51 Ideas that Changed Higher Education Forever

From the fall of the Roman Republic–when a large municipal school system gave way to the Dark Ages–and even as far back as the Academy in Ancient Greece, many of the ideas that shape higher education today have been at work. While the 19th century remains perhaps the largest transition towards what we know of as higher education today, countless social movements, religions, and brave souls have contributed to preserving the knowledge of the past and pushing the spirit of discovery into the future. No one idea stands out as the idea that changed higher education, though many are indispensable. So we’ve simply presented 51 of the ideas most important to higher education in alphabetical order. Enjoy!

Academic Freedom

Academic freedom is the belief that academic faculty members have the freedom to inquire, teach and communicate all subject matter within their given field. This freedom, long implicit, was further formalized through reactions to the rise of totalitarian state crackdowns in the early 20th century. Modern academic freedom ensures that inquiring professors are not disabled in their teaching or research even if what they discover is inconvenient to external political groups or authorities. The “1940 Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure” is a foundational document in modern academic freedom and helped to formalize modern tenure arrangements in which tenured professors may only be fired for gross professional misconduct or behavior that is actually condemned by the academic community. While tenured professors are allowed to express their view points publicly without fear of institutional censorship or discipline, they must disclaim that their viewpoint is only their own and not that of their institution as a whole.


Accreditation is a quality assurance process meant to help protect consumers (students) by evaluating the the educational and support services of institutions of higher learning. Modern accreditation of higher education institutions relies on peer reviews from other accredited institutions and began after the re-authorization of the GI Bill for Korean War veterans in 1952. Due to the influx of new students sent to college on the bill, a number of universities were established, many of questionable quality. Today there are regional and national accrediting bodies that are held accountable by the department of education. Regional accrediting bodies are traditionally thought of as more reputable, and accredit more traditional universities. National accrediting bodies are known as national for their role in accrediting institutions of higher education with a presence in multiple states, or worldwide. Generally speaking, schools that are nationally accredited are vocational, technical, or career in nature. More specific program by program accreditation is also available.


Alternative Universities

In a general sense, alternative universities are institutions that offer lifestyles and educations that are intentionally non-mainstream when compared to most US universities. Alternative universities are often centered around educational or ethical principles as well as employ alternative lifestyles and university organizations. Some of the more prominent ideas in alternative universities include the use of professor feedback instead of grades, universities that require students to work, universities that employ democratic education (in which students run facets of or the entirety of the school), programs that center around living in nature for prolonged periods of time, and schools centered around complete sustainability. Alternative universities are important through the ways in which they expand the dialogue of what higher education should be about, as well as provide awesome learning environments for many students.


Cathedral Schools

In Europe, the Church was one of the few entities that helped to keep the transfer of academic knowledge alive throughout the middle ages. Cathedral schools served as a complement to monastic schools and began to be established after the decline of the Roman Empire (and thus the decline of the Roman Municipal Education). Cathedral schools initially involved apprenticeship in religious subject matter under the direction of a scholarly bishop. As Cathedral Schools evolved, many became choir schools that are still in operation today. The earliest cathedral schools were founded in the 500’s, and were soon a part of any new diocese with a cathedral. In 789, Charlemagne decreed that education be provided in cathedrals and monasteries, helping to provide a class of literate clergy, nobility, and literate administrators to the court. While cathedral schools were some of the institutions of the highest learning in the Middle Ages, they are essentially the equivalent of primary and secondary schools and have subsequently continued in this form until today.


Civil Rights

Civil Rights have played a dramatic role in revising the higher education landscape throughout the 20th century. Whether the de facto segregation of traditional universities to all but white males through the early 20th century, or the legally enforced segregation of higher education throughout the middle of the 20th century, a majority of American college students today would not have been able to attend traditional co-ed universities if not for advances in civil rights. Today, women compose 57% of degree-seeking college students. Though this hasn’t been the case for long. In 1848, nearly all traditional universities were closed to women in America (though some women did attend female seminaries and finishing schools). 1848 as a year was crucial due to the Women’s Rights Convention held in Seneca Falls, NY. While it took some time for traditional northeastern schools to become fully coeducational, new western land grant institutions were open to women following the Civil War. By the 1890’s 70% of women in college were at coeducational institutions.

Abolishing racial segregation was a longer road, from the foundation of the NAACP in 1909 to two major court cases in 1950 that led to a technical end to the Plessy era “separate-but-equal” doctrine. Particularly through the south, violent resistance had to be superseded even after black students were admitted by court orders. And even–as in Arkansas–when black students were first admitted to graduate programs, this did not immediately change undergraduate admission policies. The inclusion of both genders and all races has been one of the most important transitions ever to occur in higher education, both for the sake of preserving students’ right to education as well as providing the most highly qualified students–regardless of demographic–to enhance the economy and advance fields of research.

