From Dialectic to Didactic (with curriculum and textbooks in mind)

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From Dialectic to Didactic
(with curriculum and textbooks in mind)

David Hamilton

Pedagogiska institutionen
Umeå University

ABSTRACT: This paper focuses the beginnings of modern schooling. It examines the concepts: syllabus, curriculum and didactic; and suggests how they might have been linked in the minds of teachers and learners in the fifteenth, sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In effect, it sets out to answer two questions: Why did these words appear in the European lexicon? And what processes fostered their widespread acceptance?

The project of indoctrinating and disciplining an entire population had never been undertaken with the seriousness which it was being attempted around 1580, and for this new project a different
approach to education was needed.

Hotson, 2000, pp. 23-24

Didactic is evidently almost as protean and all-purpose a concept
as the dialectic from which it is descended.

Ong, 1958, p. 164

This paper should be read in two ways. Prima facie it is an exploration of the beginnings of modern schooling. It looks closely at the concepts: syllabus, curriculum and didactic, and suggests how they might have been linked in the minds of teachers and learners in the Renaissance and Reformation. It addresses two questions: Why did these words appear in the European lexicon? And what processes fostered their widespread adoption in Europe and its colonies?

As suggested, however, there is also a complementary reading. This paper should also be read as an outlandish work that appears in an equally outlandish journal. The eponymous outlands were the border territory between Scotland and England. By analogy, then, I have prepared this analysis outside established intellectual boundaries. Its study object -- the lexicon of modern schooling -- could be located within the fields of classical, literary and historical inquiry, each with its own canonical sources, assumptions and expectations. Yet, in searching these fields, I have found very little that directly illuminates the analysis of these educational innovations.

For instance, Joseph Freedman (1999) has written valuably about 'teaching and texts' at ‘schools and universities’ in Central Europe between 1500 and 1700. Yet nowhere does he comment on either the substance or the historicity of the categories syllabus, curriculum or didactic which emerged in the same epoch. Indeed, Freedman's rubric makes the problem conspicuous by its absence.

Elsewhere, however, a conspicuous absence has validated my efforts. I first began research into the origins of the term curriculum in the 1970s (see, for instance, Hamilton & Gibbons, 1980). I have been very aware, of course, that to advance a priority claim is to risk that earlier examples will subsequently come to light. Accordingly, I have been greatly encouraged by the reports of the Comité Internationale du Vocabulaire des Institutions et de la Communications Intellectuelles au Moyen Age (CIVICIMA). Edited by Olga Weijers, they appeared between 1985 and 1995 (e.g Weijers, 1995). Each report, usually based on papers given at a multi-lingual conference, has an 'index des termes techniques'. Neither syllabus nor curriculum is to be found in any of these listings.

My final example of the complexities encountered in the preparation of this paper relates to the classical origins of education and schooling. ‘Why relate schooling to the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries’, asks the innocent questioner, ‘surely it all goes back to Greek and Roman times?’ Teresa Morgan, herself a classical scholar, has recently revisited this question. She rejects it as a dismal instance of historical, imperial and cultural complacency:

Studies of [classical] education now have a number of precise and searching questions to answer. It is no longer sufficient to sketch comparisons between Spartans and National Socialism, or British public schools, or to characterise Sappho as a prototype Dorothy Beale. Complacent assumptions that the Athenians were more-or-less fellows of another college and that their educational aims were probably much the same as ours, will no longer do….The time is ripe to re-examine Greek and Roman Education. (1998, pp. 8-9)

Indeed, Morgan turns the innocent question on its head. She concludes: 'in sum, we know almost nothing about the institutions of education in the classical period' (p. 19).

Such cautionary tales have been an important corrective in the preparation of this paper. I have also become conscious of the diversity and scale of the primary and secondary sources that could be utilised in such an analysis. On this occasion, my intention is merely a foray into the foothills of the outlands.


For more than twenty years, I have been unable to find any discussion of the origins and early use of the word syllabus. By default, I turned to dictionaries. In the process, however, I came across two confusions. Nineteenth century French- and German-Latin dictionaries, such as the Nouveau Dictionnaire Latin-Français (1892 onwards) or the Lateinischedeutsches Handworterbuch (1879-80), associate the word syllabus with the Confessions of Augustine (354-430). When I checked the Latin originals, however, I found that these dictionaries had confused syllabus and syllable -- a judgment confirmed in Lewis & Short's A Latin Dictionary (first edition, 1879).

