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

XIV. Education

§ 3. The universities

The philosophy, psychology and, in a less degree, the educational doctrines which Europe had learned from John Locke lay behind the greater part of this strenuous activity; yet the external history of English education during the period 1760–90 exhibits a complete contrast with that of her continental neighbours. Oxford, Cambridge and the public schools, as a whole, were educating a smaller number of men and boys than had resorted to them in the days of Anne. At Oxford, in the first quarter of the eighteenth century, the number of boys admitted often exceeded 300; it never reached that number between 1726 and 1810, while it often fell below 200 in the mid-century. A similar decline occurred at Cambridge, and at both universities there was a fall in the number of those who graduated, which is not fully accounted for by the diminished tale of freshmen.

An agitation for the relaxation of all formal professions of religious belief had been carried on since the middle of the century by a numerically small but active group of clergymen. At the universities, the movement led to repeated attempts between 1771 and 1787 to free bachelors of arts from subscription to the Thirty-Nine Articles or from a statement of adherence to the church of England. These attempts failed, and, as a consequence, Oxford and Cambridge degrees remained closed to the conscientious dissenter, whose membership of a college could only be maintained, if at all, by subterfuge.

The statutory exercises for degrees represented a system of education which had long been obsolete, and the toleration of a merely formal compliance with the requirements had reduced the exercises to farce. The proportion of fellow-commoners and gentlemen-commoners amongst the undergraduates was large; and, as a class, these young men of birth and wealth furnished an element of idleness and dissipation which only intensified evils already too common in both universities. Vicesimus Knox, who was at Oxford from 1771 to 1778, and fellow of St. John’s college from 1775, asserted, in his Liberal Education (1781), that to send a son to either university without the safeguard of a private tutor would probably “make shipwreck of his learning, his morals, his health and his fortune.” Yet boys of fifteen often became undergraduates. Many of the professors never lectured, and some did not make up for the omission by advancing knowledge in other ways. Those of them who did offer this compensation might fairly urge that the business of instructing the majority of those in statu pupillari was efficiently performed by the college tutors. The others were not likely to feel abashed in a predominantly clerical society where the pluralist and the absentee holder of a benefice were familiar figures. But the neglect of teaching by those whom the university had especially appointed for that purpose was the consequence of a process—the supersession of the university by its colleges—which had been going on for two centuries. Concurrently, Oxford and Cambridge, for the greater number of their residents, were becoming places of education rather than seats of learning. The change is reflected in A Letter to Lord North, which Knox addressed to the Oxford Chancellor in 1789. This pamphlet suggested the intervention of Parliament, and advocated a stricter discipline, a diminution of personal expenses, the strengthening of the collegiate system, an increase in the number of college tutors, the cost to be met by doubling tuition fees and abolishing “useless” professors, with confiscation of their endowments. College tutors were to exercise a parental control over their pupils, and professors not of the “useless” order were to lecture thrice weekly in every term, or resign. Long after this letter was written, Cambridge undergraduates who broke rules were subject to the schoolboy punishment of “learning lines” by heart.

But, even in this period of stagnation, reformers and some reforms were not wanting within the universities themselves. At Cambridge, the written examinations held in the Senate house reduced the ancient exercises in the schools to mere forms of no intrinsic importance; although the latter survived till 1839 the Senate house examination from 1780 onwards set the standard and determined the direction of academic study. At this time, there was but one tripos, the examination including natural religion, moral philosophy and “Locke” as well as mathematics, the last being the dominant and characteristic part of the test; some contemporary critics believed that the effect of the tripos upon schools was to depreciate classical, in favour of mathematical learning. Between 1773 and 1776, John Jebb, of Peterhouse, made several unsuccessful attempts to bring about an annual examination by the university of all its undergraduates; his persistent agitation is evidence of impatience with the obsolete forms which hindered progress in both universities. Knox, when proposing a similar scheme to lord North, made the proviso that examinations “should be conducted with such delicacy as not to hurt the feelings of the diffident and modest.” Oxford’s agitation for the reconstitution of the exercises for a degree was closed in 1800 by the passing of the Public Examination statute.

During the third quarter of the century, prizes for Latin essays and for Greek and Latin odes and epigrams were founded, an evidence of decline in literary arts which had long been practised in both universities. But a quite different purpose led to the foundation at Cambridge of the Townshend’s prize for an English essay on an economic question (1755–6), the crown endowment of the chair of chemistry (1766), the Jacksonian professorship of “natural and experimental philosophy” (1783) and the chair of the laws of England (1788). At Oxford, the Radcliffe observatory dates from 1777 and the Rawlinson professorship of Anglo-Saxon from 1795. It is significant of the time that the Cambridge professor of chemistry (Farish) treated his subject in its application “to the arts and manufactures of Britain,” “a new and useful field of instruction”; his prospectus of lectures for 1793 is a miscellaneous programme of applied science in general. Unofficial teachers then resident in Cambridge offered opportunity for the study of modern languages. William Gooch, second wrangler in 1791, who sailed in that year for the Pacific on a boundaries’ commission, proposed to take with him not only mathematical books, but also works in Latin, Greek, French, Italian and Spanish; he learned the last from Isola, Gray’s tutor in Italian.