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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

§ 4. Seth Ward’s Vindiciae Academiarum

The kind of opposition to learned societies here exhibited by Hobbes became virulent about 1653, when the fanatics in the Barbones parliament anticipated the measures of the French convention of September, 1793, by debating the “propriety of suppressing universities and all schools for learning as unnecessary.” The good sense of the majority of the members refused to concur; but a lively war of pamphlets immediately ensued, the most notable champions against the universities being Dell, master of Caius college, and John Webster, “chaplain in the army,” and author of Academiarum Examen (1654). These obscurantists appear to have been more feared than greater men of a similar way of thinking. Seth Ward, Savilian professor of astronomy, and John Wilkins, warden of Wadham college, men of the highest distinction at Oxford, condescended to traverse the puerilities of Webster’s “artless Rapsody,” as the author himself styled his tract. The spirit of this rhapsody is revealed in its statement that the end of the Gospel is to discover the wisdom of the world to be mere foolishness. As Ward pointed out, Webster’s notion of reform was a combination of the incompatible methods of Bacon and Fludd. Nevertheless, Ward devotes the greater part of his apologia (Vindiciae Academiarum, 1654) to Webster’s Examen. Like Hobbes, Webster is mistaken in attributing to the universities a blind devotion to Aristotle; natural science and all new forms of knowledge are welcomed, mathematics has been considerably advanced, chemistry and magnetism are studied, and projects are afoot for establishing a laboratory for chemical, mechanical and optical researches. Those who cry out upon the university exercises in the schools close their eyes to the work done in college halls and in tutors’ chambers. Ward’s defence curiously anticipates by nearly half a century that made on a similar occasion by John Wallis (the Savilian professor who exposed Hobbes’s mathematical pretensions) when writing against Lewis Maidwell’s projected academy. Ward’s readiness to answer a writer like Webster marks a critical stage in the history of Oxford and Cambridge, whose monopoly, if not existence, was seriously threatened. A project for a northern university, mooted in 1604, was revived in 1642 with Manchester and York as rival claimants for the honour of its seat; in 1652, York petitioned parliament in that sense. The liberal scheme of foundation enjoyed by Gresham college confined its operations to the quadrivium and the three learned professions, but it periodically stimulated the thought that London should possess a university; and the notion had been again mooted in 1647. Wilkins, who wrote the preface to Ward’s Vindiciae, is said to have dissuaded his father-in-law, Oliver Cromwell, from confiscating the rents belonging to the universities in order to pay the army. Even after the restoration, there were reverberations of these movements to destroy Oxford and Cambridge or to establish dangerous rivals. Sprat, in his History of the Royal Society (1667), while urging the claims of the new foundation, though it expedient to explain that its researches could not conflict with the work of schools or of universities, and that the Royal society owed its birth to the labours of university men who had saved the seats of learning from ruin. But, in July, 1669, Evelyn heard Robert South at Oxford advert in the most public manner to the possible injury which the Society might inflict upon the universities. So late as 1700, Lewis Maidwell’s proposal for an academy was viewed with some alarm at Oxford and Cambridge.