Science, Education and Society






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Educational Developments

In 1400, there were twenty-nine functioning universities in Europe.  Twenty-eight additional ones were created during the fifteenth century.  Renaissance rulers and city governments created universities because they believed that their societies would benefit from university learning. Men attended these universities to acquire the degrees and skills that would enable them to attain good positions in these societies.[1]  As a result of religious wars, and other factors, such as famine and plague, European universities suffered a decline during the seventeenth century,[2] but there were some positive educational developments, as discussed below.

Jesuit Education

The Society of Jesus was founded in 1540 by Ignatius of Loyola, a Spanish former soldier that had dedicated himself to missionary work for the Catholic Church. Ignatius and several of his early followers had been educated at the University of Paris and they had a strong academic background. The first schools of the Jesuit order were dedicated to the education of its candidates, but given the quality of these “internal” schools, the Jesuits were gradually induced to open schools for general, mostly secondary, education.  Ignatius soon realized the value of this work in the service to his church, and he made education a primary mission of his order. By 1679, the Jesuits were running 578 “external” schools.[3]   During the sixteenth century, the Jesuits also began to offer university-level courses at their schools, and some of these schools attained full university status, such as the Roman College in 1556.  Jesuit education was influenced by the experience of some of its founders at the University of Paris, and it included aspects of both of the philosophies that had been in competition there:  “the Jesuits wanted to preserve the best of the two great educational ideals even in their universities: the intellectual rigor of the scholastic system and the more personalist, societal, and even practical aims of the humanists." [4]

Pietist Education

Pietism was a religious and educational movement that sought to revitalize Reformation Christianity. The followers of Pietism believed that Christians should work for the betterment of mankind. Although the term "Pietism" was originally associated with a movement within the Lutheran church in Germany,  most of the Reformation churches of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were influenced by this movement.  Philipp Jakob Spener (1635-1705) is considered to be the founder of the movement.[5] August Francke (1663-1727), a disciple of Spener, taught theology and oriental languages at the University of Halle from 1694 to 1727.  Under his influence, Halle became the center of Pietism in Germany.[6] In 1695, Francke founded a charity-supported school for orphan children at Halle. Francke’s school taught the children useful trades and the sciences, along with basic studies and religious instruction.  Those orphans who displayed sufficient ability were encouraged to prepare for the university, and special funds were set aside to provide scholarships for these students.[7]  Francke’s success attracted the attention of king Frederick William I of Prussia, who  established about 2000 schools in Prussia, modeled on Francke’s schools.[8]

Scientific Breakthroughs

The seventeenth century is generally credited with the birth of what we consider modern science.  It saw significant discoveries and explanations of some natural phenomena, and above all, the beginning of a methodology based on observation and analysis. Francis Bacon (1561-1626) emphasized the use of experimentation in science. Bacon’s empiricism was highly influential during the first half of the seventeenth century, especially in his native Britain.  Galileo (1564-1642) made use of experimentation, but his strength was in theoretical insights. Isaac Newton (1643-1727), working later in the century, achieved a better balance between theory and experimental investigation. Both Galileo and Newton also made significant contributions in the use of mathematics to express, and sometimes to deduce, scientific theories.

Francis Bacon was an English nobleman and statesman who pursued scientific investigations on the side. His most important contributions were in scientific methodology. He also had a very inspiring view on the social value of science:

Now among all the benefits that could be conferred upon mankind, I found none so great as the discovery of new arts, endowments, and commodities for the bettering of man's life... But above all, if a man could succeed, not in striking out some particular invention, however useful, but in kindling a light in nature -- a light which should in its very rising touch and illuminate all the border-regions that confine upon the circle of our present knowledge; and so spreading further and further should presently disclose and bring into sight all that is most hidden and secret in the world, -- that man (I thought) would be the benefactor indeed of the human race, -- the propagator of man's empire over the universe, the champion of liberty, the conqueror and subduer of necessities.[9]

 Bacon's utopian novel, the New Atlantis, depicts a society where the state supports a group of elite scientists that conduct advanced research for the benefit of mankind. This image has remained an ideal for scientific research through the ages.

Scientific Circles

The literary circles that had begun with the Florentine Renaissance had continued throughout Europe, but during the seventeenth century topics of interest shifted to the new philosophic ideas and natural science. One of these literary circles turning scientific was hosted in Paris by Marin Mersenne (1588-1648),  a scientist and mathematician and member of the Catholic religious order of the Minims. Mersenne mentored young scientists, such as Blaise Pascal and Christian Huygens, and weekly intellectual meetings were hosted at his convent cell in  Paris and at the homes of other members of the group.[10]

Another key group with scientific and educational interests gathered in London around Samuel Hartlib (1600-1662). This group, influenced by the ideas of Francis Bacon and Czeck educator Jan Comenius (1592-1670), attempted to introduce educational reforms with an applied science orientation into Oxford and Cambridge.[11] They were not successful in this, but instead they stimulated the creation of a number of independent academies in England and Scotland.[12] Hartlib attracted into his circle several scientists such as mathematician John Pell, chemist Benjamin Worsley and physicist Robert Boyle.

A number of English scientists held informal meetings at the Gresham College in London and at Oxford during the 1640's and 1650's. Prominent among these were physicists Robert Boyle and Robert Hooke, architect Sir Christopher Wren, and clergyman and educator John Wilkins. Under Wilkins' leadership, this group became organized as the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge in 1660, with Wilkins as Secretary and Hooke as Curator of Experiments. A Royal Charter was awarded to the organization in 1662 by Charles II.[13] The society was organized in commissions who investigated specific topics such as mechanics or astronomy.  Beginning in 1665, the society published a journal entitled Philosophic Transactions, which included papers presented at the sessions and related discussions.[14]

Samuel Hartlib

Samuel Hartlib (1600-1662)  was born in Prussia of a Polish protestant family that had emigrated to Prussia. He emigrated to England in 1628.[15]  From his early years in England, Hartlib demonstrated a great ability to gather and disseminate information.  He was inspired by Francis Bacon's ideals about scientific cooperation.  Taking advantage of his continental contacts and his wide interests, he established a large network of correspondents. This network attracted some wealthy intellectuals who provided him some financial support.

