25 The History of the Academy and the Disciplines

Christine McElreavy (Editor), Victoria Tobin, Taylor Martin, Mickayla Bea Damon, Nicole Crate, Andrew Godinez, Kayleigh Bennett


We have known of the concepts of the “academy” and the “disciplines” for as long as we have been schooled. Although these concepts have been thrown around our heads, we have never really been asked for the history or the definition of the academy or the disciplines. The disciplines that we have been taught since the beginning of elementary school have been such a crucial part in who we are as students, and who we become in our careers after graduation.

History of the Academy

The advanced colleges and universities we know today have only been around for a few centuries, but the idea of having a designated place to learn has been around for over a millennium.  The academy began with teachers simply preaching a topic of their interest.  As time progressed, universities began to focus their efforts on religion and eventually evolved to where we are today.  The first documented academy was believed to be in ancient Greece, only growing in size and popularity from that point, eventually spreading across the world.

Some sources say the first documented academy was started by the ancient Greek philosopher, Plato.  He spent much of his youth learning from the great philosopher, Socrates.  In ancient times, it was common for a youth to have a platonic relationship with an elder.  The elder would mentor and guide the adolescent, but it was a one-on-one basis.  When Plato was 40, he created the open-air “Academy” just outside the city of Athens in 387 B.C.  A majority of the students, approximately nine-tenths, traveled from other cities in order to attend the lectures.  Due to the fact that not many were literate, lessons were passed on verbally.  This academy was an original idea because Socrates was skeptical about a teacher’s ability to transmit knowledge directly to a student.  After Plato’s death the academy still thrived for nearly three centuries.  Unfortunately, it came to an end when the Romans destroyed it.

According to the Guiness Book of World Records, The University of Al-Karaouine in Morocco, Africa is the oldest continuously operating, degree-granting university in the world.  The university was originally a mosque and actually created by a woman, Fatima al-Fihri.  Al-Azhar University, centered in Egypt, is another academy that was founded by the 10th century.  Both establishments started off teaching rhetoric and religion. Closely following behind the academies in Africa, Oxford University in England became the first for English-speaking individuals.  Universities of this time focused on faith because it was the foundation of their civilizations.  Although these institutions began nearly a millennium ago, it was closer to the 20th century when they expanded to more traditional fields of study.

The United States was far from establishing the first academy, but it did create one of the finest within 150 years of arriving.  The prestigious Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts was founded in 1636.  Like the other Universities of this era, the main topic taught was religion.  Harvard began with a single house and a single acre of land, but has now grown to an astounding 5,083 acres.  In 1869, Charles Eliot (21st president of Harvard) gave a speech stating that there is no best method or focus for learning, therefore Harvard will have them all.  Today, there are 11 academic units that Harvard has to offer including the prominent Business, Law and Medical programs.

Surprisingly, distance learning has been around since the early 1700’s and went by the name “correspondence courses.”  Students who took these courses were sent pamphlets and textbooks through the United States Postal Service.  After completing the chapter, they would mail it back and request the next one.  There were no degrees awarded after completion, but it was a way for students to gain extra knowledge and skills.  Distance education began to branch out in 1921 with the use of live radio shows.  By 1963, the courses were further technologically advanced with the use of television broadcasts. Coastline Community College created the first college without an actual campus in 1970.  Degree courses from television broadcasts were first offered in 1985 from National Technological University.  By the mid 90’s personal computers became popular and marked the beginning of online education.  Online courses provide the convenience of not having a designated time to learn, but they at first lacked the legitimacy of a physical university.  The first fully online university, that received accreditation, was Jones International University in 1993.  At last, the government warmed up to the idea of online education and allowed federal financial aid for the courses.  Ever since financial aid was provided, online education has been drastically increasing in popularity.  In 2011 the idea of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) was created allowing hundreds of thousands of people to take a single course at once.  For instance, Stanford University created a MOOC in the fall of 2011 that had 160,000 students in attendance.  Distance learning started with being sent a single chapter, but now allows students to complete a bachelor’s degree in two years from an accredited institution.

The academy has come a long way, with many improvements, since it began.  The first academy was open to the elements, but now they have entire buildings dedicated to each individual field of study.  Many institutions began with only a few areas of study, but now blossomed into multi-discipline establishments.  Advancements in technology have allowed people from all over the world to attend universities, opposed to the first academy that was only able to educate people who were in walking distance.  The most dramatic advancements have occurred in the 50 years leaving one to ponder how the academy will look even a decade from now.

