hucksters, but for the uses of war and for facilitating the conversion of the soul itself from the world of generation to essence and truth, (Plato 163).” Plato likes the study of arithmetic because it is tangible, meaning it can be easily proven or disproven making people think about their arguments before making one (Plato 165).

After Plato’s discussion on arithmetic comes geometry. Once again he connects geometry to war, “So much of it (geometry),” he said, “as applies to the conduct of war is obviously suitable. For in dealing with encampments and the occupation of strong places and the bringing of troops into column and line and all the other formations of an army in actual battle and on the march, an officer who had studied geometry would be if he had not,” (Plato 167) and also stating, “Its (geometry) uses in war, and also we are aware that for the better reception of all studies there will be an immeasurable difference between the student who has been imbued with geometry and the one who has not,” (Plato 173). Plato also mentions how geometry compels the soul to contemplate essence, and that geometry forces the soul to turn its vision round to the region where dwells the most blessed part of reality (Plato 169), Plato believed that geometry would help people examine the physical shapes around them thus opening their eyes to truth, “For geometry is the knowledge of the eternally existent. Then, my good friend, it would tend to draw the soul to truth, and would be productive of a philosophic attitude of mind, directing upward the faculties that now wrongly are turned earthward,” (Plato 171).

After astronomy would follow geometry in which Plato was quick to point out its uses for telling the seasons, months, and navigation (Plato 171), all of these being important for the study of war. Astronomy also makes the soul look upward and leads it away from things here to those higher (Plato 181). Plato also believed that the study of the stars would lead towards reality, “We must use the blazonry of the Heavens as patterns to aid in the study of those realities, just as one would do who chanced upon diagrams drawn with special care and elaboration by Daedalus or some other craftsman or painter,” (Plato 185). Plato did not have much to say on music other than astronomy was for the eyes and harmonies for the ear (Plato 189). Instead he refers to the Pythagorean’s writings about music, “They (Pythagoreans) transfer it to hearing and measure audible concords and sounds against one another,” (Plato 191). Pythagoras was the first person to examine the physical science of music. Kline would state this about Pythagoreans, “Because the Pythagoreans “reduced” astronomy and music to number, these subjects came to be linked to arithmetic and geometry; these four were regarded as the mathematical subjects,” (Kline 149).

Long before anything was known of pitch numbers, or the means of counting them, Pythagoras had discovered that if a string be divided into two parts by a bridge, in such a way as to give two consonant musical tones when struck, the lengths of these parts must be in the ratio of these whole numbers. If the bridge is so placed that 2/3 of the string lie to the right, and 1/3 on the left, so that the two lengths are in the ratio of 2:1, they produce the interval of an octave, the greater length giving the deeper tone. Placing the bridge so that 3/5 of the string lie on the right and 2/5 on the left, the ratio of the two lengths is 3:2, and the interval is a fifth,” (Helmholtz 14). Pythagoras would later build a tuning scale based on fifths which was used until the creation of just intonation and tempered tuning. Plato would later state astronomy and music as a useless form of numbers; however this section of the Republic did set the stage for later works on the quadrivium.

Boethius was a medieval scholar that served a great purpose in the expansion of the quadrivium. Boethius would translate some of the Greek works on math and would create the term quadrivium in his own treatise on math. Boethius would get his idea for De Arithmetica from the Greek thinker’s liberal arts curriculum (Masi 83). Boethius would re-introduce the Greek works to the western part of Europe. In his book De Arithmetica Boethius would introduce the idea of proportionality, “He begins his discussion of proportionality with an extensive list of the types, drawn directly from the Boethian De Arithmetica. A ratio is a relation between two terms, as 1:2, or as expressed in a fraction, ½ and the relationship is called a rational number in its fractional form. A proportion is a ratio between ratios, as when 1 compared to 2, which is as 2 is to 4. Proportion may be set up in series, as a series of duplex, triple, or quadruple proportions. Bradwardine extracts the idea of proportionality from the Boethian conception of proportion. Bradwardine adapted, also from Boethius, the idea that the most important proportionalities are the arithmetic, geometric, and harmonic,” (Masi 91).

Boethius would also introduce irrational numbers as a way to explain geometry, like the sides of the triangles (Masi 91). Outside of translating the Greek works, Boethius’ works would become popular in the Middle Ages, “We must conclude that the Boethian mathematics enjoyed an extraordinary increase in popularity and influence between 1200 and 1600,” (Masi 81). His book would even become the text book during the middle ages, “Moreover, for the teaching of the first of the quadrivial arts, arithmetic, the Boethian De Institutione Arithmetica appears to have maintained its position as a basic text, and his was the case despite the fact that there were available for the study of arithmetic in the thirteenth century, in its various practical as well as other aspects, a wealth of materials both old and new,” (Kibre 72). Boethius’ works would go on unchallenged until Roger Bacon. However these two both believed that education needed a solid base of mathematics (Masi 92). Bacon would disagree with the order in which the quadrivium be placed, however he did agree with Boethius on the teaching of arithmetic, the species of numbers and the reasons for their operations (Kibre76). Boethius would also write a work on music.

Music was another sub-category of the quadrivium and was another topic Boethius would translate Greek works and write his own treatise on. During the Medieval and Middle Ages, chant was the source of music. Chant was only used by the Catholic Church and was in Latin, the chants were used to help the common people memorize scripture. The irony of this last statement is that most people could not speak Latin thus they did not know what they saying. The first part of Boethius’ book dealt with chant and how it should be organized. Boethius would organize the chants into tonaries, or the classifying of chants according to their tonal and melodic similarities (Bower 164). Boethius would place the chants based off their church modes which were: Lydian, Dorian, Myxolydian, Phrygian, Hypo-Phrygian, Hypo-Dorian, Hypo-Lydian, and Hypo-Myxolydian, church modes are based off which note they start on. After establishing the tonaries, Boethius would move on to compiling works into two categories, practical tonaries, those used by professional singers to check the tone of a chant, and didactic tonaries, those used to teach students the basic qualities of each tone (Bower 164). Boethius would treat music differently compared to his contemporaries. He took a more analytical approach whereas his peers believed in the mysticism of music. To Boethius, the main approach to musical pitch was qualitative rather than quantitative (Bower 165).

