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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

§ 3. Proposed supersession of Oxford and Cambridge under the Commonwealth: Milton; Harrington; Hobbes

But the enemies of universities were not confined to those who considered them homes of antiquated knowledge. Throughout the seventeenth century, Oxford and Cambridge were closely associated with the national life, frequently to their material disadvantage, and sometimes to the impairing of their educational functions. Both universities offered an opposition to parliamentary government, which brought upon them the charge of disaffection. Under the commonwealth, a desire for the supersession of universities became evident, which is reflected not only in the writings of such men as Milton, Harrington and Hobbes, but, also, in the fatuous tracts written by obscure scribblers like John Webster.

Apart from the inspiring passages which often occur within its very brief compass, Milton’s tractate, Of Education (1644), is now chiefly interesting as a criticism of the schools and universities of its time, and as a statement of its author’s notions of reforming them. He finds their most patent force in a premature meddling with abstract and formal studies, and a neglect of that concrete knowledge of men and things without which the formal remains empty or barren. He would therefore introduce a plethora of matter into the course, most of it dealing with the objects and processes of nature, but, also, those languages without which he assumed that Englishmen could make little or no advance in the kingdoms of science or of grace. Carried away by the faith in the omnipotence of method which marks most writers on educational reform in his day, Milton sees no insuperable difficulty in communicating, to boys between the ages of twelve and twenty-one, the full round of knowledge and the ability to pursue it in six foreign languages, of which the only modern tongue is Italian. Milton’s entire dissatisfaction with educational institutions as then conducted is obvious; it is equally clear that he is wanting in real appreciation of the new philosophy, and in understanding of the method by which the new studies should be conducted. As a consequence, Of Education has not exercised any direct influence upon educational practice.

But there is more in the tractate than disparagement of an obsolete system; it is written with a burning indignation against persons and institutions, of which the universities come first. Milton would set up in every city of the kingdom an academy, which, as school and university combined, should conduct the entire course of education “from Lily [i. e. from the beginning of school attendance] to the commencing as they term it Master of Art.” The only other educational institutions permissible are post-graduate professional colleges of law and physic, a concession, perhaps, in deference to the inns of court and the college of physicians.

The same desire to supersede universities and the same indifference to, or but partial comprehension of, Bacon’s teaching, appear in the anonymous Latin book Nova Solyma (1648). But the writer has a better notion of what is needed to effect a great educational reform. He plans a national system including state-inspected schools to teach religion and morality, reading, writing and arithmetic, geometry, military drill and handicrafts. A scheme of exhibitions enables poor boys of good capacity to share the liberal and religious education offered by academies, and to follow this in selected cases by a three years’ professional study of divinity, law, medicine or state-craft.

Harrington’s distrust of the universities as displayed in The Commonwealth of Oceana (1656) is based on their predominantly clerical government and on the determination not to permit the intrusion of ecclesiastics into political life. In his utopian polity, for all but a relatively small number of citizens, military service is the great agent of public instruction. Harrington’s ideas respecting education are purely formal, except on the administrative side. Oceana has a compulsory system of education, free to the poor and covering the years from nine to fifteen, conducted in state-inspected schools, whose management and course of study are to be everywhere the same. The universities are, mainly, clerical seminaries and custodians of the national religion, but expressly forbidden to take part in public affairs, from which the professional class generally is to be excluded.

In Leviathan, Hobbes has some characteristic references to universities, which he elaborated in Behemoth (c. 1668), a tract surreptitiously printed in faulty copies, “no book being more commonly sold by booksellers,” says William Crooke, the printer of the 1682 edition. According to Behemoth, universities encourage speculation concerning politics, government and divinity, and so become hotbeds of civil discord and rebellion.

  • I despair of any lasting peace till the universities here shall bend and direct their studies … to the teaching of absolute obedience to the laws of the king and to his public edicts under the Great Seal of England.
  • For Latin, Greek and Hebrew, it would be better to substitute French, Dutch and Italian; philosophy and divinity advantage their professors but make mischief and faction in the state; natural philosophy may be studied in the gazettes of Gresham college.