Redesigning Cambridge

Sheldon Rothblatt

  • Cambridge before Darwin: The Ideal of a Liberal Education 1800-1860 by Martha McMackin Garland
    Cambridge, 196 pp, £14.50, November 1980, ISBN 0 521 23319 4

The eye is attracted to bright colour and the ear to loud noise, and this is no less true in the writing of history than in the workings of nature. Accordingly, most recent detailed work analysing the transformation of higher education in 19th-century England has concentrated on the period after 1850 or 1860 when the ancient universities conspicuously joined the modern world. The trends are more to our liking, or at least we understand them better. The steep climb in matriculations, the diversification of the curriculum, the creation of professional schools, the spread of extra-mural education, the establishment of women’s colleges and the linkages (or lack of them) between the university and industrial sectors have gone into the making of the 20th century. However, the tendency to emphasise the relevance of the Second Industrial Revolution to our own time has led to a certain imbalance in the writing of university history, leaving the earlier decades to the biographer or the historian of religious movements. ‘Common room history’ is what often springs to mind when pre-Victorian or early Victorian Oxbridge is revisited. The general reader, desirous of knowing what part higher education played in the creation of Victorian England, is usually left with the textbook conclusion that the two senior universities remained in a sound Hanoverian slumber until the century was more than half over. Only occasionally, and then by prodigious effort, did the dons rouse themselves to denounce all attempts at academic reform. The reader’s attention is correspondingly drawn off to other areas of English society where higher education appeared to be responsive and innovative: to the London University, or to the new medical schools and civic universities.

If this is still the popular view of Oxbridge in the early 19th century, it is also true that a relief expedition has been hacking through textbook surveys for several decades. Robert Butts and Walter Cannon have called attention to the scientific and philosophical contributions of the ‘Cambridge Network’ – men like William Whewell, Adam Sedgwick, Charles Babbage, George Airy, John Herschel and John Henslow. Some half-dozen pieces on the Cambridge Apostles, not the oldest but certainly the longest-lived of student secret societies, have made readers familiar with a whole generation of Cantabridgians, of which Connop Thirlwall, Frederic Denison Maurice, Alfred Tennyson and John Sterling are the most famous. Professor John Roach and his collaborators in Volume III of the Victoria County History of Cambridgeshire have pulled together much new information on Cambridge and its constituent colleges, and the remarkable books by D.A. Winstanley (even if they were written in the style of diplomatic rather than university history) certainly pointed out how much effort at self-reform went on in the early Victorian period. Work on Oxford networks has brought out the importance of the Oriel College Noetics, of which Thomas Arnold was the principal luminary. Other writings have dealt with student movements and the revival of classics, mathematics and theology. Perpetual interest in Oxford and Cambridge continually unearths new personalities, events and changes, revealing the ‘hidden curricula’ and the other private arrangements for teaching and learning that existed in the unreformed universities. Even the old-fashioned college histories, maligned as house history, contain suggestive hints and surprises.

Dr Martha Garland’s new book rides gracefully on some of the scholarship of the last twenty years. Although she has been busy in Cambridge archives and the ‘Cam Collection’, her book is largely deuteronomic. It is not adventuresome and not original, but a ‘second telling’ of information and ideas now in the public domain, a well-arranged, helpful and readable summary of the efforts of a group of Cambridge dons and professors to restructure the undergraduate curriculum, revise the examination system, Germanise the intellectual life (but not the institutional structure) and improve the religious character of the University. Her protagonists are the Cambridge Network and some of the Apostles, and she has located a number of unpublished letters which interestingly point out differences and disputes: most notably, a fascinating letter of 1841 from Julius Hare to Whewell on self-development in education (incidentally, as a tutor Hare left much to be desired). She relates the familiar story of the constitutional bottlenecks preventing reform of the fellowship and scholarship systems and the overhaul of collegiate government – concern over the Anglican monopoly and the problem of college livings – and she has good discussions of the importance of Cambridge mathematics and the internal reaction to utilitarianism, palaeo and neo.