Boethius believed that one could mathematically analyze music in order to learn how to better write music; in essence he created the first step towards music theory. Boethius affirms that one holds immutable truths concerning music when one knows the related mathematical quantity in the proportions of consonances (Bower 166), in Boethius’ time this would be the examination of one tone to another. For example when one strikes a string and touches it in the middle the octave is sounded thus the relationship between a note and an octave must be 1:2. Boethius would base his math off of Pythagoras. Boethius also argues that the practicing artist is separated from musical science, and thus is not worthy to be named a musician (Bower 166), in other words if a musician does not understand the theory behind it they do not fully grasp it and in fact are missing an element to music. Boethius’ works would begin the study of music theory, however like his other works, failed to advance the study of math as a whole.

The problem with the quadrivium was that it was translated into Latin but never expanded upon. In the Middle Ages the quadrivium was arithmetic, considered as the science of pure numbers; music, regarded as an application of numbers; geometry, or the study of magnitudes such as length, area and volumes at rest; and astronomy, the study of magnitudes in motion (Kline 202), and did not really evolve past that definition. According to Kline, “the introduction of some of the Greek words retarded the awakening of Europe for a couple of centuries. By 1200 or so the extensive writings of Aristotle became reasonably well known. The European intellectuals were pleased and impressed by his vast store of facts, his acute distinctions, his cogent arguments, and his logical arrangement of knowledge,” (Kline 207).However the quadrivium would have an effect on the Church. Once established, the clergy was expected to defend and explain the theology and rebut arguments by reasoning, and mathematics (Kline 202). Today the quadrivium is still used; however it is not referred to as such.

Math is now taught to every child in the United States. Most kids will start their training in mathematics in elementary school. Arithmetic is still the first subject taught with addition and subtraction, followed by the basics of geometry. What is interesting is that education today combines basic arithmetic and geometry with multiplication. Astronomy is rarely taught and the basic of music, mainly how to play an instrument, is taught. If one is lucky they will receive a little music theory, however most students do not. Education today however, has grown beyond the quadrivium. Today students are taught trigonometry, an upper level math of geometry, and advanced algebra, upper level arithmetic, and calculus. With the advancement of technology, there is less need for the average person to know astronomy, however for those who go on to study astronomy as their profession will rely on calculus. The study of music has advanced beyond comparison of tones.

Scientists have figured out that music is a disturbance of air in a wave like pattern. Hermann Helmholtz would crack many mysteries behind musical sound. Helmholtz was able to prove that musical sounds were actually complex sine waves, “Where two condensations are added we obtain increased condensation, where two rarefactions are added we have increased rarefaction; while a concurrence of condensation and rarefaction mutually, in whole or in part, destroy or neutralize each other,” (Helmholtz 28), in other words, sounds are created by multiple sine waves that are added together. Helmholtz proved there were multiple sine waves with his invention the Helmholtz resonator which is a bottle that will resonate only one sound, one sine wave, which is part of the complex sine wave (Helmholtz 43). However, this is a more advanced analysis of music. Most students will not learn this unless they go into music as a profession, even then they may not receive this knowledge. Professional musicians, however, will get a healthy dose of music theory. Students today no longer learn only the quadrivium; in fact, students now learn more math and its applications than at any other point in history.

The quadrivium was first discussed by Plato in what he believed was necessary to be a philosophical person. Boethius would later translate the Greek works of Plato, Aristotle, Euclid, and many others into Latin and introduce the quadrivium to the school system of Western Europe. Boethius’ quadrivium would be the platform for which the study of math would stand on for centuries and would later become the first step in expanding the concepts of math. Today the quadrivium is no longer directly taught but its subject matter still is. Students get a great deal of arithmetic and geometry and some will focus their studies on astronomy and music. The quadrivium served an important purpose in the advancement of European education and its affects should not be overlooked.



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Blackburn, Joyce. George Wythe of Williamsburg. New York: Harper & Row, 1975. Print.

Hellenbrand, Harold. The Unfinished Revolution: Education and Politics in the Thought of Thomas Jefferson. Newark: University of Delaware, 1990. Print.

Hoeveler, J. David. Creating the American Mind: Intellect and Politics in the Colonial Colleges. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002. Print.

Robarge, David Scott. A Chief Justice’s Progress: John Marshall from Revolutionary Virginia to the Supreme Court. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 2000. Print.

Servies, James A. Vital Facts: A William and Mary Chronology, 1693-1963. Williamsburg: College Library, 1963. Print.

Swindler, William F. “William and Mary Marks Bicentennial of Its First Chair Of Law.” American Bar Association Journal/64.12 (1978): 1872. Academic Search Complete. Web. 4 Feb. 2012


This paper was originally created for Steve Jackson’s History of Higher Education course.


Alcuin’s Educational Reform in 8th Century Europe

by Alexander Rumann

As a result of barbarian attacks on the Western Roman Empire in the 5th century, Europe was in chaos and confusion. This led to the creation of the Holy Roman Empire, controlled by the Catholic Christian church. Education at this time was nearly nonexistent and was only in the scholastic form in monasteries with monks copying texts. Most of the learning toward the 8th century was focused on Biblical texts or written works of the members of the church that were related to the Bible. The monasteries copied texts from early Greek and Roman literature but only those which they found interesting and most important, so limited topics were kept. Education overall at this time was in a sorry state, as most did not obtain any at all and what they did receive was very constricted to focus on the Bible. Literature that had been easily accessible in the early Roman Empire had been isolated to libraries in cathedrals and monasteries. Due to the lack of access to literature and education most of Europe’s population was illiterate. The church at this time believed that most of the teachings on secular subjects were a sin against God and was therefore not taught. Those that received an education were those who were wealthy and being groomed for a career in the church. There were those that came along who wished to change education and made huge contributions not only to the church but to society as a whole, one of these people is Alcuin of York. Alcuin of York built the foundation of which the revival and reform of education in Europe was built upon in the centuries to come. This education reform was backed by Charlemagne who was successfully keeping the barbarians of Europe at bay in his military campaigns, which allowed Alcuin to carry out his efforts to change education of the known kingdom.

