Here’s an old post that I enjoyed and I thought would be a nice way to start the first official week of Autumn….
Today’s word is a word so common we may forget its history; and it seems so obvious, we forget that we are the product of 2500 years of work and refinement-and we’re still working at it. This week’s etymology is school, a place of instruction.
Until very recently, school was reserved only for the wealthy, the particularly precocious, or the physically underdeveloped. You can imagine in a world that depended on back-breaking labor: in the fields, on the battle-field, and in the mines, it would be those with excellent constitutions who were the most prized of all members of any society. Only those with free time had the luxury of avoiding the unending toil that survival entailed.
Therefore, the original meaning of the Greek word skhole (school) was “leisure, spare time.” This was a derived from the prehistoric root, *segh which meant “pause, cut, break.” Of course, what do people do with their spare time, especially without TV or IM or text messaging? They talk of course! And schools were the great houses of talkers. The Ancient Greeks especially liked talking. Their primary form of talking is what is known as the dialectic (related words: dialect, dialogue), a series of questions and answers that eventually became formalized into the discipline we now know as logic: a series of propositions that when rigorously examined holds true. This should be transparent to any of you who have suffered through Geometry (notice the Greek root: Geo “earth”, meter “measurement”) and those exasperating logical proofs. Just imagine if all of your free time was enjoyed in that exacting dialogue… it is no wonder the Greeks inspire both such admiration and exasperation!
The first great school that we recognize was Plato’s Academy. The Academy is a derivation of the original name of the place: Hekademia, which was in honor of the original settler of that plot of land, Hekademos. Talk about a conservative society! Plato spent the rest of his life trying to convince students to attend his school (so he could eat) and arguing against outdated traditions. And so his Academy stayed open for over 900 years, a tradition in its own right. The books of his that we still have are literally his school texts-the rebel became an institution. His most famous pupil, Aristotle, also founded his own school, The Lycaeum, which took to teaching a methodology hostile to Plato’s. I guess he took Plato’s suggestion to “think for yourself” to heart. Unfortunately, we only have Aristotle’s lecture notes.
Scholarship, scholar, scholastic all arrive on the scene with the development of that particularly medieval institution: The University. These universities replaced the older monastic schools and took on an aura of specialization and respectability (depending on your point of view). Whole towns sprang up to service these large and lucrative schools, and roaming bands of teachers and students began to crisscross Europe. Here the infamous debates as to “How many angels could fit on the head of a pin?” or “Can God make a rock so large that even He cannot lift it?” or “Can God win a chess-match if He begins in check-mate?” took shape. The medieval university was the hotbed of argument and counter-argument (clearly from the Greek model)-apparently they had all the free time in the world!
A closing note on the value of investigative and philosophic argument: Some of the fundamental truths of the scientific revolution-which has given birth to so many gadgets that now take up all of our free time-actually were developed during the very non-scientific debates from the 12th, 13th, and 14th centuries. For example, Peter Lombard (c. 1100-1160), a famous theologian, posed an obscure question as to how grace or charity might be increased in a person; this was then tackled by “The Subtle Doctor,” John Duns Scotus (Scotus = the Irishman) who developed the idea and logic that we can add qualities (Charity + charity = more charity). In 1330 a group of professors from Oxford called “The Calculators” took up the question in a different form and considered speed to be a quality that we could “add” to itself and eventually developed a “mean speed theorem.” This theorem was proven by Nicole Oresme (pronounce or-em) in 1350-without any modern mathematics! Nicole’s proof was very well-publicized. The more famous Galileo cited Oresme’s proof as the fundamental axiom of the “new science” in his 1638 book Two New Sciences. And so an obscure theological discussion became the groundwork for groundbreaking scientific discoveries which have given rise to the modern era!
It just goes to show that perhaps religion and science are not so opposed to each other after all, and that any inquiry, no matter how obscure, can, with free time, diligence, and some creativity bear fruit for all to enjoy. Here’s to school! And now hit the books!