Cloud Learning Management Systems

Learning management systems are applications that help with the administration, documentation, tracking, reporting, and delivery of educational technology, courses, or training modules. LMS’s have largely enabled traditional universities to offer online courses with the variety of support services that students today are accustomed to. They are a large reason why close to 7 million undergraduate students have taken at least one fully online course for credit in the last year, as well as why millions of students have had the ability to take MOOCs. The integration of the cloud in learning management systems has allowed for even greater flexibility in online education, allowing students and teachers to access records, lessons, and communication portals from anywhere and on many devices. Though perhaps LMS’s will be outdated in time, they have remained a pivotal tool for allowing millions of students to obtain their education online.


Computer Simulation

Soon after the Manhattan Project used computing to seek the processes of nuclear detonation during World War II, computer simulation became a mainstay of a number of university disciplines. While varying widely as to scope and purpose, computer simulations generally rely on models–or sets of mathematical rules that govern the system that will be simulated–and are employed when the number of operators needed to evaluate the model are not discernible finite. Important applications of computer simulations have included predictions that helped to make the hydrogen bomb, daily weather forecasts, and simulations that map the spread of diseases in accordance with a large number of variables. Some of the more audacious simulations currently in the works include a simulation of the human brain down the molecular level, a 2.64 million atom simulation of a ribosome, and a 1 billion atom simulation of material deformation. As might be expected the use of computer simulations vastly extends the ability to look at the widest number of outcomes of given systems. This is a particularly important part of mathematical modelling in math, psychics, chemistry, biology, astrophysics, and the social sciences.



Constructivism is a theory of knowledge and portion of educational psychology that argues that humans generate knowledge in the most comprehensive way when our ideas interact with our experiences. Educational psychologist Jean Piaget is generally thought of as the father of formal constructivism, which articulates ways in which knowledge is internalized by learners, most specifically through accommodation and assimilation. Where accommodation involves re-framing one’s worldview to incorporate new knowledge in a coherent way, assimilation involves incorporating new knowledge into an existing framework. These frameworks–or “schemata” as they were called by Piaget–are most easily added to when learners naturally discover facts on their own. A fact long acknowledged by pedagogical techniques such as the Socratic method, but more readily applied to higher education over the last half of a century. As more educational psychology research into constructivist topics has surfaced over the last few decades, the process of discovery learning, play, and communal learning have been pushed ever more in both higher education and at lower levels in the United States and the World.



Nicolaus Copernicus published his famous astronomical model that described the Sun as the center of the Solar System in 1543. While not immediately accepted, the model paved the way for a new era in which scientific “facts” established by the Christian Church through scripture could be challenged and corrected through the scientific method. Though the initial backlash against Copernicus’ theory wasn’t overly dramatic or sustained, a letter in the unpublished book On the Truth of Sacred Scripture by a friend of the Magister of the Holy Palace quietly set the Church’s position. Some six decades later, Galileo was accused of heresy for following Copernicus’ work, and both Galileo and Copernicus’ questioned texts were banned by the Church until 1835. While not all facets of the model were entirely true, by pushing a model of the universe that challenged the idea that the universe revolved around humans, and that absolute truth about the Universe must be grounded in the Bible, Copernicus helped to usher out many of the “sciences” of the Middle Ages while ushering in a new age of science based inquiry.

Critical Pedagogy

Critical pedagogy strikes right to the heart of academic freedom by applying critical theory to teaching and learning itself. Both a philosophy of education as well as a social movement, critical pedagogy is a movement centered around helping the academic community to recognize authoritarian tendencies, to connect knowledge bases with power bases, and to use academic knowledge and skill sets to take meaningful action. One critical moment that brought critical pedagogy to the limelight was a loose collaboration between teachers and students in Apartheid South Africa to subvert the racist curriculum and bring about change in academic settings with humanist, nonracial, and democratic ideals.


Educational Psychology

Educational psychology has become increasingly important to higher education over the last several decades, allowing professors to collect data on learning outcomes and apply insights to future educational programs in a progressively improved fashion. This is particularly impactful in new learning formats such as those online. The ability to change course structures on a massive scale and in a quick time frame online has also made educational psychology more impactful, increasing the number of iterations individual instructors can work through to improve the pedagogical quality of their offerings. The incorporation of teaching for multiple learning styles, pharmaceutical drugs for psychiatric disorders, and the application of educational psychology insights to the construction of curricula and textbooks have all revolutionized the way classes are taught over the last century.



Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that investigates, the origin, nature, methodologies, and limits of human knowledge. Oftentimes centering on similar problems to those of educational psychology save through looking at how we learn in terms of concepts, epistemology has informed many shifts in the nature of higher education from the middle ages to the present. On a micro level, the personal epistemology of teachers dramatically informs how classes are delivered. Schools of thought such as objectivism, pragmatism, and interpretivism outline thought on the origins and nature of knowledge, both in terms of what makes the most conceptual truth as well as in interpreting studies. Schools such as constructivism, empiricism, and pragmatism then inform thoughts as to how humans best acquire knowledge. In a more general sense, types of knowledge that would have been granted a privileged claim to truth in universities of the past have been progressively challenged. Epistemologies resting on universal religious claims or belief in the inherent superiority of any one people have declined greatly over just the last 75 years.



Moving back to the Middle Ages and even the American Colonies, postgraduate instructors at institutions of higher learning often relied on tutoring fees directly from their students or patronage to afford themselves the time to be scholars. With slight differences in meaning from nation to nation and institution to institution, fellowships often help the most gifted professors to have the freedom needed to study as they will today. In most settings, fellows today are visiting professors, postdoctoral researchers, or doctoral researchers. Both research and teaching fellowships are available in the US and Britain, with many U.K. fellowships offering a free room in the University, as well as the chance to dine at the High Table free of charge. In the US and Canada a fellow at a graduate level is usually the recipient of an award meant to fund and enable research in a given discipline.

Feminist Theory

Feminist theory is an extension of feminism into academic, critical, and philosophical discourse with the aim of understanding what gender inequality is and its underlying mechanisms. Over the last half of the 20th century, feminist theory was one of the most dominant fields of critical inquiry, leading to the creation of feminist branches of a large number of academic fields, including anthropology, sociology, communication, psychoanalysis, economics, literature, education, history, and philosophy. Recent progress has been made in understanding concepts central to historical and present gender dynamics such as the association of males with the mind and females with the body, discussions of the differences between sex and gender, the modification of historical narratives to account for the lack of substantive documentation on women, differences in male and female epistemologies, and studies of oppression. Today, nearly every academic discipline has been touched by feminist theory to at least some extent, dramatically modifying the body of knowledge examined in universities today.


Focus on ROI for Education

With the rise in the number of college students and the accompanying number of programs and schools, it has become more important than ever to establish quality controls on higher ed. Where college degrees used to be–in many cases–enough of a distinction to land you a variety of types of jobs, increased competition in the workplace as well as the increasingly high cost of education have shifted the focus from affording more consumers (students) access to university, to providing more consumers with educations that are actually worthwhile. One recent focal point of the focus on ROI in higher education was President Obama’s proposed College Ranking that focuses on both affordability as well as important basic features of quality institutions like high graduation and retention rates.


For-profit colleges

Depending on who you ask, for-profit schools are the best or the worst. Associated with low graduation rates and high student loan default rate, they definitely have some hurdles to overcome. But for-profit colleges have been around forever, and are some of the largest educators in the world (particularly in the developing world). From 1990-2009, an increase from 2% to 11.8% of all students who are attending for-profit colleges was witnessed. While numbers have fallen somewhat, at least partially due to increased regulation as well as as publicity, many list the benefits that for-profit colleges often provide open enrollment, flexible schedules, and skill-based degrees that are particularly valuable for students who are already in the workforce. While there are questionable aspects of some for-profit institutions, the thought that greater competition in higher education drives innovation is certainly valuable.


Freedom of Speech

While academic freedom (see academic freedom above) is important for the publishing and teaching lives of professors, freedom of speech is arguable more important for the academic and broader community. On an individual level, universities have always been touted as places for students to test hypotheses and hone their worldviews. This exploration and introspection is often important to the larger community inasmuch as a diversity of views can build meaningful dialogue–and, hopefully, lead to progress. While the last several years have brought about a number of reports claiming that many colleges have begun to censor student speech, universities have traditionally been hubs of free thought and thoughtful protest throughout the modern world. From Nazi resistance efforts during WWII to protests for peace during the Vietnam War, preserving freedom of speech has been a vital part of vibrant universities throughout modern history.



One of the most impactful psychological contributions to business and education over recent years has been gamification. Gamification is the process of including game thinking and game mechanics to non-game contexts, a process proven to increase participant engagement, enjoyment, focus in educational events. While gamification was coined as a term in 2002, it wasn’t until 2010 that it really began to gain popularity. Educational social networks, offering badges for achievements, rewards for publicly answering questions well, or upvote functionality for forums use gamification to increase the social significance of user interactions and drive engagement. In online courses, gamification makes learning social and courses something that you can “win” at, as opposed to just learn for yourself.



