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The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21).
Volume XIV. The Victorian Age, Part Two.

XIV. Education

§ 22. English and Scottish universities

Reviews of La Place’s Mécanique Celeste (1808; probably by Playfair) and of Falconer’s Strabo (1809; in part by Sydney Smith) gave The Edinburgh an occasion for attacking the universities, both of which were held responsible for the backward state of mathematical investigation in England. Cambridge made mathematics the great object of study, but, like the sister university, adhered exclusively to antiquated methods; Oxford taught only the rudiments, “mistaking the infancy of science for its maturity.” According to the reviewer, while the elder university possessed a richly endowed press, it published bad versions of classical texts, edited in “Oxonian Latin,” whose “parent language” was no other than the “vulgar English” of the day. These reviews were followed, in 1810, by Sydney Smith’s attack on the public school system of education, the charge against it being that it failed to produce men eminent in science or letters. Edward Copleston, at the moment professor of poetry, defended Oxford in three Replies to these “calumnies,” in which, incidentally, he described the degree examinations and the tutorial system, which he preferred to the professorial lectures of the Scottish universities. But the defence was weak and largely irrelevant. Copleston was on fairly safe ground so long as he argued that a truer education results from the knowledge of men which is conveyed by literature, than from the knowledge of matter and motion which is derived from science. But, when the function of a university is in question, he fails to meet, or even to understand, his adversaries. He held that universities are schools for those who are to become political leaders or clergymen, and that for these classes the humanities are the most fitting instruction. The Edinburgh reviewers knew that there were other classes requiring advanced instruction of a kind which the literary curriculum of the English universities could not give. Copleston thought it sufficient to reply that “miscellaneous knowledge,” as he called it, was “esteemed and encouraged” at Oxford, though it was “the subordinate and not the leading business of education.” A man with a well-disciplined mind can attain knowledge of this kind “after he enters into life.” This, of course, was what the critics denied; and, if it were so, the universities were ignoring their duty of research. They were places of education, but not homes of learning or sources of that useful knowledge which the times imperatively required.