She identifies the developing Broad Church position of Cambridge, the desire to replace dogma and Tory ideology with a liberal-leaning scholarship. The thread that ties the argument together is the ‘ideal of a liberal education’ of the book’s subtitle. This is not explicitly laid out to begin with, but is kept distantly in sight until the final chapters, where its distinctive elements are pulled together: a belief in the unity of all knowledge made possible by a view of the world as design and underwritten by the theories of faculty psychology and mental training (which for a short while, it should be added, received help from pseudo-scientific fads like phrenology), the whole to be used for the moral guidance of undergraduates. Dr Garland does not really place this ideal in its prior historical context by discussing the centuries-old cortegiano basis of liberal education, except to note (as Robert Robson once noted) that the dons were more interested in renovating old ideals than in establishing completely new ones. Her final chapter sketches out the collapse of the ideal of unified knowledge in the face of Darwin’s challenge and its replacement by academic specialism. The conceptual spine of her argument, therefore, resembles the one of D.L. LeMahieu’s 1976 book on William Paley.

This is more or less an essay in the history of ideas. It is limited in scope and in the range of questions put to the materials. While Dr Garland does not presuppose the autonomy of knowledge, in the sense that thought occurs outside precise social contexts, she is also not very interested in developing an explanatory matrix for the essentially Burkean outlook of Cambridge dons who ‘felt that the University must improve itself to prevent its being revolutionised from outside ... they saw much that was good in the “old ways”.’ She does mention the effect of what may be called the beginnings of press criticism and the growing influence of the Nonconformists, who were effectively if not legally barred from attendance at Oxford and Cambridge, the attraction of Bible criticism and the paramount importance of the earth sciences (was interest in them really ‘spurred by industry’, as nearly suggested in a roundabout way?), but none of the connections between Cambridge and the world outside are intricately related to the account she gives of liberal education as the unity of knowledge.

In all fairness, ‘cause’ is never easily demonstrable in history, and in education precedent is frequently more important than pressure. To some extent, the direction that ideas take is unpredictable, even perverse. It would indeed be foolhardy to locate the specific origins of Cambridge educational ideas in, let us say, changes in social structure or to see them as responses to market demand. In general, articulation between the university and society is a Sisyphean labour. There is always a nasty fact that keeps rolling back to frustrate the enterprise. Yet in the case of Oxbridge in the early 19th century there are developments that suggest one kind of sociology of knowledge, imperfect as it must be, and fill in some of the social and institutional details which help to explain the slow turn-around in Cambridge’s intellectual reputation.

In the writing of university history we sometimes forget how many problems are ‘imported’ into a university through its students. Accordingly, where students come from – social origins may be less useful in this regard than cultural influences – is a subject worthy of systematic investigation. Even the great and ageless Whewell, intellectual giant and college despot, symbol of Cambridge conservatism but probably a Peelite politically, was once a student, and mirabile dictu was in the chair at the Cambridge Union when university authorities raided the meeting in 1817! He and others of the Cambridge Network had grown up in the period of the French Revolution and were also of an age to be influenced, positively or negatively, by the romantic rebellion, which not only produced a Cambridge interest in Kant and German literature, but helped to shape a new youth subculture. Here were internal challenges arguably more important for Cambridge’s early 19th-century history than the criticisms of the Edinburgh Review, or the occasional question raised in the Houses of Parliament, or even Nonconformist anger. The development of a child-centred family, of which at present we have only hints, rising matriculations in the first two decades of the century, for which we cannot yet account, a student body composed of young adults rather than immature teenagers, the significance of which remains to be elaborated, and a system of awarding fellowships that put pedagogical influence into the hands of neophyte teachers, leaving the gerontocracy in charge of college governance but not young minds, are characteristics of the unreformed period that underlay even if they did not exactly cause the changing ideas about education that scholars have been noticing in the Oxford and Cambridge environments. To this we may add, especially from about 1840 to 1860, the first effects of the public school revival which indirectly – perhaps even directly – revitalised the collegiate federal structure of Cambridge just at the time when the Scottish or German professorial model was being pressed upon the universities in order to elevate their intellectual tone. Very likely this internal pressure, the pressure of dealing on a daily basis in a residential setting with young persons attracted to a world of competing ideas and political changes, underscored the necessity to strengthen the coherence and discipline of undergraduate education. Hence another reason why a theory of knowledge that stressed design was so appealing, and why the dons steadfastly maintained that the purpose of undergraduate education was not discovery and innovation, not the advancement of knowledge, but the dissemination of what was already known. Dr Garland believes the generation of Whewell succeeded in their aims. Later Victorian reformers were unhappy with what they found in Cambridge, especially the Mathematical Tripos, which they called a sphinx guarding the route to the city of learning. By then, however, events had overtaken Cambridge to create the state of permanent dissatisfaction with higher education that continues to the present day.