Education in the arts and philosophy were studied to help further understanding of the Bible but for only that purpose. Liberal arts that were studied for the sake of interest alone and apart from biblical understanding were considered heresy and people were put to the death or banished for such actions. The arts of Greek and earlier Roman culture were considered to be pagan learning and seen by the church as ineffectual and immoral. In the 5th Century liberal arts were viewed as suitable studies for Christians due to the necessity of understanding scriptures in a clearer way. Augustine considered the liberal arts to be grammar, music, dialectics, rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, and philosophy (West, pg. 10, 12, 14, 15). The culture of this time revolves around God and learning about God in a scholastic setting. Learning was limited to only that which would further ones knowledge of biblical scriptures and understanding of those scriptures.

Alcuin was born sometime between the years of 730 and 740 CE in Northumbria, England which is close to York (Plater). He came from a modest family of nobility from York and went to the cathedral school there. While at school he was taught by Egbert who was a student of the Venerable Bede. He remained at the cathedral school in York where he became the master at the death of Egbert in 766. Alcuin became a deacon of the church and officially held the office of scholasticus teaching young boys to be leaders of the church. Through his works as an educator he became the most well known master in Britain (West 31, 34, and 38). Alcuin quickly became a reputable teacher of adolescents in Britain despite that in the late 760’s the area was violent and unstable due to the attacks of the barbarian tribes of the Anglo-Saxons (Bullough 137). In the year 780 Alcuin was given charge of the most famous cathedral library in Britain. Despite his duties he took many trips to Rome, either for personal reasons or he was sent there to retrieve documents from the Pope, where he met influential people such as Charles the Great in 781. He was called by Charles the Great to go to Frankland to head the teaching at the chapel in the palace (West 34). Aside from the vast amounts of educational reforms that Alcuin made he also made a very large contribution in literature. He wrote numerous letters back and forth to very well known people of the Empire such as the Pope and Charles the Great, also known as Charlemagne and various priests and bishops throughout the kingdom. He also wrote many theological treatises and Biblical commentaries which were very common for scholars of that time. In addition he wrote books on dialectic and rhetoric works that he shared in his lessons with Charlemagne. He also produced textbooks that could be used by schools around Europe for their curriculum. Although it is less noted, and it was considered unimportant to any except traders who needed basic accounting skills, Alcuin also wrote a text book on arithmetic that was comprised of fifty three word problems (Sunshine). He left immense amounts of comprehensive works of books on liberal arts from the earlier Roman Empire that were mostly lost, dialectics, rhetoric and dialogues that he stored in the library at Saint Martin’s that were used for teaching in his school (Pedersen 75).

Around the year 782 Alcuin left England to start educating at the palace of Charles the Great, also known as Charlemagne, at Aachen (West 39). He was given charge of educating the administrators of the kingdom but he was most famous for teaching Charlemagne himself. He also taught Charlemagne’s children and the clergy of the chapel at the palace in France (Sunshine). Alcuin was given a difficult task of tutoring not only the young royalty in the palace but also the elders there as well. He had to find a way to interest a broad range of ages to keep order in his classes. He covered what was considered the liberal arts starting with the basics of grammar and moving to arithmetic and then dialectic and rhetoric. The palace soon became the only centre for higher studies in the kingdom (West 45). Alcuin became the trusted advisor to Charlemagne and together they would set up schools all around the Frank kingdom in the cathedrals and monasteries. The palace schools that Alcuin started would only last a few generations however the schools he set up in monasteries and cathedrals would later be the main front for educational revival in Europe. As Charlemagne’s advisor, Alcuin convinced Charlemagne to stop the forced baptism of the barbarians and made a convincing point to the king that Christianity can only be chosen not forced upon the people of his kingdom, faith is not something that can be coerced (Sunshine). Charles did not want to be the king of a barbarian and illiterate kingdom so he sought to educate his kingdom and install Christian ideals in his people with the help of Alcuin. Alcuin was an indispensible asset and advisor to the king during this time. Alcuin and Charlemagne together set up schools around the kingdom to advance the church. Schools were set in cathedrals, monastic settings and eventually in villages. The cathedral and monastic schools were to educate at an elementary level and in some case there was superior learning. In local villages education was at the elementary level and didn’t advance past that (West 48, 56). This was by far better than what education was in up to the early 9th century when there were a very few that were educated and even those that were educated were only educated enough so they could read and write adequately to copy old books or scrolls. Alcuin had taken the palace school and built it up into the finest institution in the kingdom which was the center for culture and an undeveloped academy. In the short amount of time that Alcuin spent at the palace school he made a huge impact on academics with the works that he did and the ideals that he instilled there. Alcuin strove to encourage learning to be more tolerant of the liberally scholastic tradition of earlier Rome and Greece (Pederen 75). Alcuin believed in a standardization of the curriculum used in schools and he strove to provide those standard versions by studying the available copies and he would select the best document or documents that he found for the master copy. Then all copies were made from the master copies of these texts he found and these became in a sense textbooks for use in schools. These textbooks that Alcuin had created were then in a standard version of the texts that were easily copied, before that was a lot of variation in copied texts but Alcuin eliminated a large portion of this error (Sunshine). Along with creating these textbooks Alcuin would go through the libraries and collect large amounts of books and other works of literature and he would collect excerpts from the texts that he would spend a great amount of time reading and sometimes complete works as well. These works that he found had been neglected for centuries would then become extremely useful as textbooks (Bullough 138). Among many other things Alcuin had a doctrine of separating liberal literature and Christian morals. He believed that learning should not be limited to the sole purpose of advancing ones knowledge of biblical text. Previously the church had frowned upon knowledge for the only purpose of educating one’s self and Alcuin strove to present this as an acceptable thing to do (Bolton 17). The idea that education and the church should be apart was an idea that he founded his teachings on and applied them wherever he went. In gaining knowledge through the process of education he found he saw that virtue, truth and learning had an independent value that the church and Christianity must come to respect if the kingdom was to survive (Pedersen 76). Alcuin and Charlemagne organized three levels of education in the empire: the “university” which was the palace school and stood at the top of the hierarchy of schools, secondary schools found in a select few monasteries and cathedral schools, and then the primary schools which were at every level at the cathedrals, monasteries and also the village schools throughout Europe. Primary education was the only material covered in the village schools (West 58). This hierarchy of schooling is the progression of education that is found in the modern era. Even though the teachings at different levels education varies, the progression through primary, secondary, then the university is still how things are today. This is the system that was set in place by Alcuin and his followers with the help of Charlemagne.

