Skip to content
Home » Posts » Thoughts on the University System

Thoughts on the University System

image header why colleges

Why do we have colleges?

Have you ever wondered why colleges are the way they are? Today, I am excited to have a guest post from regular contributor (and also my son) Josh Rudd. In today’s post, Josh contemplates college.

* Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links, meaning that if you make a purchase after clicking through, SelfEducatingFamily will receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.

Why do we have colleges?

Today’s guest post by Josh revisits an essay he wrote in 10th grade for his Western Civilization 1 class taken for the Ron Paul Curriculum – a video class taught by Tom Woods.  It was originally titled “Origins, Key Ideas, and Important People in the Early University System”.  When you consider going to college, you may want to understand why colleges exist today.

The University System

College. Today everyone knows what going to college entails: study for (hopefully only) four years and get a bachelor’s degree, then if you’re gifted and dedicated, go back for another two years to get your graduate degree. What most people don’t think about is how the university system started and why colleges exist today.

The first universities

The first universities appeared in the eleventh century. These institutions were vastly different from education systems in previous centuries. The biggest differences were the award of a degree upon completion and a fixed course of study.

Today, when you go to college, you take certain courses, you finish all of them, and then you get a degree. Before the eleventh century, such a system of education didn’t exist.

The first universities evolved from cathedral schools and were established by either a king, prince, noble, or the Pope. The universities expanded in response to the growing demand for education.

Expansion in Europe

Universities quickly became the center of European learning and philosophy. The guiding educational principle present at these universities we now call Scholastic philosophy or Scholasticism.

Scholasticism is hard to give a strict definition to because of the massive diversity of thinkers and writers who fall under the label. A broad definition of scholasticism would be a system of learning which emphasized reason and debate. In addition, one of the goals of scholasticism was to show that faith and reason were compatible with each other, and could be harmonized.

The Scholastics

An example of a scholastic is Peter Abelard, a French philosopher, theologian, and teacher. Abelard’s most famous work is Sec Et Non, a collection of highly debated questions of the time. Abelard wrote the books as a logical exercise for his students, so Sec Et Non doesn’t contain his views on any of the questions, only the opposing arguments. What makes Abelard a good example of scholasticism is that he believed everything in religion could be explained by reason, and his dedication to finding the truth through debate.

No explanation of scholasticism could be complete without mentioning Thomas Aquinas, almost certainly the greatest Scholastic philosopher. Aquinas wrote over 8.5 million words, and within his works makes over 48,000 references to different sources. He taught at the universities in Paris, Rome, Cologne, Bologna, and Naples. His most famous work is the Summa Theologica, which was meant to be a guide for theology students.

The Summa is written in the form of a series of debated questions; Aquinas gives his belief on the argument in question, then presents all evidence against his belief, and then refutes the argument opposed to his. The Summa Theologica cites Christian, Muslim, Hebrew, and pagan sources both in opposition to and in support of his conclusions. Also in the Summa Theologica is Thomas Aquinas’s famous Quinque Viæ or Five Ways, which are five ways Aquinas uses only reason to prove the existence of God. This is another example of the Scholastic practice of harmonizing reason and faith.

Scholasticism dominated western thought for hundreds of years and played a key role in the widespread establishment of the university system. Just think, without those early universities, then young people today wouldn’t be able to spend two hundred thousand dollars to get a degree.

If you want to know more

If you want to know more about why colleges exist, here are some links for further reading:


It’s interesting to see why we have colleges today, especially in light of the high cost of attendance. To see how I plan on finishing college debt free by passing CLEP tests in high school for some cheap college credits. If you don’t know what a CLEP test is and want to save money, then read this article. Get a jump on reducing college costs while in high school.