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

§ 22. The Universities

There is a common consent amongst authorities to the effect that the years between the restoration and the close of the reign of George II constituted a period of stagnation, if not of active decay, in the history of English universities. Those who fix their attention upon the statutory order of studies and the terms on which universities then granted degrees are likely to consider this an understatement. To-day, the underlying supposition is that the degree betokens some measure of intellectual achievement; it is the conventional certificate of a liberal education and a passport to certain forms of professional employment. But, in the eighteenth century, its chief function was to regularise, in academic society, the position of men who proposed to spend some further years at the university in anticipation of clerical preferment. Intellectual merit alone was not regarded as establishing an unquestionable claim to a place in the academic community, or to the conferment of a degree. Hence, degrees were sometimes refused, or withdrawn, on what would to-day be regarded as irrelevant, or even unfair, grounds. Hence, too, an easy assent to exercises which were mere forms; the eighteenth century sometimes allowed the forms to become farcical.

But, soon after the restoration, it became clear that the medieval system was antiquated beyond any possibility of a useful existence. The scholastic exercises for the B.A. degree comprised disputations, frequenting public lectures, examinations and determinations. At Oxford, the last two could be satisfied by repeating a few catch-phrases in a dubious Latin, often got up beforehand or read from notes, “strings,” as they were called. Candidates secured a dispensation for non-attendance at lectures which were not delivered; the examinations of 1716–19, if Amhurst may be believed on the point, could be crammed for in a fortnight. In a similar spirit, the sex solemnes lectiones of the statutes for M.A. became, in practice, so many “wall-lectures”—delivered, or professedly delivered, to four walls and to empty benches.