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

XIV. Education

§ 27. Ruskin

John Ruskin never ceased to denounce the blindness of political economists; William Ellis, while confessing the charm of Ruskin and other men of letters who touched economic problems, thought that they one and all “failed to convince.” Yet, these two men were in substantial agreement as to the kind of up-bringing which their fellow-countrymen needed. Moral training and enlightenment, bodily health, knowledge and skill applied to the daily calling were the great matters; an intelligent apprehension of his physical surroundings, some instruction in science and mathematics, the thrifty employment of his wages, the attainment of leisure and ability to enjoy it worthily were the next important factors of the future workman’s education. Ruskin, fully cognisant of the value for mental development of bodily activity and manual skill, thought “riding, rowing and cricketing” the most useful things learned at a public school; he would have boys of all ranks taught a handicraft. But the man of letters and the student of economics viewed the whole subject from opposite standpoints; Ellis was thinking of the individual, Ruskin of the community. Throughout the seventeen years, dating from the appearance of The Stones of Venice in 1853, during which he kept the subject before the public, education and government were inseparable ideas in his mind. “Educate or govern, they are one and the same word,” he said at Woolwich in 1869. It was government’s duty to provide free, universal instruction and to compel all to receive education; in return, all must yield obedience to government. “All prosperity begins in obedience;” as Carlyle had said long before in Sartor Resartus, “obedience is our universal duty and destiny; wherein whoso will not bend must break.” Ruskin’s first object was an organised and, above all, a disciplined people; his model was the Prussian polity as shaped, first, by Frederick the great and, secondly, by Frederick William’s ministers after the disaster of Jena.

The policy of reform initiated by the Oxford Examination statute of 1800 developed slowly at Oxford and Cambridge during the succeeding fifty years. At the former, the single “school,” or examination for the degree, was made two by the institution of the mathematical school in 1807. In similar fashion, the solitary Cambridge “tripos” (virtually a mathematical examination) became two in 1824 by the establishment of the classical tripos. At Oxford, the “honours” and “pass” examinations were separated, and an increasing quantity of written work was demanded from candidates. In 1850, Oxford recast its arrangements. A new test, “The First Public Examination before Moderators” (who were empowered to award honours), was set up mid-way in the degree course, and two new schools, Natural Science and Law and Modern History were made; subsequently, the latter school became two and Theology was added. A similar recognition of modern studies was made at Cambridge in 1848 by the creation of the Moral Sciences and Natural Sciences triposes, these two examinations both comprehending a very wide range of studies. But the agitation for reform first powerfully expressed by The Edinburgh Review was not relaxed. Even improvements intensified it. The interest aroused by classical and mathematical examinations absorbed attention from other studies; professorial lectures were neglected in favour of teaching by college tutors, which bore directly upon the struggle for honours and degrees. At Oxford, in 1850, out of 1500 or 1600 students, the average attendance at the modern history course was eight; at the chemistry course, five and a half; at botany, six; at Arabic, none; “medicine, Anglo-Saxon and Sanscrit are in a similar condition.” The regius professor of Greek did not lecture, no pupils offering themselves. “Indeed the main body of professors are virtually superseded by the present system. Oxford, instead of being one great university, consists of twenty-four small universities called colleges.”

Reformers traced most of the abuses prevalent in the universities to this subordinate position of the university corporations themselves. The heads of the college societies formed an oligarchy which, entrenched behind obsolete statutes and traditional glosses centuries old, in effect governed the university upon a basis of privilege. In closest association with the church, the authorities at Oxford excluded nonconformists absolutely, whilst Cambridge refused to admit them to degrees, the effect being to shut them out from any share in honours or powers of government. Competition for fellowships and other college emoluments was frequently nullified by statutes of endowment which restricted candidates to particular localities, schools or families. As the universities themselves were legally incompetent to change the condition of affairs, a memorial, supported by many Oxford and Cambridge graduates, was addressed, in 1850, to the prime minister, lord John Russell, requesting the appointment of a royal commission to make enquiry and suggest reform. The request was promptly granted and the commission reported in 1852. Parliamentary legislation (1854–6) and the amendment of college statutes, which it made possible, broke the college monopoly of university government, enlarged the professoriate and endowed it with college funds considered superfluous, freed colleges from obsolete obligations, in large measure threw open fellowships and other prizes and removed disabilities which prevented nonconformists from taking degrees, though without enabling them to hold fellowships. The consequence of these radical changes was an extraordinary access of new life in all branches of the universities’ activity and a closer approach to the life of the nation than had been witnessed for nearly two hundred years.