Studium Generale and the School of General Studies

Studium Generale and the School of General Studies

The name “General Studies” refers to both Columbia’s institutional history and the history of higher education more broadly. Although the foundation for the modern university was laid in the Middle Ages, the story truly begins with the ancient Greeks.
 
The ancient Greeks created and developed the disciplines that the Romans later codified as artes liberales, which were divided into two sections: the trivium and the quadrivium. Plato and Aristotle produced the most significant work for the trivium, which consisted of grammar, logic, and rhetoric and preceded the quadrivium—arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy—which originated even earlier, with Pythagoras.
 
The artes liberales model persisted until the Middle Ages, even though firsthand knowledge of Plato and Aristotle had largely disappeared. The Greek language had not been studied in Western Europe for centuries—the original texts were extant, but inaccessible; all that remained were summaries of Platonic and Aristotelian philosophy found in Roman encyclopedias.
 
At the same time, however, learning in the Arab world—here, a catchall term that describes Muslims and speakers of Arabic from Iraq to Egypt to Spain—was based on the Greek model, since the vast majority of significant Greek texts had been translated into Arabic (largely the work of the translators of the Baghdad academy known as the “House of Wisdom”). As a result of the increasing interaction between the Christian and Muslim worlds early in the second millennium, translations were made from Arabic into Latin, and ancient Greek texts reappeared in Europe for the first time in centuries.
 
With the glut of new information—particularly in mathematics and science, which had been virtually stagnant in the West—it was no longer possible for teachers to master everything, and schools began to specialize in particular disciplines. Disciplinary centers like Paris (theology) and Bologna (law) drew students from all over Europe and consequently became known as studia generalia, referring to the fact that the students and instructors were a heterogeneous and international group (in contrast with the studia particularia, which served a more local community). Studium generale remained the preferred term throughout the Middle Ages; “university,” derived from universitas, a Roman legal term for a corporation of students and faculty, did not take hold until much later.
 
The name “General Studies” also has particular significance at Columbia. The School of General Studies grew out of the Extension Teaching program, which Columbia launched in 1904. The Extension Teaching program allowed the larger New York community to take night classes at Columbia (at a time when only 2 percent of American men and women 23 years old had earned a bachelor’s degree). In 1921 Extension Teaching was renamed University Extension, and the program began to grant a degree—a Bachelor of Science in “general studies,” irrespective of the subject in which a student majored. Future Nobel laureates Simon Kuznets and Baruj Benacerraf both earned degrees in “general studies,” though they studied economics and biology, respectively.
 
When University Extension was reorganized as a full-fledged undergraduate college after World War II, the program’s director Harry Morgan Ayres chose a name that allowed the school to redefine itself while maintaining continuity with its history. Today the School of General Studies is the finest liberal arts college in the United States dedicated specifically to students with nontraditional backgrounds from all over the world who seek a rigorous, traditional, Ivy League degree.
 
 

Bibliography

Ayres, Harry Morgan. Report to the President of Columbia University. University Extension, Columbia University. New York: 1946.
 
Pedersen, Olaf. The First Universities: Studium generale and the origins of university education in Europe. Trans. Richard North. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
 
Rashdall, Hastings. The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages. 3 vols. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1936.