After eight arduous years at the palace Alcuin reluctantly took up the position in Tours, France as an abbot at the abbey of Saint Martin’s. Even though Alcuin was reluctant to take the post as abbot he did some of his greatest work at St. Martin’s. He set up a large library with the textbooks he had put together along with other literature from centuries before. Along with the library Alcuin set up a scriptorium where he trained scribes to accurately copy texts that were used in schools throughout the kingdom. Through these courses that Alcuin was setting up the monastery of St. Martins became tremendously prosperous and eventually turned into the most noteworthy centre of learning of the age (Pedersen 75). Alcuin had reached his 60th year of life in 792 and wished to retire to a quiet monastery in Fulda but Charles ignored his request and made him Abbot of the abbey, St. Martin in Tours. Alcuin wished to return to his home town of York but when he returned on a short vacation found it in a sad state and the ruler was very cruel and unjust. He returned to the palace for a short while where he came up with several treatises before becoming the abbot. Apart from the learning in Alcuin’s monastery, there was a monastic revival that had to take place because of the loose morals of the monks and the lack of discipline they showed to their vows. Alcuin brought in monks from other parts of the kingdom to help with this revival of Benedictine order. Alcuin saw that the educational system he set up in Northumbria was falling apart and that the system in Frankland would not always be protected by a powerful ruler like Charles and he feared that his teachings would disappear. He devoted the last years of his life in an effort to train his pupils to carry on his teachings and instill in them the dedication to learning and education that he himself had. Alcuin set up the same educational structure that he did at York and the palace. He teaches the younger boy’s grammar and the older students he teaches scriptures and ancient disciplines, liberal arts, and astronomy. He had now planted the same three schools at York, the palace and now Tours. Although Alcuin was continuing to educate at Tours he felt that he was inadequately supplied with books and sent a request to the king to have monks sent to York to retrieve his library. Alcuin writes “I, your servant, lack the rarer books of scholastic erudition which I had in my own country through the devoted industry of my master, Egbert, and by my own labors” (West 63-67).

The monastic schools alienated themselves from the cathedral schools, even with the bishops having jurisdiction over the monks. Along with the constant conflicts that were going on between the bishops and monks there was a split in the monastic schools. There were the interior schools and exterior schools. Interior schools focused on only training boys who were given to the monasteries for a life as a monk. The exterior schools were to train boys to become priests of the church and also for those who were intended for secular professions. Both of the interior and exterior schools gave a gratuitous instruction. The monastic schools were extremely strict and flourished more than the cathedral schools even though the education received was not that much different between cathedral and monastic schools. Whether in the monastic or cathedral schools education started with the basics of reading and writing which were the most essential and rudimentary skills. Students would then proceed to grammar, which was crucial in understanding the scriptures and therefore the most time was devoted to grammar. Along with grammar, reading and writing there was also sometimes dialectic and rhetoric, past this there was nothing further in education except in a few monasteries. In all the schools the study of the Holy Scriptures was of the upmost important and was studied in great detail at the cathedral and monastery schools and was only viewed at the most basic level in the village schools. In the village schools the only important aspects of the bible they were expected to learn was the creed, the Lord’s Prayer, and a few of the psalms (West 58).

While in Tours, Alcuin spent most of the last 8 years of his life corresponding with kings and leaders of the kingdom, over 300 letters about education. Alcuin’s main concern with not only educating the youth that were in attendance at his school at the time but also for future generations after he was gone. He strove to not only educate men that were to be priests and monks but also those that were to someday become teachers that would rise up and take his place one day. Alcuin found out in the year 796 that one of his former pupils had been elevated to archbishop of York. He rejoiced that he was privileged to have taught someone that has reached such a high honor. He then proceeded to help the archbishop by giving him advice on how to run the schools of York, telling him to separate students into classes of those who study books, those who practice music and those who transcribe. Alcuin also writes to his old pupil about assigning a master to each subject in order to keep the boys from getting unruly (West 76).

Alcuin’s life was spent making dramatic changes to academics. He dedicated his life to educating an illiterate country that desperately needed instruction. With the help of King Charles the Great they revolutionized education. Alcuin set up three institutions that all instilled the same ideals of education. The school in York is what put Alcuin on the map and got him recognized as an extraordinary teacher and sought after by Charles the Great. The two other institutions at the palace and later in Tours were just as great as the school in York and paved the way for education in the centuries to come in Europe. Alcuin’s school at the palace of Charles was considered a university at the time; although it is not what we would consider a university today. The revolution that Alcuin started with his educational reforms in the late 8th century would be a small stepping-stone to what would later become the first recognizable universities. The simple changes that Alcuin made and the fact that he reintroduced the liberal arts from the earlier Roman Empire caused a huge change in the literacy of Europe. After the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of the Holy Roman Empire, Europe was in a state of barbarianism that was spiraling down. The leaders of the time were only focused on scholastic learning of biblical texts and only certain people were allowed to go through extensive learning. The empire hung by a thread and if not for the changes that Alcuin made and the works he contributed the empire might have fallen due to its illiteracy. Alcuin laid the foundation for what would later become the university through his works in education.



Bolton, W. F. Alcuin and Beowulf. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1978. Print.

Bullough, Donald. Charlemagne: Empire and Society. New York: Manchester University Press, 2005. 137-138. Print.

Pedersen, Olaf. The First Universities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Print.