The second confusion, however, is more important. It resulted in the emergence of the word syllabus. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, this lexical innovation arose from a type-setter's or proof-reader's error in transcribing the letters of Cicero:

Syllabus appears to be founded on a corrupt reading, syllabos, in some early printed editions of Cicero's Letters to Atticus . The manuscript reads syttabas, a parchment label or title slip on a book…Syllabos [came to mean] to put together, collect. (1979 edition, entry paraphrased and modernised).

The phrase 'early printed editions' indicates that this confusion occurred after Gutenburg's invention of moveable-type printing around 1450. A further clue occurs in the Oxford English Dictionary's earliest example for the use of syllabus: 'a title or index in a book to show places or matters by letters or figures' (1656, emphasis added).

This juxtaposition of title and index on the one had, and places and matters on the other provide valuable signposts. By themselves, title or index suggest the simplest definition of syllabus -- a table of contents. From an historical perspective, places or matters' are more revealing pointers. Places links syllabus to the Greek word topos (and its Latin equivalent locus); and matters links syllabus with the Latin word res (thing, matter, issue).

Places and Argumentation

I already knew, from the works of Walter Ong (1958), Peter Mack (1993) and, especially, Mary Crane (1994) and Ann Moss (1996) that places were the heurisms or building blocks used in the creation, construction and polishing of arguments. Indeed, this lego-like imagery is still used in English, whenever arguments are conducted in the form: 'In the first place…In the second place'. Further, I came to understand that, in history, that places have taken two forms – as sites to be filled, or as the fillings that occupy these sites. A journalist's ‘What? Where? When? How?’ are sites to be filled whereas ‘Friends, Romans and Countrymen’ is a filling that can be used repeatedly (hence ‘common’ places).

Meanwhile, my reading of other secondary sources (e.g. Howell, 1956) led me to make a connection between argumentation and instruction. I began to recognise that the content, order, organisation and delivery of a lesson is analogous to the content, order, organisation and delivery of an argument. Moreover, I realised that preachers, teachers and court-room lawyers are homologous occupations since, respectively, they deliver sermons, lessons, and defences.

I also learned that argumentation, like its places, takes different forms; and that these differences can be illustrated by reference to three historically-sensitive notions: logic, dialectic, and rhetoric. Logical arguments are analytic. They are made up from premises whose truths are recast, albeit in a different form, in the conclusion of the argument. Dialectical arguments, however, are of a weaker form. They build upon premises that are commonly accepted to be true. For instance, a dialectical argument might take the form: 'let us assume, for the sake of the argument…'. In this example, the phrase in italics is an instance of a rhetorical device. By such means, the uncertainty of rhetoric argumentation can be overcome by using rhetorical statements. Rhetoric furnishes the ornaments -- from the Latin word ornata -- the weapons and accoutrements of war (Skinner, 1996, p. 49). Rhetoric, therefore, went hand in hand with dialectic. Together, they strengthened an argument by making it more persuasive, acceptable or, in the optimal case, 'true' (cf. Shapin, 1994). As Conley comments, 'any rhetorical argument that cannot be resolved into a dialectical form of inference would be little more than idle rambling' (1996, p. 80).

Such argumentation was important in the Middle Ages. Belief could be established by logical or by dialectical/rhetorical means. This association provided the epistemological foundation of scholasticism in its efforts to reconcile faith and reason (viz. by using the logic of Aristotle to establish the truths of Christianity). Indeed, the label 'dialectic' took priority over 'logic' becoming the 'first' science to be learned by aspiring scholastics.

Two works that illustrate the form and scope of scholasticism are Boethius' De differentiis topicis (composed in the early part of the sixth century) and the Summulae logicales (c. 1246) of Peter of Spain, a contemporary of Thomas Aquinas who also became Pope John XXI in 1276. For Boethius, places were the 'kernel units' (Conley, 1990, p. 79), the spaces to be filled in argumentation's mechanism of proof.

