The History and Evolution of Higher Ed Curriculum over the Ages

Gary L Deel
5 min readDec 7, 2022

By Dr. Gary L. Deel, Ph.D., J.D.

Modern colleges and universities serve an important role in facilitating the delivery of expert-level knowledge to students who are pursuing all manner of different studies and professional endeavors. However, institutions of higher learning didn’t always look the way they do today or offer the kinds of programs and curriculum that are commonly found in current academic catalogs.

Rather, the teachings of these schools have evolved slowly over the centuries to align with the needs of mankind throughout different stages in history. In this article, I’ll review some of the key milestones for shifts in curriculum at the postsecondary level — and how these shifts reflected changes in human society and culture at the time.

The Original Liberal Arts

The earliest institutions of higher learning that could be recognized as predecessors to modern day colleges and universities were first established in Europe during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance period — beginning around 500 CE or so. And these early institutions were generally committed to a holistic focus on conveying and expanding human knowledge in general, without emphasis to any specific discipline.

This was largely because, at the time, knowledge in virtually all fields was still in its nascent stages. Indeed, we were, as a species, just then beginning to understand the most fundamental concepts of science, math, art, language, and other disciplines.

Another reason for the generalized curricular focus was the lack of epistemological reconciliation across different civilizations. At the time, human beings were progressing in their understanding of the world in silos across multiple continents — including Africa, Europe, Asia, and the Americas.

However, these societies scarcely even knew of each other’s existence, so there was obviously no reliable means of communication for sharing information. And as such, each culture was forced to develop its foundational understanding of the universe de novo.

To accomplish this, the formalized institutions in Europe at the time focused primarily on the liberal arts. The liberal arts were commonly divided into what was

Gary L Deel

Dr. Gary Deel is a consultant, an attorney, an executive leader, an author, a podcast host, and a professor for several different universities.