History of the Disciplines

Although it is a widely used concept, very few undergraduates can actually define what a “discipline” is. The history of how disciplines emerged is not well-known or fully agreed-upon. The objective definition of “discipline,” and the disciplines themselves are continuously changing as time goes on, making the idea more difficult to define.

An academic discipline is a field of study in higher education. It is field that is taught, studied, and researched in a college or university setting. Some disciplines have been around as long as the academy, while some have just blossomed within the last few years. There are some main disciplines such as: Humanities, Social Sciences, Natural Sciences, Formal Sciences, and Professions and Applied Sciences. Under the main disciplines are the sub-disciplines. The sub-disciplines are considered branches off of the disciplines which encompass fields like Psychology, Visual Arts, or Physics.

Disciplines inadvertently have been around as long as humans have been learning from each other. Of course this knowledge exchanged was not labelled. The earliest recording of an academic discipline, similar to the ones we know today, was with the Greeks in Socrates’ time. During this time and extending closer to the present, education was strictly for the upper class. Also during this time, education was religion- and military-centered versus the disciplinary-focused curriculum we know today.

The 1800’s started to see the development of the modern disciplinary systems we know. The disciplines that we know today started as scholars specializing in that field of interest then continuing to share their knowledge with others. The scholars who have specialized in particular topics would collaborate together to determine definitions for the field of study in order to create the disciplines. As knowledge along with communities grew, the need for professions grew as well, and these communities and professions carved out the academic disciplines.

Mathematics and music were some of the first disciplines that were taught in the Greek era. In the evolution of education, when Plato opened his academy, he taught social issues such as politics and education alongside the already established discipline of mathematics. Continuing with established disciplines, the Romans decided to focus more on the discipline of law.

The earliest universities in Europe in the 1000-1100s taught such disciplines that were occupationally based, especially in a religious sense. Through the evolution of the disciplines, a mere 200 years after the first universities in Europe were established, it was determined that higher education should involve either theology, law, or medicine, as well as the arts. With the growth of education, the universities started to see the development of professional schools which specialized in law or medicine.  Academic societies and journals emerged, and today, universities hire Ph.D.’s in specific disciplines to direct the curriculum and teach students who are learning the foundational knowledge of each field.

The development of the disciplines we know today has been an ongoing process since the beginning of human communication. The basis of knowledge formed into a specialization which eventually turned into the disciplines from various consultations of like-minded scholars. The basic disciplines that we know now such as fine arts, humanities, social sciences, sciences, and mathematics are still ever changing. Of course in today’s society we have had the development of even more disciplines that add to the variety of knowledge within the world.

Bringing the Past to the Present: How Past Disciplines Have Changed

The disciplines, where we find a wealth of specific knowledge, are the building blocks of Interdisciplinary Studies. Understanding the past disciplines is relevant to understand the future disciplines. For example, when learning about medicine, it is important to reflect on the past use of herbs and how far we have come with modern pharmaceuticals today. When reflecting, we are able to see what has worked and what has not worked. This is why disciplines are changed and new disciplines are formed. Academics have been constantly changing based on what society feels is important for the students to learn from the beginning of time.

In the twelfth and thirteenth century, at the end of the Middle Ages in Europe, universities began to rise. Important academic subjects taught were reading, writing, geometry, music, dancing, and astronomy. These subjects were easily taught because they did not need such advanced technology, like we do today. As times changed, so did the disciplines. During the seventeenth century, the first universities were built in America. These universities offered a basic liberal arts degree to educate mostly ministers. Most universities were strictly religious and only accepted students within that particular religion. This led to the universities, specifically Harvard University, preparing all students with ministry training. “Harvard University, the oldest university in the U.S., graduated about 70% clergymen in the seventeenth century, 45% in the eighteenth, and by the latter half of the nineteenth century, only 10%” (Kaufman, “The History of Higher Education in the United States”). As the spirit of science, commercialism, secularism, and individualism quickened in the Western world during the eighteenth century, education in the colonies was called upon to satisfy the practical needs of seamen, merchants, artisans, and frontiersmen. Practical content was soon competing vigorously with religious concerns. During the eighteenth century, education was brought closer to the needs of everyday life by teaching disciplines such as history, geography, geometry, algebra, modern languages, navigation, and astronomy. After the Revolutionary War, students were taught how to reflect on past history to make a difference in their future. A new society, complicated by the latest discoveries in the physical and biological sciences, and with the rise of industrialism and capitalism, called for more and newer kinds of knowledge.  It is evident that as society changes, the academic fields adapt and shift to accommodate the kinds of learning that the world needs.