Humanism has been around for longer than the word itself, and involves emphasizing the value and agency of human beings and a movement towards critical thinking, verifiability, and evidence over the dogma of a particular religion or state. The term surfaced around the French Revolution, attached to the notion that a general love for all of mankind was a just thing, and that human virtue could be determined by human reason alone (not the decree of religious institutions alone). In modern education, the term surfaced in 1808 when applied to the new classical curriculum offered in German secondary schools. Both aspects of the term persisted and influenced higher education, with a several hundred year long movement towards a close reading of the classics with a greater focus on the secular virtues and logic. Modern applications of humanism include policy suggestions from institutions of higher education centered around universal rights, protection of workers, and nuclear disarmament.


Humboldtian Education

Humboldtian education is a movement that applied humanism to academic settings. Originally advocated by Prussian philosopher Wilhelm Von Humboldt (who Berlin University is named for), this educational style focused on developing students as individual thinkers in academic environments similar to universities today. Ahead of its time in the early 19th century, Humboldtian education combined research and education in an environment of academic freedom in which students could choose what they would like to study. At the time the movement was rooted in the thought that Ancient Greek texts and a reliance on logic, reason, and empiricism would help to create a German national consciousness that was separate from the French, which was seen as dogmatic and based in the unchanging traditions of the Roman past.

Instructional Design

Instructional design involves creating the best instructional experience–in terms of efficiency, acquisition of knowledge, and deep understanding–by adapting to the current state and needs of the student and tracking clearly identified goals. One of the most common and tangible applications of educational psychology, instructional design originally came about in its modern form when potential troops were screened for skills and weaknesses in World War II. According to the current state of the student and what was known about human behavior, custom training regimes were offered. Today instructional design incorporates a wide variety of developmental theories and has taken a central role in revolutionizing customized course experiences online as well as for adult learning experiences.


Community Colleges

Today community colleges are largely public 2-year institutions of higher education that offer associates degrees and focus on vocational skills. Historically, junior colleges were private 2-year post-secondary institutions that focused on vocational skills but didn’t offer degrees. While the number of junior colleges peaked in the 1940’s, community colleges are the most popular they’ve ever been. American community colleges fulfill a number of needs in the higher education landscape including transfer programs in which students complete two years of cheaper community college tuition then transfer to full universities, career education, remedial courses, continuing education opportunities, and low tuition.


Land, Sea, Sun, Space Grant Institutions

As educational and economic needs have shifted, the United States government has helped in the establishment of universities focusing on specific high need areas. The earliest universities of this type began to be formed in 1862 when the Federal government granted states federally-controlled land that could be sold to fund the establishment of universities focused on agriculture, science, military science, and engineering. This was in contrast to the traditional liberal arts curriculum, and helped to create many of the best research universities in the country. In 1966 the Sea Grant program was established under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to provide funds to Universities who would focus on scientific research, education, training and extension projects focused on conservation and practical uses of marine areas. Founded in 1988, Space Grant institutions were funded to expand research in outer space as well as collaboration between public and private aeronautical researchers. Finally, Sun Grant institutions were funded in 2003, offering support for schools that research and develop sustainable and environmentally friendly bio-based energy alternatives. Combined, these grant programs have led to some of the most important scientific, conservation-related, and technological innovations of the last century.


Learning Styles

Though there are a number of competing theories on how individuals best learn according to their individual needs and strengths, learning styles have been readily used since the 1970’s to inform instructional practices in primary, secondary, and higher education. One of the most important discoveries relating to learning styles is that–without mediation–professors often feel most comfortable teaching in the same style that they learn best with. A professor who is a visual learner may use adequate diagrams but not explain concepts adequately in a verbal way. An professor whose an aural learner may be prone to completely miss out on the diagrams, but lead a wonderful discussion. With research like this on learning style and pedagogy, classes can compensate for natural lapses in teaching and create the best learning experiences for all types of students.


Liberal Arts Colleges

What we think of as modern liberal arts colleges are built around the American model of residential colleges. These colleges award more than half of their degrees in liberal arts subjects and focusing on undergraduate education. They are also much closer to traditional European education, which is centered around the trivium and quadrivium, than research universities. These skills revolve around a well rounded appreciation of critical thinking and the arts. In ancient Greece, this consisted of skills such as being able to represent oneself in court, understand politics to the extent to vote, serving in juries, as well as mathematics, logic, rhetoric, music, and astronomy. As the liberal arts have been canonized, they’ve played an important role in establishing what a modern education that’s well rounded in the humanities looks like. Their focus on small class sizes and undergraduate instruction has been an important element in the American higher education landscape for many generations.