Plater, Ormonde. “Alcuin of York.” Through the Dust. N.p., 19 May 2008. Web. 22 Jan 2012..

Sunshine, Glenn. “Alcuin of York.” Christians Who Changed Their World. (2011): n. page. Web. 21 Jan. 2012.

How to Create a Bad Major

by Steve Jackson

I was visiting my forth college as a consultant in digital media curriculum development when I noticed a theme.  Digital media programs at most of these colleges were failing despite the expectation that they would succeed based on student interest and a strong job market.  In gathering my notes, I discovered that all of the previous programs I had created were plagued by the same problems, and those problems generally meant either a major that failed to attract students, or a major that failed to educate the students it attracted.

Large Committees – In every case where a curriculum was failing, it was attached to a large committee where members were selected for availability instead of skill, and where the leadership of the committee was not actually credentialed in digital media.  At one midwestern college seven faculty were assigned to the new “digital media” major.  Digital media is a vague term that can mean a strong film production course, to a media studies course aimed at getting students into graduate school, to a new media public relations program.  The large committee, with a preponderance of social sciences professor, created a major that looked much like the social science programs around it.  It failed because the one credentialed member of the committee did not have the authority to speak or the power to push the major into a more practical direction.  As a consultant the single most important act I ever did, and the one which almost always fixed the ship, was to change the membership of the founding committee.  By taking three faculty, giving them a chair with a clear knowledge of the field they were creating the major for, and teaching the committee tricks to streamline discussion, most programs could be fixed without further expenditure of consulting dollars.  In most cases having these faculty clearly represent a constituency in larger departments assured clear communication channels in creating a new major.

Broken Authority and Responsibility Chains – Related to the idea of large committees often failing to produce strong results is the problem of broken authority and responsibility.  At one college I consulted at a small committee was completely tipped over by having a single, very entitled, tenured administrator holding a position amongst three young professors with credentials.  The administrator had endless authority, but no responsibility for a failed or poor product.  As a result, the administrator’s presence turned a relatively innovative team into a cowed group, especially since the administrator was fond of using her power on tenure committees to force faculty away from their academic and professional opinions.  Order was restored when the committee was stripped of the administrator and told to create the best product they could from an academic standpoint: their efforts would not result in censure as an academic product.

Mistaken Center – Three majors in a row I was hired to repair had mistaken centers.  A mistaken center is when a group of faculty avoid the obvious connection of some subjects to broader areas of understanding for reasons of prejudice or politics.  In one case, a group of faculty had decided to propose a “social media” major.  Social media majors have run into a great deal of criticism for good reasons, and this one could serve as a case study.  The college which had put this major forward had an active public relations department, and a well run media studies program, either of which could have hosted social media.  Instead, it was decided this would be a stand-alone social media major that not only offered its own courses across the board, but also avoided offerings from the other two natural partners.  The result was a failed program that could neither retain majors nor train the ones it kept in useful skills or knowledge.

The solution for this mess was obvious immediately.  The social media program had to be closed down and grown back out from the beginning with a new set of assumptions.  Using the trivium to find a safe place for the major, the major would be on the grammar, logic, or rhetoric side of studies.  This could mean that it would study the technology of social media (grammar), the social understandings of social media (logic), or the use of social media as a persuasive tool (rhetoric).

Selfish Course Generation – This is a common mistake made in curriculum design.  Take four professors, one who teaches critical studies, the next casual studies, the next rhetorical studies, and the last one grammatical studies.  Ask them what courses a student needs to understand a field and they will often reply predictably by offering a course directly related to their own specialization.  The result is a program with a huge number of taxation courses and fewer pay data courses.  Selfish course generation has in fact become a death knell for the formerly popular communication major.  A public relations professional has a desperate need for a fairly stable set of skills.  Place three public relations professionals around the table and they tend to create curriculum that is highly effective and looks similar to programs created elsewhere.  When those public relations faculty have to share the major with a studies person, a journalist, and a production person, there is a possibility of a synergy where the major becomes stronger through the availability of key electives, but there is also a possibility of the major being bogged down by courses that act like a tax on the student’s educational time.  In the worst case, the number of public relation courses and their movement from entry-level to advanced understanding is interrupted by these taxation courses.  You no longer have a public relations major, but a general communication major with a lot of diverse but uncoordinated knowledge.  Interestedly, students tend to lead these programs for ones where the study is better focused.

Academic Prejudice – The largest center of academic prejudice is the social science (logic) centered practitioners against the grammar (art and technology) and rhetoric (persuasion) based practitioners. The concept of the liberal arts entered into the modern era fairly well understood, but with the rise of a technology driven society with 24-hour communication cycles, and the subsequent expansion of employment in these areas, liberal arts purists tend to strip practitioners specializing in areas outside of logic of their academic empowerment.  A technologist such as a sculptor, photographer, painter, or writer is granted lower class status on campus because they are closer to the blue-collar roots than the logic practitioners.  As a result the important area of studies can squeeze out the equally important areas of rhetoric and grammar even when the major is best centered on the other two legs of the liberal arts tripod.  Identifying this illness is easy, but since liberal arts is a buzz word it can be difficult to break through layers of cognitive dissonance to point out that a public relations student who only have a single public relations course may not be qualified to seek an entry level position in the industry.

Catalog Fluffing – A significant cause of low student moral is catalog fluffing.  A catalog queen is an elective course offered in the catalog but never taught.  Students see these courses and envision they could be the recipients of the course, but soon discover that few if any of the more exciting advanced courses will ever be taught while they are students in the college.


The Higher Education Act of 1965

By Erica Dines

Education is a crucial part of culture that society could not function without. As the leadership of the country it is important for the government to ensure that the education system is as accessible and valuable as possible. One action taken by the American government to fulfill this purpose was the enactment of the Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA). The HEA was an important piece of legislation which by providing financial assistance to under-privileged individuals increased the opportunity for previously unattainable education, leading to the betterment of society.

The Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA) was enacted on the eighth of November, 1965 (Pub. L 89-329), as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson’s social reform policy known as the “Great Society” (Cooley, 2011). In the preceding years President Roosevelt signed the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (also known as the G.I. Bill) into law which began the involvement of the federal government in education (Swail, 2003). The purpose of this act was “to provide Federal Government aid for the readjustment in civilian life of returning World War II veterans” (Pub. L 346-268). Included in the aid for veterans was the opportunity to receive a higher education, financially provided by the federal government. The motive for this legislation was to counteract the potential of a new depression emerging from the millions of veterans that would face unemployment upon their return from the war (Mosch, 1975). After the success of this legislation President Johnson wanted to continue the rise of higher education and increase the number of educated individuals as a means to improve the conditions of society as a whole. Johnson said, “We need to do more . . . to extend the opportunity for higher education more broadly among lower and middle income families” (Swail, 2003). The HEA did just that.

The purpose of the HEA was (and still is) “to strengthen the resources of [our] colleges and universities and to provide financial assistance to students in postsecondary and higher education” (Pub. L 89-329). To accomplish this, the act established government funds to be used for program assistance for small and less developed colleges, additional and improved library resources at higher education institutions, and utilization of college and university resources to help deal with national problems like poverty and community development (McCants, 2003). In addition to community development and reversing the cycle of poverty, Johnson hoped education would act as a tool for economic growth and development (Cooley, 2011).

Title IV of the HEA is the section of the act which details student assistance by means of federal financial aid. It states:


(a) PURPOSE.—It is the purpose of this part, to assist in making available the benefits of postsecondary education to eligible students (defined in accordance with section 484) in institutions of higher education by—
(1) providing Federal Pell Grants to all eligible students;
(2) providing supplemental educational opportunity grants
to those students who demonstrate financial need;
(3) providing for payments to the States to assist them in
making financial aid available to such students;
(4) providing for special programs and projects designed
(A) to identify and encourage qualified youths with financial or
cultural need with a potential for postsecondary education,
(B) to prepare students from low-income families for postsecondary
education, and
(C) to provide remedial (including remedial language
study) and other services to students; and
(5) providing assistance to institutions of higher education.
(Pub. L 89-329, Sec. 400)

Providing financial aid to students of low-income status is beneficial on many different levels. This allows a greater amount of people to receive an education who otherwise would be unable. When someone is denied an education – due to an extenuating circumstance like money rather than intellectual ability or aspiration – it is not only detrimental to that individual’s life personally, but also to the advancement of knowledge and education as a whole; this disallows any intellectual advance or innovation to be made that could have positively affected society if the opportunity were present. The financial barriers that restricted a large portion of the population from receiving an education, in turn, restricted the potential of new intellectual minds to advance knowledge and improve society. The restriction of education based on monetary value rather than a value of intellectual merit and ambition is a restriction that proves very detrimental by its hindrance to the advancement of knowledge. Taking away this financial barrier is one way the HEA is beneficial to society. 

A study done by RAND (nonprofit institution that performs research and analysis) suggested that the societal benefits of education might even succeed the benefits reaped by the individuals. Upon intensive analysis of national data, the institution reported that “increases in education level resulted in improvements in social cohesion, technological innovations, and tangible intergenerational benefits that affect the entire society. In addition, reductions in crime and recidivism, Medicaid and Medicare costs, and other social costs are tied to education levels” (Swail, 2003). As a means to explain this societal benefit of education, this example was published in the report:

For every native-born Mexican woman who graduates from high school instead of dropping out, the nation would save $2,438 in social programs and would add $1,843 in public revenues in her 30th year. Similar savings and increases in public revenues would accrue annually over her lifetime. In addition, this woman would enjoy $2,588 more in disposable income during her 30th year. If this woman were to attend some college instead of stopping at high school, the result would be $956 more in program savings, $1,398 more in public revenues, and $2,401 more in disposable income at age 30. And graduating from college would add another $411 in program savings, $2,551 in public revenues, and $3,722 in disposable income [Vernez, Krop, and Rydell, 1999, p. 30].

This hypothetical scenario illustrates the many benefits of a single education. Not only would this benefit the person individually in the overall advantage of being educated and the monetary gain that accompanies it (disposable income), but society would benefit as well: thousands of dollars in welfare and social programs would be saved when the individual no longer needed to be supported by the government, and the economy would benefit because that individual would possess more disposable income to spend and put back into the economy. So society would directly benefit financially in money that would be saved and gained, in addition to the simple benefit of having one more educated, intellectual, member of society.

In addition to the many ways that the HEA positively impacts society, the act also provides opportunities which have the potential to drastically improve people’s lives. Education can have a profound impact on a person’s quality of life, especially in terms of financial gain and security. Through extensive study and survey it has been determined that education is one of the surest ways to increase one’s social and economic levels and overcome the barriers of poverty and deprived social conditions (Swail, 2000). According the U.S. Census Bureau, individuals with a bachelor’s degree earn about 77 percent more than that of high school graduates, and those with a professional degree earn 50 percent more than those with a bachelor’s degree. The difference in the long-run is even more astonishing: the difference in earning power between each level of education equates to about one million dollars over a lifetime.

The pattern can be summed up as such:
“There are no guarantees in life with or without a college
diploma . . . but . . . the odds are increasingly stacked against those with the least education and training. The more education one has, the more—on average—one earns . . . And this relationship has become conventional wisdom. People understand: who goes to college—and often which college—determines more than ever who has entrée to the best jobs and the best life chances” (Gladieux, 1998, p. 101).

It has also been found that “socioeconomic status is closely related to race and ethnicity” (Swail, 2003). On average, African Americans and Latinos earn less than two-thirds of what white households earn (U.S. Census Bureau, 2001). So, statistically, a large portion of the group classified as “low-income” is composed of minorities. Similarly, this means that a large number of minorities are unable to obtain a higher education due to financial incapability. With the help of the financial aid and other services made available through the HEA, institutions of higher education can be comprised of a broader allotment of students. This can be beneficial in the sense of increasing the cultural diversity at these institutions as well as simply reversing cycles of poverty, poor education, and underrepresentation among such groups. In addition, parts of the HEA are geared towards specifically helping minorities gain education – Title III of the act provides institutional aid for minority serving institutions (Historically Black Colleges and Universities and Tribal-Serving Institutions) and Title V provides aid for developing institutions (Hispanic serving institutions) (McCarthy, 2008). In these sections of the act the HEA provides support to the individuals in underprivileged minority groups as well as the institutions that most typically facilitate them.