A proposal for the formalization of a knowledge network was crystallized when Hartlib learned of a Parisian Bureau d'adresse established by French physician and philanthropist Theophraste Renaudot (1584-1653) with government support.[16] Renaudot's agency had a limited scope, concentrating in employment information, but the concept helped Hartlib in formulating an ambitious proposal for an information bureau called the Office of Addresse, presented to the English Parliament in 1647. Hartlib had performed some of these functions on his own, and parliament provided him some financial support, but the bureau was never established officially. The following quotation from Harlib's proposal illustrates the intended scope of the projected office and its relation to the universities:

The Warden of this Office should be authorized to have and keep not only all manner of Registers, Inventaries, Catalogues and Lists containing the Peculiar Objects whereof he should furnish Information for Addresse to such as shall desire it... and to maintain a Correspondence and Learned Trade with all Men of Abilities within and without the Kingdom...  In the Matters of Ingenuity his  end should be to offer the most profitable Inventions which he should gain, unto the benefit of the State, that they might be Publically made use of, as the State should think most expedient... He should yearly once at a certain time be obliged to give up the account of his Annual Negotiation, to the Professors of all Sciences in both Universities and to the Heads and Masters of Colleges and Halls, who should be made a Special Committee and appointed to meet, and to take into Consideration the things which he shall produce: that such pieces as shall deserve to be put into the Public Libraries, to be made Common unto Scholars, or other wise published in Print for the benefit of every one, may by their advice be applied unto their proper Uses; for the advancement of Divine and Humane Learning... [17]


In Hartlib's project we have one of the best eaxamples of the dream of a true knowledge heritage, with the accumulated knowledge of mankind being organized and made available. Although this dream did not materialize, it is now acknowledged that Hartlib's correspondence network, and those of his continental counterparts such as Marin Mersenne, provided a crucial conduit of information during the early days of modern science.

University Research

Jesuit schools organized groups of students, called “academies,” for the purpose of undertaking special exercises related to their studies. Private societies for the study of classical languages and the sciences were organized at the University of Halle and other German universities during the eighteenth century [18]. These societies included students, teachers, and outside members. The members were encouraged to present papers and to participate in related discussions.

The University of Halle was founded in 1694 by Frederick III, Elector of Brandenburg, who later became King Frederick I of Prussia in 1701.  From the beginning, it was decided that Halle would be a flagship university, and that it would be used to educate future civil servants and teachers [19]. A new university was founded in 1734 at Gottingen, Hanover by George II, King of England and Elector of Hanover in Germany, in order to compete with Halle in rival Prussia. The foundation was entrusted to the prime minister of Hanover, Gerlach Adolf von Munchhausen, who had studied at Halle. Aiming to attract students from other German states, Munchhausen established the practice of selecting professors on the basis of their reputation derived from their publications.[20] The new university soon excelled in the fields of law, philosophy and classical languages.  In 1739, a leading scholarly journal began to be published at Gottingen, which became an important catalyst for research.[21] A parallel and supporting process was the development of university research libraries. Again Gottingen set the standard. Opened in 1737, the well-catalogued Gottingen library emphasized material to support research, instead of rare manuscripts, and it became the largest academic library of its time.[22]

[1] Paul F. Grendler, "The Universities of the Renaissance and the Reformation"  in Renaissance Quarterly (2004),  2.

[2] Ibid., 23.

[3] Ibid., 24.

[4] John O’Malley, "The Jesuit Educational Enterprise," 21.

[5] Peter C. Erb, ed., Pietists, Selected Writings (New York: Paulist Press, 1983), 2-8.

[6] Ibid., Pietists, 9.

[7] Levy Seeley, History of Education (New York, American Book Company, 1899), 233-236.

[8] Marcia J. Bunge, "Education and the Child in the Eighteenth-Century German Pietism: Perspectives from the Work of A. H. Francke" in Marcia J. Bunge, ed., The Child in Christian Thought (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 2001), 247-249.

[9] Francis Bacon, Of the Interpretation of Nature Proem

[10] Robert Mandrou, From Humanism to Science (Harmonsworth, Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1978), 268-271.

[11] Charles Webster, Samuel Hartlib and the Advancement of Learning (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 56-62, 71.

[12] Douglas Sloan, The Scottish Universities in the Enlightenment  (New York: Teachers College Press,  Columbia University, 1971), 65.

[13] Roger Ariew et al, ed.  Descartes' Meditations: Background Source Materials (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 141-144.

[14] Robert Mandrou, From Humanism to Science, 268-271.

[15] G. H. Turnbull, Samuel Hartlib- A Sketch of his life and his relations to J. A. Comenius (London: Oxford University Press, 1920), 1-6.

[16] Charles Webster, ed., Samuel Hartlib and the Advancement of Learning (Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1970), 44.

[17] Samuel Hartlib, "Considerations Tending to the Happy Accomplishment of Englands Reformation" in Charles Webster, ed. Samuel Hartlib and the Advancement of Learning, 126-134.

[18] William Clark, Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University, (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006), 157.

[19] Ibid., 265-266.

[20] Richard R. Nelson, National Innovation Systems: A Comparative Analysis, (New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 1993), 117.

[21] William Clark, Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University  (Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 2006),  113.

[22] Ibid., 316-321.