Library Science

While the applications of library science extend beyond universities, the field as a whole has left an indelible mark on modern higher education. As a field, library science involves the collection, preservation, and dissemination of information resources. This has become an enormous task with the exponential growth in the production of data and the expansion and creation of new academic disciplines. For the sake of posterity and future study important libraries often take on enormous preservation projects. For example, as of 2013 the Library of Congress was undertaking the archival of all tweets made between 2006 and 2010. That year, 170 billion tweets were stored for future study. While textbooks on librarianship have been in circulation since the 18th century, and schools of library science around since the 19th, the massive growth in information resources over recent decades has expanded the field. Through the maintenance of public libraries, archives, special libraries, historical collections, and technical discipline-specific libraries, library science has proved crucial for the proliferation of the modern system of higher education.



Metaphysics is the branch of philosophy concerned with some of the oldest questions tackled by humankind: what is reality, and what is it like? Long before other subsets of philosophy were established, schools were founded around these questions in Ancient Greece, Persia, Egypt, and India. Through the middle ages and the birth of the oldest institutions of higher learning, metaphysics played a central role in academics, first on questions of cosmology (the origin of things) coupled with Christianity, then later tackling rediscovered metaphysical texts from the classical world. While many arguments formulated in this time were later regarded as lacking, metaphysics played a distinctive role in establishing a number of other core academic topics including rhetoric (communication), natural philosophy (early natural sciences), and psychology.

Monastic Schools

Along with cathedral schools, monastic schools helped to preserve learning through the middle ages after the fall of Roman municipal schools. Monastic schools were initially formed in late Christian Rome, with courses of study ranging from purely religious texts through the liberal arts and classic Pagan scholars. While monastic schools were largely part of the duties of certain orders of monks, and thus didn’t share a great deal of knowledge with the outside world, local villages often gained some benefit from nearby schools. Monasteries held classical manuscripts on early scientific thought, and throughout the middle ages monasteries were known as centers of medicine. Later in the middle ages, a number of monastic schools also continued as the earliest of medieval universities (some of which are extant today).



Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are a form of open education, allowing free access to a course for an unlimited amount of students. MOOCs are generally put on by corporations or institutions of higher learning. Initially envisioned in 2008, and popularized in 2012, MOOCs are a newcomer to the online education scene, but have already had tens of millions of participants. The initial MOOC, filmed at Athabasca University and titled “Connectivism and Connective Knowledge” was available to 25 full-tuition paying students as well as 2200 students from the general public who received the course for free. A number of popular MOOC platforms now present courses from some of the top professors and universities in the world to millions of students through a freemium model. Free access for access to all course materials, and a verified certificate for a nominal fee used to verify your identity and employ security measures. Presently a number of MOOC platforms are expanding to offer larger programs that mimic skill centered degrees. There’s even an accredited masters in computer science available through MOOCs from Georgia Tech.



Multiculturalism is a force in higher education, as much through the vast range of nationalities that attend university in the United States, as through the extent that humanist academic tendencies have moved to break down single-culture-centered ways of thought over recent decades. While there are opponents of affirmative action, most institutions of higher education in the western world seek to promote the widest diversity among their student body as is practical. This is an important shift as most of the history of western institutions of higher education is exclusively a history of white males. The recent willingness to promote diversity is most likely how, in a matter of a few decades, women now comprise a solid majority of undergraduate students. Multiculturalism of the student body has also promoted a wider array of viewpoints in academic discourse, challenging all parties involved to both be accepting of others,and further hone their arguments to a new edge.


Natural Sciences

Many of the most important scientific discoveries from the last few hundred years occurred in universities. And while it was quality university systems that created the circumstances in which innovation could occur, those innovations also helped to propel universities into the modern day. What many people don’t know is that while scientific treatises have been around since the dawn of civilization, that they were actually considered natural philosophy, an area of study that included physics, chemistry, astronomy, biology, geology, and medicine. While natural philosophy did keep a link to ancient thought alive through the middle ages, proper scientific methods weren’t widespread, and it wasn’t until a number of later discoveries (see Copernican revolution) that faith-based claims were separated enough from empirical claims to truly advance scientific knowledge.


