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Bachelor of Arts

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A degree marking the completion of the traditional curriculum of the college. In the medieval universities, the Mastership, or Doctorate, was the great academic prize. The Bachelorship does not appear to have existed at first, either at Bologna or Paris. It probably originated from the practice of employing the more advanced students to assist in teaching those who were younger, such teaching being regarded as a preparation for the Mastership. Before being allowed to begin to teach, the student had to maintain a thesis or disputation in public. The technical term for this was "Determination". To "determine" meant, for the student, to resolve questions in a public disputation in order to prove his fitness to enter upon the second stage of his career for the Mastership. "Determination" was thus an imitation of "Inception", which admitted to the Mastership, and like the latter is soon developed into a mere academic ceremony, examinations being held beforehand to ascertain the fitness of the candidate. Of these there were two, a preliminary one, known as "Responsions", and a second one, more severe, known as Examen Baccalariandorum. In addition to the disputation, the ceremony of Determination consisted in the student's putting on the special cap worn by those who had "determined", and taking his seat in their midst. In the celebrated Bull of Gregory IX, "Parens Scientarium", issued in 1231, we find the term Bachellarii applied to those who were pursuing their studies for the Mastership, while helping to teach. The term was very likely taken over from the Guilds, in which the French word Bachelier was applied, at the time, to a young man who was an apprentice. The academic condition which the word was employed to designate involved the idea of an apprenticeship in teaching. The later academic term Baccalaurius (spelled Baccalarius at first) was probably a corrupt latinized form of the same word.

The length of the course in Arts in the medieval universities varied considerably according to time and place. The statutes framed for the University of Paris, in 1215, by Robert de Courçon, the papal legate, fixed the minimum length of the course at six years, twenty years of age being required for its completion and the reception of the license. Later statutes fixed the minimum age for determination at fourteen years. At Paris the time between matriculation and determination was usually from one to two years. The tendency at Paris, and on the Continent, was towards early determination. The extreme effect of this tendency is seen in the fact that the Baccalaureate eventually disappeared altogether from Continental universities. At Oxford and Cambridge, on the other hand, the tendency was towards late determination. At Paris the age for entrance was about thirteen, and for determination about fifteen. At Oxford the boy entered at about the age of fourteen, and passed four years before being allowed to determine. The English Bachelor was thus several years older than the French or German Bachelor. The custom of late determination at Oxford and Cambridge which was largely due to the development of the English grammar-school system, furnishes an historical explanation of the fact that the American college graduate today is several years older then the French Bachelor, or the German student on finishing the Gymnasium, American colleges having adopted the English system in this respect. The studies leading to the Baccalaureate varied naturally with the length of time required. Those prescribed at Oxford in 1267 were as follows:

  1. The Old Logic: Porphyry, "Isagoge", the "Categoriae" and "De Interpretatione" of Aristotle, and the "Sex Principia" of Gilbert de la Porrée, twice; the Logical Works of Boethius (except "Topics", book IV), once.
  2. The New Logic: Aristotle, "Priora Analytica", "Topica", "De Sophisticis Elenchis", twice; "Posteriora Analytica", once.
  3. Grammar: Priscian, "De Constructionibus", twice; Donatus, "Barbarismus", once. Or, in place of Grammar, Natural Philosophy: Aristotle, "Physica", "De Anima", "De Generatione et Corruptione".
  4. To have "responded" "De Sophismatibus" for a year, or to have heard the "Posteriora Analytica" twice instead of once. [Anstey, "Munimenta Academica", 35, 36. Rashdall, "Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages", II, Pt. II, 455.]

It is interesting to note that alternative or elective studies were allowed at Oxford, to some extent, at this early date.

The influence of the humanistic movement of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries upon the A.B. curriculum was shown in the partial replacement of the Aristotelean course by the Latin and Greek classics, although the theological controversies and civil wars springing from the Reformation went far towards neutralizing the effect of humanism upon the universities. The Jesuits, however, carried forward the movement, and were long noted as the leaders in classical education throughout Europe.

The development of the system of "colleges" at Oxford and Cambridge, contributed greatly to preserve the effectiveness and popularity of the traditional Arts course in England. The immense addition to the stock of human knowledge in modern times, together with the multiplication of distinct branches of science suitable for educational purposes have profoundly affected the Baccalaureate curriculum. On effect is seen in the development of the principle of election of studies. In Germany, side by side with the Gymnasium, there are now the Realgymnasium and the Realschule. In France, the Lycée offers a modern, as well as a classical curriculum in Arts. Oxford and Cambridge have instituted other curricula parallel with the ancient A.B. course; while in America electivism ranges, through many gradations, from the system of two or more parallel, though fixed curricula to the extremely elastic system of Harvard, where the student makes up his own curriculum, by selecting the particular studies he wills. Another effect of the growth of knowledge is shown in the substitution of text-book teaching for the lecture system prevalent during the Middle Ages. Still another effect, perhaps, is disclosing itself in the movement lately inaugurated in America for the shortening of the Baccalaureate curriculum. It is no longer possible, during the years in college or in the university, to cover the whole range of acquired knowledge in the liberal arts, as the endeavour was to do in the Middle Ages. After leaving college, moreover, and finishing his professional course in the university or technical school, the student is apt to find that there are still years of hard apprenticeship awaiting him before he can attain to such a mastership in his profession as will enable him to gain a respectable livelihood. Some of the largest American colleges now permit the Baccalaureate to be taken in three years. (See also THE FACULTY OF ARTS; MASTER OF ARTS; and UNIVERSITIES)


Of primary importance for the history of the development of the Faculty of Arts, and the degrees of Bachelor and Master of Arts, are: DENIFLE, Chartularium Universitatis Parisiensis (Paris, 1889-97), and Entstehung der Universitaten des Mittelalters bis zum 1400 (Berlin, 1885); ZARNCKE, Die deutschen Universitaten im Mittelalter (Leipsig, 1857); PAULSEN, Geschichte des gelehrien Unterrichts auf den deutschen Schulen and Universitaten (Leipsig, 1885); Die deutschen Universitaten, compiled for the Educational Exhibit in Chicago, 1893; ANSTEY, Munimenta Academica (Oxford, 1888); RASHIDALL, The Universities of Europe in the Middle Ages (Oxford, 1895); LYTE, History of the Univ. of Oxford (London, 1886); MULLINGER, History of the University of Cambridge (Cambridge, 1873-84); Education in the United Stated (compiled for the Paris Exposition, 1886), I; Annual Reports of the Comm. Of Education (Washington); The Educational Review. For the work of the Jesuits, SCHWICKERATH, Jesuit Education (St. Louis, 1903), and HUGHES, Lyola and the Ed. System of the Jesuits (New York, 1892) are the best in English. BROTHER AZARIAS, Educational Essays and NEWMAN, Historical Sketches have their value; as also has LAURIE, Rise and Constitution of Universities (London, 1886).

About this page

APA citation. Burns, J. (1907). Bachelor of Arts. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.

MLA citation. Burns, James. "Bachelor of Arts." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. <>.

Transcription. This article was transcribed for New Advent by Suzanne Gabric.

Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. March 1, 1907. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.

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