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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume IX. From Steele and Addison to Pope and Swift.

XV. Education

§ 1. The Seventeenth Century Curriculum

TWO parallel lines of interest may be traced in the history of English education from the restoration to the end of George II’s reign. One consists of a series of writings by innovators in intention, some of whom were prominent in the world of letters; the other is formed by attempts, only partially successful, to readjust ancient machinery or to create new agents. Thinkers and practical men alike were stimulated by an evident failure of schools and universities to meet the new conditions of life which had arisen during the seventeenth century. Projects of reform took various shapes. Most of them proposed changes in the plan of work which would recognise the existence of contemporary culture and the requirements of the age by introducing “modern” studies; some writers, inspired by Francis Bacon and Comenius, turned to problems of method, for whose solution they looked in a fuller and more accurate knowledge of mental process; a few preached the interest or the duty of the state to instruct all its members. Incidentally, the story exhibits the dependence of education upon national life, and the mischief wrought in the body politic when education is permitted to develop in a partisan atmosphere.

In the seventeenth century, the accepted educational curriculum of school and university, as distinct from the professional studies of divinity, law and medicine, was, in effect, the medieval seven liberal arts, but with the balance of studies somewhat changed. Of these, the quadrivium (arithmetic so-called, geometry, music, astronomy) belonged to the university; the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) was loosely distributed between schoolboys and freshmen, the latter being undistinguishable in modern eyes from the former. Anthony à Wood entered Merton in 1647 at the age of fifteen; Gibbon, more than a century later, was admitted at Magdalen before completing his fifteenth year; Bentley was a subsizar at St. John’s college, Cambridge, in 1676, at the age of fourteen. Whether the story be true or not that Milton was birched by his tutor at Cambridge, the following passage from Anthony à Wood seems conclusive that, so late as 1668, the Oxford undergraduates were liable to that punishment. Four scholars of Christ Church having broken some windows, the vice-chancellor “caused them to repair the breaches, sent them into the country for a while, but neither expelled them, nor caused them to be whipt.” Ten years later, the vice-chancellor ordered that no undergraduate buy or sell “without the approbation of his tutor” any article whose value exceeded five shillings. The Cambridge undergraduate of the eighteenth century was not a “man” but a “lad,” for himself and his companions no less than for his elders. The fact is to be remembered when the reform of university studies in that age is under discussion.