Oxford-Style Tutorials

Oxford-Style Tutorials began in the 11th century at Oxford and slightly later at Cambridge (known as supervisions). The tutorial involves the teaching of small groups of two or three with a “tutor” and is reputed to have met its height in the 19th century. It was then that the modern day tutorial built on the Socratic method began to emerge. Modern tutorials are considered more rigorous than standard lecture and test classes, and involve regularly meeting in small groups with one or several faculty members to defend your work against other students, and ask questions about other students’ work. While Oxford-Style Tutorials are only utilized at some top liberal arts schools in the US and through the Commonwealth, the central position of intellectual rigor and the Socratic method at some of the world’s premiere universities helped to influence current thought on best practices in higher education tremendously.


Personalized Learning

Personalized learning has grown in conjunction with research on learning styles, and involves altering the pace and approach of instruction to meet the needs of individual students. In conjunction with online education, personalized learning is often expanded to mean that students can learn what they want, when they want. Individualization, a related term, centers in on altering the pace at which a learner is progressing through learning materials. On the other hand, personalization centers around the entire student, what there skills are, what their aims are, and with the aim of filling out their entire skill set so as to reach a level of cognitive excellence. Current implementation of personalized learning in higher education centers around online delivery methods, through which some programs deliver constant assessments so as to better target what students need to learn and how. While online education of this sort is relatively new, personalized learning is in a unique opportunity to dramatically increase the efficiency of modern day –particularly skill-centered education–a fact that’s incredibly important to modern day learners.



The Quadrivium, or “the four ways” have been a component of a comprehensive education since ancient Greece. Comprised of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy, the Quadrivium was meant to represent the study of the number and its relationship to space and time. In the middle ages the quadrivium came to be what was studied at the masters of art level, taken after a general bachelors degree, and before a specialized bachelors degree in theology, medicine, or law. Combined with the trivium, the quadrivium composed the 7 subjects traditionally thought of as the liberal arts. This was in contrast with the practical arts:medicine, law, architecture.


Quantum Physics

While there have been many landmark scientific paradigms throughout the history of higher education, the shift to quantum physics in the early 20th century helped to establish a new era of inquiry. In pre-quantum physics, both the mathematical and language descriptions of physical phenomena progressed side by side. In the shift to quantum physics, only the mathematical description of what was going on in the world (in the quantum domain) actually made sense. Much as the discovery that the Sun does not rotate around the Earth, or that objects are made up of tiny constituent parts, the fact that quantum physics accurately described natural phenomena was a boon to the methods of science, and one of the watershed moments in which it was realized that different scientific models can both map on to the world with success. While Newtonian physics work on larger scales, the quantum domain is defined by different laws, both of which are verifiable and have advanced discovery.



While many universities have slowly moved away from their religious roots, organized religions have been perhaps the single largest supporters of higher education over the centuries. All ten of the world’s oldest universities were of religious origin. The two oldest–one in Morocco and one in Egypt– were both established as centers of Islamic learning before the year 1000. In Europe, monastic and cathedral schools helped to hold onto ancient knowledge through the Middle Ages and eventually pass the preserved knowledge to early Medieval Universities. In India, ancient Buddhist Academies date back to the fifth century BC, and in the early American Colonies every institution of higher education was of religious origin.

Research Journals

Though scholars have always circulated their writings, it wasn’t until the proliferation of many new fields in the arts and sciences in the 1700’s that academic journals began to spread. With the increased number of venues in which to publish, as well as the increased number of academics entering into the new fields, the last few hundred years have witnessed a phenomenal increase in academic publishing. In fact, a recent study has found that scientific paper output has doubled every nine years since the 1700’s. Through the process of peer review, and the ability to access previously inaccessible writings from other researchers, some of the most startling and far reaching discoveries over the recent centuries have been made, and the quality of academic research has increased–a substantial boon to both the public at large and institutions of higher learning.


Right to Education

The right to education was established in the Universal Deceleration of Human Rights and declares that all people must have the right to free, compulsory primary education, that states have an obligation to develop secondary education for all, and that equitable access to higher access must be maintained. While the entirely of the developed world has met these goals, a number of nations have interpreted the third claim to include free access to higher education. In France and Malta, higher education is free for all residents, and in Germany higher education is free to all EU residents and international students. A recent proposal by President Obama would make community colleges free in the US, similarly to current free community colleges in the Chicago as well as the state of Tennessee. If online, not-for-degree education is included, great strides have been made towards the right to education internationally over the last few years.