The academic disciplines of today and the modern concept of disciplinarity are largely the product of developments in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries. This period saw the formation of new categories of knowledge. Social Sciences, including anthropology, economics, and political science emerged. The sub-disciplines of sociology, psychology, and history soon followed. These disciplines arose to address new social conditions and applied a scientific and distinctively empirical approach to studying the problems of a rapidly industrializing and urbanizing society.

Later, the discipline of “Natural Philosophy” was divided into sciences such as physics, chemistry, and mathematics. “Natural History” became biology. The only discipline that remained constant throughout the centuries was “Humanities”, which was composed of philosophy, classical and modern languages, history, art history, and religious studies.

With the rise of scientific specialties and the end of the “tinkerer tradition” of innovators such as Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, universities began to get stricter about what “counted” as an education in scientific fields. College began to evolve from an elite privilege for only certain kinds of wealthy or powerful people to an essential career resource that could benefit any student.

During the first half of the twentieth century, the higher education landscape was heavily influenced by economic demands. Popular disciplines that were taught included applied sciences that relied heavily on physics, chemistry, medicine, and engineering to meet the demand of trained scientists completing applied research. Teaching these disciplines strongly promoted agriculture, science, and technology which ultimately rules our lives in today’s society. A well-rounded education became increasingly important for advancement throughout the private sector, which relied on literate, skilled employees.

Today, technology permeates our daily lives, drives our economy, and delivers our higher education. More and more disciplines in the twenty-first century are built to teach about technology, with technology. For example, technology allows medical students to view the human body in a way no one could ever imagine. Technology allows performing arts students to manipulate sounds along with their voice. Lastly, technology allows for the creation of an information technology major. With new information and societal pushes, resources have evolved to allow students to choose what they want to study even if it is not the most prestigious or highest paying discipline. Students get to choose what they want to study based on their own personal passions, unlike in the eighteenth and nineteenth century when there were limited fields of study.

Education has evolved from past centuries to allow students to learn about the past and take it into consideration when learning about the present and future. All disciplines are built on what they used to be when they were first recognized in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries – especially for arts, history, and humanities majors since these disciplines were so prominent in earlier centuries. The great aspect of the twenty-first century is that mostly all disciplines encompass aspects of other disciplines creating a multidisciplinary approach. By combining disciplines, we as students are able to learn a vast majority of new information in a shorter amount of time, rather than studying each subject separately like students did in the early days. This allows for more skilled and diversified employees in today’s society. With Interdisciplinary Studies growing rapidly throughout the United States, students are now able to create their own fields of study by combining many disciplines and making it into their major that reflects their own values, passions, and interests.


Students have been learning and teachers have been teaching since the beginning of human existence, probably often without even knowing it. People have been sharing new information with others within walking distance for decades. The university has changed to allow students all over the world to access information and earn all different kinds of degrees and certifications, from different university locations, as well as online. The university as we know it is constantly changing every year. With new resources, technology, and societal needs, new disciplines are formed every year as well. From the twelfth and thirteenth century of learning about reading, writing, astronomy, and religious studies to the twenty-first century of learning all different forms of sciences and arts, the disciplines are ever changing.

In the early days, students were almost forced into higher education based on societal demands. With fewer fields of study available, most students were taught humanities and religious studies. Nowadays students are allowed to choose what they want to learn about based on their own likes and dislikes. Students are able to take courses from many different disciplines and integrate them together to form their own new discipline. This approach is called Interdisciplinary Studies. Without the disciplines, Interdisciplinary Studies would have nothing to build on, nothing to incorporate or weave together in order to find solutions to societal problems. If it ever seems as though the disciplines are scorned, the only thing we deem negative is their lack of integration with other disciplines. We see the roots of interdisciplinarity beginning to show in society and in educational institutions, and now we need it to grow and show its potential.



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The History of the Academy and the Disciplines Copyright © 2016 by Christine McElreavy (Editor), Victoria Tobin, Taylor Martin, Mickayla Bea Damon, Nicole Crate, Andrew Godinez, Kayleigh Bennett is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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