During the Renaissance, education was significantly influenced by the humanist movement. Lizann Flatt points out how humanist promoted the ideas of exploring and understanding various aspects of the human condition and experience. Furthermore, as trade increased in Europe during the Renaissance, and as scholars from the West met with scholars from the East, the exchange of information further encouraged the need for changing the educational system. In many ways, the humanism movement combined with the increase in trade markets created the necessity to bring education out of the control of the church and into the control of the masses.
While universities were forming, Flatt explains that the early forms of education in the Renaissance involved humanist scholars tutoring individuals. For the most part, only the wealthy could afford tutors, which Rabelais demonstrates by having his royal giants, both Gargantua and Pantagruel, educated by their own personal tutors, Ponocrates and Epistemon. Although the royalty and the extreme upper classes were among the first to employ humanist tutors to educate their children, wealthy merchants also purchased the services of these tutors, according to Flatt, since merchants needed their sons to understand critical thinking and mathematics in order to make sound business decisions. As more universities were built or opened up to the wealthier masses, tutors became professors, and more formal education programs were instituted.
As education moved out of the control of the church, the languages used for education also changed. Initially, everything was taught in Latin, which Flatt argues gave members of the clergy a significant edge in holding on to the educational system. Nevertheless, tutors taught their pupils Latin, so the clergy no longer had a monopoly over the main educational discourse. In addition, as Flatt points out, people began writing treatises within their own languages and publishing these documents. Similarly, many scholars took on the art of translating documents into other languages. Not only did translating allow them to practice their academic skills, but it served a major social need, especially in regard to negotiating foreign trade and foreign policies.
Although there was some standardization in teaching methodologies during the Renaissance, significant differences abounded, especially in regards to what was taught at different locations. Paul F. Grendler notes regional differences between schools in the south, predominately those in Italy, and schools in the north, such as those in Germany and England. According to Grendler’s research, universities in southern locations had far more professors teaching law and medicine, whereas universities in the north employed more professors to teach about the arts and theology. As a French scholar, Rabalais himself would have been more exposed to the field of law and medicine, which might explain why he became a physician. Likewise, with such a geographical distinction between university curriculums, this may highlight why Rabalais shows Pantagruel traveling so much to get a well-rounded education. Of course, as Grendler argues, it was not as if universities in either region did not employ professors in all fields. It does demonstrate, though, that university leaders preferred to hire more professors in certain areas rather than others.
Just as there was a regional difference in available educational fields, Grendler points out that the availability of each degree level often forced students to travel to distant universities. The universities in England and Germany offered some graduate-level degree programs in the fields of law and medicine, but the schools were limited on the amount of students accepted into these programs, due to the lack of professors in these fields. Therefore, the majority of students at these universities only earned bachelor’s degrees. In contrast, Grendler points out that bachelor’s degree programs were not very common in southern universities, and these programs were apparently not even available at most Italian universities. Thus, it was not uncommon for students to earn bachelor’s degrees in Germany or England and then travel down to Italy to continue graduate studies. Although many students today elect to complete their undergraduate studies at one facility and then go on to do their graduate studies at another facility, the main difference is that students in the Renaissance were often faced with no other choice but to travel far away from their families just to continue their education. At a time when travel of such a distance took weeks or months compared to modern travel times of hours or days, it shows the dedication and desire of Renaissance students, since they were so willing to traverse such distances just to complete their education.