Make room for the classroom

The classroom atmosphere on the tomb of the Italian proto-humanist Cino da Pistoia made by Andrea of Pisa in the 14th century and preserved in Pistoia Cathedral (my photo)

It may be argued that the most enduring institution in European history has been the school classroom. In the passage from the ancient world to what we call the medieval period, the classroom seems to have been the least disrupted space. In one form or another, pupils kept learning their grammar and their letters, their rhetoric and logic, while Europe was being transformed by the collapse of Roman structures, barbarian takeovers and Christianisation. Whether in the ancient urban schools, private homes or monastic houses, classrooms stayed above the politics and economics, riding the wave wherever it may have been going.

The ancient classroom became the medieval classroom, but the curriculum, the methodology and the atmosphere, as much as historians can gauge today, changed very little. Virgil and Cicero weren’t dethroned, the birch rod stayed on the master’s desk, the mimetic and compositional learning methodology remained pretty much unchanged until the end of the Middle Ages. The classroom proved to be one of the most conservative Western institutions. We may not learn Latin as the ancients and the medievals did; if we still do, we certainly aren’t learning it the way they did; the present-day magistri and magistrae may not be holding a rod or terrorising their pupils anymore (one hopes); but, fundamentally, the classroom we have today in the West harks back to the sources of ancient European literate education when pupils sitting around their teacher would become vehicles of the written word, the embodiment of the wishful adage scripta manent.

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