Boethius has no interest in the place as auctoritas [quotations that could serve as fillings]…and it is both symptomatic and significant that his works on places, while containing plenty of made-up examples of propositions for analysis, are devoid of illustrative quotation from sources other than his primary philosophical texts. (Moss, 1996, p. 15)

According to Ong (1958, p. 55), the Summulae logicales was 'probably the most widely read of all scholastic works' and, as such, Peter of Spain's definition of dialectic underpinned the scholasticism of the following centuries:

Dialectic is the arts of arts and the science of sciences possessing the way to the principles of all curriculum subjects. For dialectic alone disputes with probability concerning the principles of all other arts, and thus dialectic must be the first science to be acquired.

(quoted in Ong, 1958, p. 60, emphasis added; note: 'Curriculum' does not appear in the original Latin. The phrase in italics is a translation of 'ad omnium methodorum principia viam habens'.)

Moreover, Ong suggests that, for many scholastics, dialectic was synonymous with logic. Peter of Spain was 'too preoccupied with a simpliste formalism…to be able to hold in focus anything so elusive as probable argumentation [i.e. dialectic]' (1958, p. 60).

Dialectic and Oratory

During the Renaissance, argumentation underwent further changes, notably through the highlighting of argumentation as a combination of dialectic and rhetoric. George of Trebizond's, Rhetoricorum libri V (c1430) and Lorenzo Valla's Dialecticae disputiones (originally prepared in 1439) provide illustrations. George of Trebizond, for instance, disregarded the minutiae of scholastic logic (e.g. in the work of Peter of Spain) and, instead, proposed a fusion of dialectical and rhetorical places. The former provided pathways to truth, while the latter bolstered the veracity of dialectical argumentation. From this perspective, argumentation could be seen as persuasion in context rather than the establishment of absolute and eternal truths.

This transformation of medieval dialectic into humanist dialectic was further advanced in the work of Lorenzo Valla (1407-1457), not only a 'critic of Aristotelian scholasticism' but also, significantly, a 'most enthusiastic admirer of Quintilian' (Kennedy, 1980, p. 207). Valla's Dialecticae disputiones demonstrated a 'preoccupation with eloquence' (Conley, 1980, p. 114) that not only undermined the medieval scholasticism of Peter of Spain but also 'absorbs dialectic entirely into the discipline of rhetoric' (Kennedy, 1980, p. 208). In the process, Valla took support from the 'best authors' (e.g. Cicero and Quintilian) who 'belonged to a tradition of …oratory' (Siegel, 1968, p. 163). It is no accident that Valla's efforts occurred in the wake of the rediscovery (or, more accurately, re-disclosure) of Cicero's De oratore in 1416, and Quintilian's Institutio oratores in 1421 (see Murphy, 1974, p. 357).

Moss summarises the early humanist consequences of Valla's revisionism:

Valla critically weakens the rigour of medieval logic by extending the range of permissible modes of argument to include procedures designed to maximize plausibility, even when they fail of absolute proof. Valla diverts from the logician's pursuit of formal validity and necessary truth in order to reclaim the territory of dialectic as it was originally marked out by Aristotle and colonized by Cicero, the territory of well-substantiated opinion, of the probable, the plausible, the apt and the appropriate. This was precisely the territory which was home to the places of argument common to dialectic and rhetoric, that is to say, to intellectual strategems aimed as assuring assent, rather than certainty beyond reasonable doubt. (Moss, 1996, p. 61, emphasis added)

Sources for Discourses

Valla brought argumentation into the public domain where, in emphasising content and form, it began to contribute to moral discourses about learning and instruction or, in other words, the self-shaping and re-shaping of humankind. Cicero's work, for instance, indicated how places might be used as building blocks in the compilation of speeches of praise or condemnation. A speech of praise might focus on physical or moral qualities. These, in turn, would be broken down into sub-topics (i.e. sub-places) such as agility, honesty, strength, appearance and health. Following Cicero, speech-makers (orators) began to gather places into storehouses. In short, the notion of places as fillings began to predominate. Perhaps the high point of this gathering process was reached with the first printed book published in England in 1477, The Dictes or Sayengis of the Philosophres (sic). According to Moss, it was an English translation of a 'French translation of a Latin version of a Spanish rendering of an Arabic collection of the purported sayings of Greek philosophers' (1996, p. 32).

