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

XIV. Education

§ 24. Tutors versus professors

One of the gravest objections to the existing English university system made by the innovators was that it reduced the university and its accredited teachers, the professors, to impotence, and installed in their stead the colleges and the tutorial system. This objection was almost savagely urged by Sir William Hamilton in The Edinburgh Review (June and December 1831); were the practice reversed, the advancement of knowledge would follow and, incidentally, one serious obstacle to the admission of nonconformists to universities would be removed. In these opinions Thomas Arnold concurred. The institution of two colleges in London, therefore, infringed an essential principle of the scheme introduced by admirers of the Scottish and German organisation of university teaching. The same disregard of this principle was shown in the foundation of the university of Durham in 1832.

Of the two London colleges, the earlier did not succeed in securing a charter, though, in 1831, it came very near doing so. Both colleges were impeded by the partisan squabbles which were inevitable in consequence of their origin; but a workable agreement was reached by the ministry of Sir Robert Peel in November, 1836. On the same day, the elder college received its charter under the style “University College, London” and a new corporation was created—

  • persons eminent in literature and science to act as a board of examiners and to perform all the functions of the examiners in the Senate house of Cambridge; this body to be termed “The University of London.”
  • Students of the two colleges alone were at first admissible to these examinations; but the qualification was, in 1850, extended to a number of affiliated colleges in different parts of the country, the result proving so unsatisfactory that, in 1858, the restriction of affiliation was removed altogether, while it was laid down that (with the exception of certain medical requirements) all degrees and distinctions were to be obtained solely by proficiency shown in the examinations of the university. In other words, its work, henceforth, was confined to examining, a function whose importance was unduly exaggerated in consequence; the link with the two chief London colleges was, in effect, broken, and the possibility of bringing order and system into the higher education of London was postponed for some forty years.

    Hamilton’s dislike of the tutorial system and the exaggerated reverence for German educational institutions, which he and Campbell did much to propagate, blinded him to the merits of moderate reforms proposed by such men as William Whewell. In Thoughts on the Study of Mathematics (1835), Whewell had contrasted “philosophy” taught by lectures with mathematics taught tutorially, and had asserted that the latter was by far the more efficient instrument of education; but the advantage was lost, if the teaching were too abstract and dissociated from “that great system of physical knowledge … with the character and nature of which no liberally educated man ought to be unacquainted.” He suggested that mechanics and hydrostatics should be included in every examination for the B.A. degree. Hamilton’s review was a tiresome piece of pedantry and bad writing, which ignored Whewell’s agreement with the contention of the earlier reviewers. The Cambridge tutor turned the tables upon him very happily, and the subsequent history of German universities in their adoption of laboratory and tutorial methods fully justified the position taken by Whewell.