Scholasticism dominated the teaching style and viewpoints of academics in medieval European universities. Often used to defend Christian dogma by integrating ancient Greek thought (Aristotle) and neo-Platonism (from ancient Rome), scholasticism helped to shed light on largely forgotten knowledge from the past as well as provide a basis for establishing modern academic dialogues. Though used for sometimes dubious defenses of dogma, scholasticism relied heavily on exposing contradictions in the work of competing thinkers through explicit disputation in writing or speech. While this had occurred in the works of great thinkers and in the ancient academies, this was the first glimpse of this format of academic work in universities that are still around today.



To be clear, there is just as much of a place for religious institutions of higher education in today’s world as at any other point in history. The general trend away from every institution of higher education being religious, however, has yielded a number of important discoveries that could have been hindered in religious contexts. As argued by Richard Niebuhr–a noted professor from the Union Theological Seminary in New York– some see secularization as a symptom of the inability of homogeneous belief systems to adapt to the ethical and spiritual needs of a number of integrated parties that are rapidly expanding through globalization. The same inability of many religious groups to adapt world views around the latest trends in natural sciences has also made it advantageous to provide space for unhindered research at secular universities around the world.


Self-directed learning

Self-directed learning was initially utilized in in higher education for adult learners, but has been applied to a number of growing educational trends in the 21st century. With the rise of open content provided by universities online or in their communities, self-directed learners have a greater opportunity than ever to profit from university offerings. In traditional classroom settings, self-directed learning has its roots in Humboldtian Education which allowed students to choose what they would research and be self-directed at the university level. The ability of self-directed study for credit has also been enhanced with developments in online degree programs, particularly for adult learners. Over the last few years the number of delivery methods in continuing education environments online has skyrocketed, enabling driven students to progress at a much more efficient pace. While self-directed learning isn’t for every student in higher education, it’s increased application to university settings has provided a growing number of opportunities for the public to continue to learn.


Skill-Based Learning

Skill or competency-based learning is an educational technique often used to individualize and streamline the learning of subjects that progress well from one skill to the next. By using frequent testing and feedback loops, course administrators (or platforms) are able to hone competency profiles that can build a core set of skills needed for job or organizational success while skipping subjects the student is already competent in. A core functionality of skill-based learning is that unless skills have prerequisites, segments of the curriculum are viewed completely independently. This makes skill-based learning a good fit for academic programs whose end goals are precisely prescribed, and renders skill-based learning not as good of an option for traditional academic programs, where–at least in the general education stage–exploration for exploration’s sake is advised. Many programs currently using skill-based learning are either continuing education or online.


Socratic Method

The Socratic method is a dialectical technique that has been the foundation of many academic “best practices” for centuries. The technique involves attempting to undermine the viewpoint of other conversationalists. As each conversationalist’s viewpoints are attacked, they are forced to refine their views, often making definitions more rigorous and their position more clear. Socratic questioning is the process of moving through the Socratic method by asking questions of participants in an attempt to force them to contradict earlier positions. The technique has been described as “midwife-like” by many philosophers and educators, due to its tendency to not simply provide the answer for participants of a conversation, but lead them to discovering the answer on their own.

Social Science

Though many great thinkers have touched on social sciences throughout the ages, the academic birth of the social sciences occurred in the early 19th century. It was then that a number of thinkers–in response to the industrial and French revolution–began to look at the place of man in the world. Instead of applying science to the mechanisms of the natural world, or only talking of man through the lens of moral philosophy (both of which had previously been the case) thinkers began to believe that society could be studied in a a standardized and objective way. Some of the earliest documents in the social sciences include the encyclopedia of Diderot, as well as Rousseau’s Discourse on Political Economy, in which he outlines what a legitimate power operating under traditional republicanism would look. Today the social sciences are varied, and include economics, political science, human geography, demography, psychology, and sociology. Where positivist social scientists often apply the methods of traditional natural science to their research, interpretivist social scientists look for meaning in social research, often entering into social critiques or symbolic representations of society.


Studia Humanitatis

The academic basis for Humanism (see above), Studia Humanitatis was originally coined by Cicero–a noted orator of Ancient Rome–as the topics of study necessary for a Roman citizen to be able to properly achieve a life of public service. In the early Italian Renaissance scholars began to discover classic texts, Petrarch, a poet of the time recoined the term humanities to include the subjects: grammar, poetry, rhetoric, history, and moral philosophy. The aim of such a curriculum to provide the makings of a good person who had read their “good letters”. Following the path of humanism, the topic of humanities resurfaced during the French enlightenment through the satirist Voltaire’s injunction to “remember your dignity as a man.” As the enlightenment (or Aufklaerung) spread through Germany in the 18th century, the humanities began to refer to the bettering of people through their moral and artistic instruction through classical works, a designation that persisted through the following formation of many of the first German universities.