More generally, the common places of argumentation began to be organised as sites where argumentative devices could be gathered for practical purposes (e.g. preaching). One early source of storehouse imagery was Seneca's Epistulae morales:

We should imitate bees and we should keep in separate compartments whatever we have collected from our diverse readings, for things conserved separately keep better. Then, diligently applying all the resources of our native talent, we should mingle all the various nectars we have tasted, and turn them into a single sweet substance, in such a way that, even if it is apparent where it originated, it appears quite different from what it was in its original state. (translated in Moss, 1996, p. 12)

Seneca's invocation of bees and bee-keeping explicitly referred to modes of study (or self-shaping). Other popular images also emerged, like the Old Testament image of Ruth gathering the residual wheat after the reapers had returned home; or the image of the orator making collections of flowers (florilegia).

Florilegia were collections of passages (auctoritas) from classical authors, pagan and christian. They were produced as collections to be read, marked, digested and, whenever necessary, imitated or copied. Further, they could be compiled for different purposes. Florilegia for the creation of sermons used biblical rather than pagan sources, florilegia for letter writing emphasised salutations and farewells, florilegia for poetry writing contained rhyming phrases, florilegia for speechmaking included different forms of praise and, not least, florilegia for self-instruction comprised collections of moral maxims.

The quotations that appeared in early florilegia were gathered in the same sequence as they had appeared in the source texts. But the ordering of these derived sources underwent modification as they were assembled for different purposes. One notable example of this modification was the Manipulus florum composed by a Dominican, Thomas of Ireland, in Paris in 1306 and printed for the first time in Piacenza in 1483. Although based on earlier florilegia, the Manipulus florum was also an innovation. Its primary purpose was to facilitated the preparation of sermons (see Rouse & Rouse, 1979). By this time archetypal bee-keepers used a different gathering strategy. They ordered (cf. ordinare) rather than mingled (cf. confundere) their diverse readings (Moss, 1996, p. 40).

The Manipulus florum, for instance, contains around 6000 extracts divided into three sections: Church Fathers, ecclesiastical writings, and pagan authorities, each listed in alphabetical order. Overall, it seems that the late fifteenth century was the seedbed of syllabus thinking (confirming the OED’s implication). A syllabus was regarded as something between a bunch of flowers and, in its printed variants after Gutenberg, a table of contents.

Despite Gutenberg's intervention, the renewed circulation of the Manipulus florum in the latter half of the fifteenth century may also have arisen from humanist enthusiasm for Cicero's ideas about eloquence. It is difficult to judge the relative importance of Cicero and Gutenberg. As suggested, Gutenberg's impact was profound. Henceforth, argumentation could capitalise on the deployment of moveable-type printing. Was oratory to become more of a written than an oral form? Was the memory-based retrieval of places to be replaced by 'mise-en-page' technologies (Parkes, 1976, p. 115). Should the places of an argument be compiled in a form that could be easily memorised? Or could the places of an argument be stored in a physical, spacialised and easily-retrievable form -- in the same way that time could also be represented on paper in the form of time-tables?

The historical relationship between oral and literary retrieval remains controversial. Certainly, oral practices survived, as they still do (cf. the journalist’s mnemonic). Nevertheless, visual and spacial storage seem to have become ascendent -- a process that also occurred with the oral practice of catechesis (see Green, 1996). One consequence of this mise en page (or printed) system of representation was the introduction of headings. For instance, a florilegium of sermon commonplaces, Lumen animae (The Light of the Soul), printed in Germany between 1477 and 1482, was arranged alphabetically under topics called capitula.

The Margarita poetica of Albertus de Eyb (1420-1475) provides a parallel. Published for the first time in 1459 in Nuremberg and reprinted at least 13 times between 1472 and 1503, it had three elements. It was a manual for letter writing, a collection of model orations, and a florilegia. Following a model possibly acquired in Italy, Eyb offered, in a 'relatively well-organised and utilitarian fashion…the material and the method for acquiring a particular style of expression'. Accordingly, the inclusion of a table of contents, an index and numerical page and sub-page references furnished a 'finding method' for those who wished to use Eyb's compendium (Moss, 1996, p. 67).