Since its enactment the HEA has been reauthorized numerous times (in 1968, 1972, 1976, 1980, 1986, 1992, 1998 and after much extension in 2008 (McCants, 2003)). In the years since its beginning additional programs and funds have been added, language and policy of existing programs have been changed (McCants, 2003), and the legislation overall has been reformulated in a way to better accommodate to the evolving society and educational scene. The HEA has been an extremely influential and beneficial policy and has affected the world of education, the individuals that strive to exist within it, and American society as a whole in a positive way.


Cooley, Aaron. “Higher Education Act (HEA).” Higher Education Law. SAGE Publications, Inc., 5 Jan. 2011. Web. 10 Mar. 2012. <>.

Davies, G. (2001, Nov. 30). Higher education is a public health issue. Chronicle of Higher Education, p. B16.

Gladieux, L. E., and Swail, W. S. (1998). Postsecondary education: Student success, not just access. In S. Halperin (Ed.), The forgotten half revisited—1998 (pp. 101–114). Washington, DC: American Youth Policy Forum.

Higher Education Act of 1965. Pub. L 89-329. 8 November 1965. Print.

McCants, J. “The Early History of the Higher Education Act of 1965.” National Trio Clearing House and Council for Opportunity in Education, Feb. 2003. Web. 10 Mar. 2012.

McCarthy, Brittny. “The Higher Education Act: A Quick Review.” American Association of State Colleges and Universities, 19 Mar. 2008. Web. 11 Mar. 2012.

Mosch, Theodore. The G.I. Bill: A Breakthrough in Educational and Social Policy in the United States. Hicksville, NY: Exposition Press, 1975. 19, 40.New York Times, 8 April 1946, TINCF, R-95, F-759.

Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944. Pub. L 346-268. 10 January 1944. Print.

Swail, W. S. (2000). Preparing America’s disadvantaged for college: Programs that increase college opportunity. In A. F. Cabrera and S. M. La Nasa (Eds.), Understanding the college choice of disadvantaged student (pp. 85–101). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Swail, Watson Scott, Kenneth E. Redd, and Laura W. Perna. Retaining Minority Students in Higher Education. Rep. Ed. Adrianna J. Kezar. 2nd ed. Vol. 30. San Francisco: Wiley Subscription, 2003. Print. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report.

Vernez, G., Krop, R. A., and Rydell, C. P. (1999). Closing the education gap: Benefits and costs. Santa Monica, CA: RAND.

Jabir Ibn Hayyan: Alchemist

by Jazmyne M. Sturgeon

Atoms. Electrons. H20. The Periodic Table. All of these are familiar terms people remember from their 10th grade chemistry classes and have all grown accustomed to. While this may be the case, it is important to keep in mind that these are relatively modern concepts. A thousand years ago, pre-teens had a much smaller Table with only four elements: earth, water, air, and fire. The idea of these four elements is a very Greek concept, but one alchemist continued Aristotle’s work: Arabic alchemist Jabir ibn Hayyan. Jabir ibn Hayyan influenced education by deepening the understanding of alchemy and encouraging a dynamic learning system over a scholastic system.

Jabir ibn Hayyan is considered the earliest great name in Moslem alchemy. He was born circa 720 (C.E) and died in about 815 (C.E) at the astonishing age of 95 (Stalzberg 1991). It is widely believed that he lived as a physician in Baghdad under the protection of the Court of Harun-al-Raschid (Hopkins 1967). Jabir’s passion was alchemy, which, one must note, differs from modern day chemistry in the fact that ‘magic’ was used to supplement studies. Jabir could not avoid the magical influences of his day and is therefore considered an alchemist, not a chemist (Cobb 1995). Arthur John Hopkins supplements this in his book Alchemy: Child of Greek Philosophy, when he states, “Believing that alchemy was real, [Jabir] undertook the almost superhuman task of bringing this discredited subject up to the same honorable plane as philosophy, medicine or mathematics.” Hopkins later notes that Jabir’s literary output included at least five hundred works on alchemy alone. Others agree that this number is alarmingly high:

“The complete body of works attributed to Jabir includes more than two thousand books, and of course no one man could have written that number, even if he did live to be ninety five. Obviously, most of these books were written over a period of many years by different authors who attributed their writings to Jabir, either out of respect or as a method of remaining safely anonymous” (Stalzberg 1991).

It is not unreasonable to agree that Jabir did not write many of the works attributed to him, but that he did inspire and have influence over their content, no matter how indirectly.

His name has been linked and interchanged with the Latin name ‘Geber’ throughout history, even though Jabir ibn Hayyan is Arabic.

The name ‘Geber’ was to enjoy among the Latins a celebrity similar to that of ‘Democritus’ among the Greek alchemists and ‘Balinus’ among the Arabs, and like these worthies Geber’s real identity retains a considerable element of mystery. The works of Geber have not been found in Arabic, and he remains, despite persistent attempts to equate him to Jabir ibn Haiyan, an anonymous Latin alchemist. (Multhauf 1996).

