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To maintain its hegemony and prevent any liberal and secular ideas from burgeoning, education in Europe was controlled by the Church during the Middle Ages. The purpose was to strengthen religious belief and realign history according to the teachings of the Church. This system of education known as theology or the study of divinity was used as knowledge to justify religion.
The Church severed all relations with knowledge of the classical period except where the ideas of scholars were relevant to the teachings of the Church. Aristotle’s philosophy was adopted and Christianised by the authorities. As a result educated people focused on salvation of the soul rather than on changing the world in which they lived.
During the Renaissance period emerged a class of intellectuals known as humanists who aspired to change the system of knowledge by abolishing the outdated ideas of the Middle Ages. Instead of theology, they developed the study of humanities where the focus was to understand man and his needs for knowledge.
This led artists, sculptors, scientists and writers to discover the human body and its beauty, Michael Angelo’s David being an example. The human body, the physical being, no longer remained a punching bad as it was used during the Middle Ages when many were tortured in various ways to accomplish salvation for the soul. In some religious sects, starvation and self-flagellation was practised to achieve spiritual blessing.
As the study of humanities changed the concept of the human body, intellectuals and artists now concentrated on its beauty and grace. Since diseases were considered enemies that damaged the body, medical science developed to cure diseases. Man desired longevity of his life to enjoy worldly pleasures and humanists wanted to free the world from crises and transform it into a place where man could live his life happily.
Humanists searched literature and studied the classical period of Greece and Rome. They found manuscripts in the libraries of monasteries where monks as part of their daily routine would copy classical manuscripts on parchment and carefully preserve them. Eventually, the skill of editing developed along with the new discipline of philology.
Authenticity of the original form of literary texts and written records was established and their meaning determined. Manuscripts were compared with others and insertions and additions marked. This raised the question that the Bible should also be edited for mistakes. By this time the printing press was invented which increased the circulation of books leading to the spread of knowledge.
Humanists believed that education could transform society. They introduced a new curriculum with rhetoric, mathematics, law, philosophy, philology, history, classical literature, art and music. A group of philosophical thinkers, known as the Sophists, emerged who concentrated on teaching rhetoric and undertook to provide a stock of arguments and present a case on any subject, or to prove any position. They had the ability to make the worse appear better and to prove that black is white.
The significance of the new education system was not to deny a universal truth but to understand its relativity. It was no longer targeted at pleasing a divine power to secure an exalted high position in the other world but to appreciate other cultures and celebrate life in this world. Previously, the purpose of history was to unfold the divine plan but according to the humanists, every period in history had its own characteristics, was interrupted by changes and had a beginning and an end. Instead of imitating classical periods of Greece and Rome, new knowledge was born.
The humanist’s education system changed the social and political structure of the European society; it broadened vision of the people and opened them to new ideas. This foundation of humanities in the education system later introduced social sciences to study social problems.
Presently in our educational institutions, humanities and social sciences are neglected while natural sciences and IT are emphasised upon. But without understanding the human mind and society, it is impossible to respond to the challenges of time.