It is important to note, however, that Eyb's Margarita poetica supported studying, not instruction. Indeed, such prescriptions and exemplars were gathered together in collections, ratione studii (schemes of study), which began to appear 'with some frequency in northern Europe' after 1531 (Moss, 1996, 115). In English, these collections were known as common-place books, with the first recorded use of 'commonplace-book' in the Oxford English Dictionary dating from 1578. Learners, that is, compiled their own commonplace-books, initially in Latin and, after 1520, increasingly in vernacular languages like German (Moss, 1996, pp. 140-141). Meanwhile the idea of personal common-place books took another turn, becoming the model for printed source books (cf. textbooks). In short, collections of 'common' places had taken two forms by the mid-sixteenth century: compilations made by learners and compilations made for learners.

From self-fashioning to other-fashioning

Despite differences in their modes of production, such texts exemplified the 'twin' discursive practices, as Crane called them, of 'gathering' and 'framing' . In other words, students used commonplace-books not merely as a ’technical aid involving the cataloguing and rote memorization of aphorisms’. Rather, they used these sources to compose themselves, and/or to be composed by others. In practice, these discursive practices overlapped, which is why Crane calls them ‘authoritative self-fashioning’ (1993, p. 3). Presumably, students could 'gather' their collections from original sources or from pre-packaged textbooks. Either way, learners were framed, or framed themselves, within the discourses of Renaissance and Reformation schooling which began to include assumptions about syllabus, curriculum and didactics (see also Hamilton, 2000).

A final feature of the history of places can be discerned in the work of Rudolphus Agricola (1444-1485). Like many other fifteenth century humanists, Agricola is remembered for travelling back and forth over the Alps bringing Italian humanism into northern Europe. His best known work, De inventione dialectica , was begun in Italy, finished in Germany by 1479, and published repeatedly in Paris between 1538 and 1543.

The significance of De inventione dialectica for the history of argumentation is that dialectic became associated not so much with truth and logic as with what might be said within reason. Accordingly, Agricola felt that philosophical knowledge and argumentation embraced not only the works of Aristotle, Cicero and Quintilian but also the writings of historians, poets and orators. Thus, for Agricola, dialectic was an open field: the art of finding 'whatever can be said with any degree of probability on any subject' (cited in Moss, 1996, p. 77). Thus gathering and framing can be seen as proto-curriculum processes. They related to the gathering of material that could frame learning according to particular patterns. Moreover, these gatherings could be assembled according to specific headings -- in other words, in the form of a syllabus.

Moss identifies Agricola's contribution along such lines. The 'places' of argumentation had become 'common headings (capita communia)' and:

The analogy between the dialectical 'commonplaces' by which propositions may be found and the common-place-heads by means of which material is ordered and retrieved in the notebook is written into Agricola's language. (Moss, 1996, p. 78)

By this transformation, dialectic became the art of discoursing (holding forth in speech) or expatiating (speaking or writing copiously). It was built around the identification, gathering and organisation of 'places'. Henceforth humanist dialectic was to embrace persuasion (i.e. moving the listener/reader). As noted earlier, dialectic annexed the ornamental (i.e. defensive) aspects of rhetoric, leaving rhetoric as a residual field devoted merely to decoration (a connotation it still retains).

Ong suggests that Agricola's exclusion of rhetoric as a separate field was the 'critical Renaissance divorce' (or slippage) in the hitherto 'uneasy union' of rhetoric and dialectic. Moreover, Ong also suggests that the outcome of this divorce entailed that dialectic became 'congenial' to the humanists' 'pupil-oriented teaching' (cf. persuasive instruction), as against the university's 'teacher-oriented [logic-grinding?] teaching' (Ong, 1958, pp.102, 97, 103). In short, the 'ultimate objective' of Agricola's innovation was to move all argumentation away from proof (logic) and declamation (rhetoric) into a new framing paradigm -- the delivery of instruction:

Even discourse which others would consider rhetorical or persuasive, whether a man is being led to persuasion willingly, or forced to it against his will, is seen by Agricola as fundamentally a teaching process. Teaching, and hence producing conviction is ‘making what is unknown more known’. (Ong, 1958, p. 103, quoting Agricola’s De inventione dialectica)

If Ong is correct -- his argument is supported by Mack (1993) and Jardine (1993) -- Agricola's humanist initiative was a critical moment in the history of modern schooling -- the shift from self-fashioning to other-fashioning, a transformation also presented and analysed by Grafton & Jardine (1986).