It remains to speculation who exactly Geber was and how he became associated with Jabir. “…Popular belief [is] that the Geber works of the thirteenth century were actually translations into Latin of the Arabic of Jabir of the eight century;” although recently, that assumption has been challenged to question the true identity of Geber (Hopkins 1967). However, in order to analyze Jabir ibn Hayyan’s impact on the chemical world, the assumption must be made that ‘Geber’ was merely a pseudonym future writers used to show respect to their inspiration, Jabir, as well as having the intent to remain anonymous, as Hugh Stalzberg suggested earlier. Author Hopkins believes that “if all that has been deduced from the writings of Geber is true, he was one of the greatest single constructive influences in science, particularly in the science of the metals, that the world has ever known.” The fact that Jabir may not have written the works credited to him under the name Geber does not, however, make him any less influential. In fact, it makes him more so. It displays how many chemists were inspired and influenced by him and how they respected him enough to attribute their works to his name. As flattering as this tribute may be, Robert P. Multhauf puts it best when describing the difficulties it has caused:

Modern scholarship has laboured mightily to reconstruct Jabir’s biography with the following result: (1) the Latin writings attributed to Geber have not been found in an Arabic version, and probably originated in south Italy in the thirteenth century; (2) there is in Arabic a large body of alchemical writing attributed to Jabir, but little is known to the Latins of the Middle Ages; and (3) Jabir, who also enjoyed a great reputation among the Arabs, was not the author of all these works… (Multauf 1966)

These three statements support the assumption that ‘Geber’ was used by future alchemists to show respect towards Jabir. Although this theory is not flawless, it is among the most likely, and it is important to understand who Jabir ibn Hayyan is and who he is not before discussing his impact on society and education.

The most important collection of texts supposedly written by Jabir is known as the Jabirian Corpus. The corpus was completed by 987, but was most likely compiled over many years. Jabir ibn Hayyan died in 813 and it is unknown how much Jabir personally contributed (Hudson 1992). However, it is not unreasonable to believe that Jabir inspired the contributors, as they clearly credited their work to his name. Another source tells us that, “by the second half of the tenth century the entire Jabirian Corpus had been constituted, and was generally, if not unanimously, admitted as the authentic work of Jabir” (Multhauf 1966). Either way, Jabir’s influence on the world of alchemy (and therefore chemistry) is clearly displayed, whether the work was done by his hands or simply by inspiring others. Jabirian texts had a strong correlation with Aristotle’s theories, concepts, and discoveries. In many cases, Jabir simply took Aristotle’s existing work and expanded, added, or took away from it depending on what had been discovered. Jabir especially focused on metals and their properties which were:

“…clearly based on the views of Aristotle but included a significant new idea. Aristotle had considered metals to be formed by the combination of moist and dry exhalations, and in the Jabirian works these exhalations are identified with the vapours of mercury and sulfur. The cause of the different metals was the different quality of the sulphur from which they were formed.” (Hudson1992)

In this example, Jabir takes Aristotle’s existing ideas and expands on them, deepening the general understanding of alchemy during this time. Aristotle had already established that metals were formed from combinations of moist and dry, yet Jabir took it a step further to explain what exactly those wet and dry exhalations were. “The Jabirian alchemists also believed that metals were ultimately composed of the four Aristotelian elements earth, water, air, and fire, and in consequence possessed the qualities of coldness, hotness, dryness and moisture in varying proportions” (Hudson 1992) (See Fig. 1). Another important distinction between Jabir’s work and that of Aristotle, is that Jabirian texts considered each substance to contain all four elements instead of just two (Salzberg 1991). According to Richard Morris, author of The Last Sorcerers, this theory strongly influenced much of later alchemy. Jabir’s work, and the work he inspired others to undertake, clearly had a lasting impact on the way alchemy was studied.

Jabir ibn Hayyan also was a strong advocate for a dynamic learning system over a scholastic one. A scholastic learning system is stagnant, and basically taught straight out of the book, much like a high school. On the other hand, a dynamic system involves research and learning new things, instead of accepting what one is told without question, more like a university (Jackson 2012).

The first duty of an alchemist, [Jabir] said, is to carry out experiments in order that he may acquire knowledge. He accepted the doctrine of transmutation, but did not baldy inform his contemporaries that transmutation had been accomplished. Instead he gave specific directions for experiments in transmutation, such as ‘project some of this substance upon so much copper and you will get silver,’ thus allowing them to draw their own conclusions and inducing his friends to try experiments. (Hopkins 1967)

This is the same sort of teaching that a college professor would set up for his students today. Design an experiment, give the steps of the procedure, but allow the students to actually do the experiment and discover the results for themselves. This is dynamic learning.

One example of dynamic learning is demonstrated in a distinct difference between Aristotle and Jabir ibn Hayyan. Aristotle believed that the elements (air, fire, water, and earth) were only abstract and philosophical; more hypothetical than fact. Jabirian texts, on the other hand, suggested that the quantities and elements were real and could be isolated (Salzberg 1991). With this theory, the only logical step was to prove it by setting up an experiment:

The Jabirians attempted to do this in two stages. First they subjected various organic materials to dry distillation, which often resulted in the formation of a volatile combustible substance (air), a liquid (water), and combustible tarry material (fire) and a dry residue (ash). These elements were supposed to be composed of two different qualities, and the Jabirians assumed that the predominant quality could be isolated by extended purification…Once he had obtained his pure elements, consisting of only one quality, the alchemist was supposed to mix them in the correct proportions to obtain an elixir that he could use to treat a base metal. (Hudson 1992)

Here we have a clear example of a hypothesis, procedure, and conclusion set in motion by Jabir ibn Hayyan’s theories. He was a clear initiator of experiments and therefore dynamic learning, setting in motion a chain reaction of his academic decedents to follow suit.

Whether or not Jabir ibn Hayyan actually wrote what was attributed to him means little. It is clear that his work (or the work that he influenced) had a lasting effect on alchemy, and therefore chemistry in later years. His ‘tweeks’ to Aristotle’s existing theories were widely accepted, and later generations would go on to improve and further develop Jabir’s theories. However, instead of simply allowing future alchemists to blindly accept his ideas, he encouraged the use of experiments and designed his work so that learners would have to understand procedures, set up experiments, and discover results on their own; therefore, becoming a revolutionary teacher by pressing a dynamic system upon his field of study. Jabir ibn Hayyan influenced learning, thinking, and education by expanding general knowledge of alchemy through his own experiments and by leaving experiments for future alchemists, a radical idea in the world of science.

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Hudson, John. The History of Chemistry. New York: Chapman & Hall, 1992. Print.

Jackson, Steve N. “The Thin Tweed Line: The Rise of Literacy.” DHC 261: The University. Black Hall 151, Ellensburg, WA. Jan. 2012. Lecture.

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