Tenure is one of the core mechanisms that preserves academic freedom in modern universities. Most specifically, tenure is the contractual right of a professor not to have their position terminated without a just cause. Generally, American universities have prescribed amounts of time during which probationary professors may be judged on their ability to attract funding, publish, engage in community service, and provide excellent instruction. After such a period, universities are urged to either grant the professor tenure, or terminate them (with advance warning). This time period acts to ensure new professors are reaching tenured status and thus–for a large portion of the faculty–freedom of research may be preserved. While non-tenured positions have grown much faster than tenured positions over recent years–producing claims that an “academic underclass” and exploitative work environments have been created–the existence of tenure for many professors at least prevents abuses from past eras. Without the protection of tenure, many professors served at the whim of the board of trustees. Often allowing large donors to force the removal of professors for teaching subjects they considered disagreeable. The practice of tenure has also spread to many primary and secondary school systems.


The GI Bill

As a boon to both the economy and members of the armed services, the GI bill passed in 1944 and allowed millions of veterans to proceed to school instead of flooding the job market. Providing education for a large portion of an entire generation, the peak year of GI Bill-supported students occurred in 1947, when 49% of college admissions were supported by the act. By 1956–as the initial GI Bill ended–7.8 of 16 million World War II veterans had obtained education or training through the act. As a way to augment the first major troop surge in nearly 30 years, the GI bill was renewed for a third time in 2001, providing additional benefits such as living stipends, money for books, and the ability to transfer unused portions of the bill to spouses or children. Through the benefits to veterans who obtained education through the GI bill and the subsequent boom in the expansion of colleges throughout the US, the GI bill is one of the single most influential pieces of legislation in the history of American higher education.


The Great Books Program

The Great Books Program is a modern distillation of what students should study to get an essential foundation in the literature and philosophy of western culture. The number of books on the list varies from most lists (100-150) to Harold Bloom’s list (2,400 books many of which include literary criticism). The impulse to canonize the most important volumes of western history is not new. A 51 volume Harvard Classics series came out in 1909, and by the 1920 there was a Great Books program at Columbia University. Great Books programs are related to elements of Humboldtian education as well as Socratic dialogue in that the texts are the primary source for students who explore largely without guidance from their professor. Classes are driven by open dialogue. Three of the most important criteria for a book’s selection in the Great Book program include: (1) the ability to be read over and over again for benefit, (2) the book is of contemporary significance and can be applied to our times, (3) the book tackles a large number of ideas and issues that have been relevant to thinking individuals over the last 25 centuries in the West.


The Scientific Method

While rigorous debate and discovery existed in academic settings long before the invention of the scientific method, it wasn’t until the implementation of a common methodology to many of the sciences that most university science was rigorous enough to make real progress. The process involves several steps, sequentially they include (1) making observations on the world; (2) thinking of interesting or worthwhile questions; (3) formulating hypotheses; (4) gathering data to test predictions; (5) refining hypotheses; (6) gathering more data to test new predictions; and (7) developing general theories. As opposed to the classic model of scientific discovery coined by Aristotle, the scientific method allows for experiments to be replicated and connections parsed so as to refine the relationship between tested elements and the theory they show.


A thesis is generally a longer essay of independent and original research presented in support of a Masters degree, though may also be completed in the final year of more selective undergraduate programs, or in an effort to receive honors for an undergraduate degree. While the words “thesis”– Greek for “putting something forth”– and “dissertation”– Latin for “path”– have been used in varying forms in for treatises created in academic and non-academic contexts for hundreds of years, many of the current academic practices regarding these papers have been solidified with academic standardization over the 20th century. Alive and flourishing in many corners of academia–such as Reed College, where theses are required for all four years of undergraduate–the thesis is the height of a traditional college education, forcing students to take a comprehensive look at a given field, identity an area that could be improved, create a largely original and potentially publishable work, and present their paper before a committee of scholars.



In conjunction with the Quadrivium, the Trivium provides the basis of the seven classical liberal arts, the majority of which are pushed as the basis for a well-rounded education today. The term “Trivium” was developed so as to mimic the term Quadrivium (which was derived from ancient Greece), and was a critical thinking method by which to derive facts from the five senses. The Trivium consists of three parts–grammar, logic, and rhetoric–which correspond with the input, processing, and output of information, respectively. In medieval times, the Trivium served as the basis for studying the Quadrivium. First students would master grammar, or the accurate use of language. Then they would use language to enhance their skills with logic. And finally students would learn to express their logic in moving ways through the art of rhetoric. Though not explicitly taught as the Trivium today, the idea that grammar, logic, and rhetoric are some of the building blocks of a quality education persists.