At the risk of over-simplification, 'commonplace-books' became school textbooks -- collections of quotations, maxims, and texts worthy of use. In the words of William Kemp's The Education of Children in Learning (1588), they could be used to 'teach [the student] all things, framing to eloquence in talke, and vertue in deedes' (sic, quoted in Crane, 1993, p. 53).

By such means, the notion of a syllabus came of age. It grew from the reform of argumentation (or dialectic) that occurred during the Renaissance (cf. Mack, 1993). It was a set of headings, places, or topics that could steer teaching and, by implication, learning. Yet, one aspect of the teaching process was not embraced by the notion of a syllabus. What sense of order was to be followed by teachers? To address this last question, and the associated emergence of the notion of a curriculum, it is necessary to turn elsewhere -- to educational thinkers who not only gave attention to questions of framing but also to the association of framing with the organisation of 'matters'.

From Syllabus to Curriculum

One thinker deeply implicated in this process was Philip Melanchthon (1497-1560), Martin Luther's 'fellow worker' (Chambers Biographical Dictionary). Melanchthon's De loci communes ratio (On the organisation of commonplaces, first edition, 1521) was linked more to the Aristotelian world of things or matters (res) than to the Ciceronian world of words and speech. His 'places', therefore, pertained to a truth beyond language and declamation. They were a means of apprehending the world and its law-like workings. As such they were as much a contribution to the transformation of natural philosophy (see, for instance, Kusukawa, 1995) as they were to the history of argumentation and instruction.

For Melanchthon, commonplaces steered instruction. They were 'one and the same thing' as place-headings. They were 'indistinguishable from general heads, "capita" or "tituli"' which, in turn, were related to 'systematic divisions in the universe of the knowable' (Moss, 1996, p. 120). For Melanchthon the places were something to be filled, albeit under ‘general heads’. As Kusukawa describes the same intention:

Melanchthon's works on philosophy set the trend of sixteenth century 'textbooks'. Instead of staying close to Aristotle's order of argument, Melanchthon followed a lists of loci, selected and ordered with didactic clarity in mind….Instead of trying to resolve exhaustively by way of logical reasoning (as in the quaestio method), Melanchthon proceeded by loci: each section began with a question such as 'Quid est physica?', 'Quid est anima?' and 'Quid est mundi?'….Melanchthon simply selected what was useful for his purposes. (1995, p. 174)

But, as Kusukawa notes, Melanchthon was 'reticent' about 'the order or choice of appropriate topics' for teaching. He 'never explained how and why certain loci were selected and ordered in the particular way that they were' (1995, pp. 174-175). This transformation, of syllabus into curriculum, seems to have been accomplished later in the sixteenth century -- after Melanchthon's death. Again the contribution of Gutenberg is evident.

Since the time of Aristotle, the construction of an argument had been regarded as a two-stage process. First, premises had to be found (invention); and secondly, the overall validity of the argument had to be reviewed (judgement). These joint processes became the via inventionis and via iudicii of dialectic. Ong, however, suggests (1958, pp. 114-5) that, in the age of printing, the second stage began to be regarded not so much in terms of judgement but, rather, in terms of arrangement (dispositio, a word and image still used in Swedish). Again this suggests the influence of rhetoric: the disposition of an argument was also a way of ensuring that it was defensible.

By such means, the 'technicalities' or prickles (spina) of medieval logic were 'set aside' in favour, Ong suggests, of 'practical pedagogy' (p. 125). Further, the principled manner in which 'places' (or heads) were disposed or inter-related on the page underpinned the notion of a curriculum (see Hamilton, 1989, ch. 2). This was practical pedagogy because it indicated the natural order in which topics should be taught. And the key actor in this respect was, as Ong recognises, Peter Ramus (?1515-1572) of the University of Paris.

The combined interventions of Melanchthon and Ramus, sometimes known as Philippo-Ramism, offered a basis for the creation of an intellectual and practical platform linking syllabus, curriculum and instruction. A syllabus provided the headings; a curriculum indicated the order of the headings; and teachers instructed by following these headings. Ong suggests, further, that this instructional platform became a self-reproducing 'pedagogical juggernaut' (1958, ch.7). Like the Sanskrit god that it commemorates, the juggernaut based on Ramus' writings not only rolled over northern Europe but, in the process, rolled over and crushed one of the cornerstones of argumentation -- the via iudicii or 'real dialectic' -- of Aristotelian philosophy.

Instead of representing an approach to truth through the real dialectic of Socrates' midwifery, or through a series of probabilities as in Aristotle's conception, dialectic or 'logic' became the subject a teacher taught to other coming teachers in order to teach them how to teach, in their turn, still other apprentice teachers, and so on ad infinitum. (Ong, 1958, p. 154; see also Hotson, 2000, p. 20)

Knowledge became a standardised commodity, as teaching retreated from the autonomy of study to the dissemination of pre-structured printed texts. The motivation for this standardisation, Ong concludes, was doctrinal and political -- a fear that 'too many voices could result in chaos':

If a master was to purvey to his students what as an apprentice he had received from another master, the obvious way of assuring proper continuity or the unity of the total product which was being purveyed by the members of the teacher's guild, was to put the product in writing. The well-known university regulations against teachers' dictating to their pupils and even against pupils' taking pen or ink into the classroom are capital evidence of the persistent tendency of the members of the teacher's guilds to rely slavishly on the written word. (Ong, 1958, p. 155)


It is reasonable, from the above, that curriculum emerged from the convergence of ideas about the creation, disposition and delivery of oral and written arguments. But where and how did didactics emerge? The date and source -- the work of Wolfgang Ratke -- is well documented (von Martial, 1985); but the reasons are less clear.

One starting point is the sixteenth century notion of an art since, in German, didactics was described as a Lehrart. In Aristotelian thought, an art is concerned with making or doing something ('technique' comes the Greek equivalent). As a Lehrart, then, seventeenth century didactics can be regarded as a technology of production, an extension of the art of framing. From such a perspective, learners embodied the raw material, the object, and the outcome of instruction. Further, didactics was about shaping the learner to the designs of that period - sometimes called the further Reformation (see Hotson's discussion, 2000, pp. 1-5). If Luther and Melanchthon had steered the first Reformation, creating a political space in Europe, activists of the further Reformation - Comenius is probably the best known - devoted themselves to the re-configuration of that space through an associated 'reformation of life' (Hotson, 1994, p. 35).

This was the 'different approach' to 'indoctrinating and disciplining an entire population' that Hotson has identified:

What the lawyers, administrators, inspectors, teachers, preachers and pastors needed in order to reform the everyday standards of knowledge, virtue and piety in their communities was…[a] basic set of practical tools which could be applied to the analysis of any text, to the development and organisation of any argument on any subject. In Ramist dialectic they found a basic organon [tool] well adapted to these needs. (Hotson, 1994, p. 36)


While a handful of highly accomplished lawyers, theologians and rhetoricians were undoubtedly necessary to bolster the exposed position of these Calvinist states in imperial [German] law, academic theology and literary polemics, these could be provided by a tiny elite prepared by advanced study at some distant university. The practical purposes for which academies such as Herborn were established were closer to home; and for these purposes Ramist pedagogy, emended perhaps to repair its most important defects, was perfectly adequate. (Hotson, 2000, p. 24)

Such a mission became evident in the statutes of the 'first and most important' of the German academies founded in 1584, Herborn. Its professors were required to use the Ramist method to teach grammar, rhetoric and dialectic, an approach that spread to other reformed academies and gymnasia in Germany and elsewhere. In the early 1580s -- while awaiting the opening of the Herborn academy -- one of its professors Johannes Piscator 'systematically emended and republished' Ramus' scholia (class-books) on grammar, rhetoric, dialectic, physics and metaphysic. After the academy opened, Lazarus Schöner prepared a revised edition of Ramus' mathematical works; Johannes Althusius published a series of Ramist textbooks on ethics, politics and law between 1586 and 1603; and Piscator added a complete course of exegetical theology 'firmly founded on Ramist principles' between 1591 and 1621 (Hotson, 1994, pp. 37-39).

Further, the emendation noted by Hotson, entailed the reconciliation of Melanchthon's aristotelianism with Ramus' pedagogical juggernaut. This was complicated in Germany because gymnasia had adopted Ramism, whereas teaching in the German universities was more Aristotelian. That is, the universities gave more attention to logical analysis since the outcomes of such analysis were deemed important to the theological and political debates of the day. An undesirable consequence of this separation of gymnasium and university was, however, that students admitted to the universities were regarded as ill-prepared for contemporary debate. There was an expressed need, therefore, to find a curriculum that would reposition and reframe gymnasium students for the turbulent world of sixteenth-century politics (cf. Oestreich, 1982). What was sought, Hotson suggests, was a 'method of exposition' that would avoid the serious deficiencies of, on the one hand, Aristotle's 'archaic and disorganised texts' and, on the other hand, Ramus' 'wilfully oversimplification and tendentious alternative' to aristotelianism (Hotson, 1994, p. 42).

A popular solution to this educational tension was offered by Bartholomäus Keckermann, then working in Heidelberg. Around 1600, Keckermann offered a solution which, in short, entailed 'recasting Peripatetic [i.e. Aristotelian] substance in semi-Ramist form'. Keckermann's reconciliation, it seems, proved popular:

The doctrine he expounded was essentially that of Aristotle, but the orderliness, clarity and systematic coherence with which he expounded it were strongly reminiscent of Ramus. (Hotson, 1994, p. 42)

Thereafter, Keckermann rapidly applied his method of exposition to grammar, rhetoric, metaphysics, physics, ethics, politics, economics, mathematics, astronomy and geography, the sum total of which he called a systema. Keckermann's reconciliation of ramism and aristotelianism was widely acknowledged. It received an 'enthusiastic reception both in the universities which had refused to abandon Aristotle and in the academies which had embraced Ramus' (Hotson, 1994, p. 43). His collected works were published in 1614, five years after his death (and one year after the first appearance of the word didactic); and various parts of Keckermann's systema logicum went through more than 40 editions between 1599 and 1656.

Such enthusiam also meant that Keckermann's initiative also influenced later thinkers. For instance, Johann Heinrich Alsted, one of Comenius' teachers at Herborn Academy, took heed of Keckermann's systematising methods. He created a 3500-page Systema systematum (system of systems) in 1613; he published the first edition of an Encyclopaedia in 1620; and he followed it up with another edition in 1630 which, notably, included 'didactica' as an 40-page entry. Besides suggesting that didactics embraces doctrinam de studio disciplinarum (teachings on the study of the disciplines) and de ratione recte discendi disciplinas (on the right scheme of teaching the disciplines), Alsted's second edition also includes the words didactica and curriculum on the same page (viz. p. 129).


The above is merely a sketch, an answer to the question: is it possible to link the words syllabus, curriculum and didactic? The answer identified in this paper is that between 1450 and 1650:

• A syllabus identified a series of places (or topics).

• A curriculum grew into a series of places disposed, in the first place, according to dialectical/rhetorical assumptions about persuasion and, in the second place, according to post-Gutenberg assumptions about visual communication. And, finally,

• Didactic related to the overall systematisation or schematisation of instruction.

This analysis, however, remains sketchy. There is much that, wittingly or unwittingly, has been left out. More fine-grained analysis is needed, along with comparative analyses (e.g. the routinisation that foreshadowed the production of the Jesuit's ratio studiorum, see O'Malley, 1993, p. 368ff.). But this analysis is also sketchy for other reasons. As an argument, it is more Ramist than Aristotelian. It has been written with disposition in mind. It attempts to lay out the key elements -- or places -- of an argument about the beginnings of modern schooling (see also Hamilton, 2001). Since the main task has been to construct a plausible narrative, chronological order has steered the layout of the disposition. But the history of ideas is rarely linear. Parallel investigations, notably the work of Yngve Nordkvelle in Norway (2001, hopefully to be translated into English), are likely to refine, if not amend, the key ideas and associations identified above.

This sketch, however outlandish, clarifies chronological as well as conceptual links that, together, bolstered the infrastructure -- or discourse -- of modern schooling. And the key to this sketch, I suggest, has been the ‘protean and all-purpose’ role of places, logic, dialectic and rhetoric in classical, medieval and renaissance argumentation.


An earlier version of this paper was prepared for a conference ‘Does history matter: Stability and change in education’, Department of Education, Norwegian University of Science and technology, Trondheim, October 1999; and a revised versions was prepared for a seminar with doctoral students on the programme ‘Education: history, politics and society’ at the Pontifical Catholic University of São Paulo, March 2001, which is reproduced at For their support of these revisions, I would like to thank Stefan Hopmann, Mirian Jorge Warde, Chris Stray, John Issitt and Carol Poster.


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