Academic Self-Interest

Sheldon Rothblatt

  • From Clergyman to Don: The Rise of the Academic Profession in 19th-Century Oxford by A.J. Engel
    Oxford, 302 pp, £22.50, February 1983, ISBN 0 19 822606 3

In the Edwardian age the clerical collar was still worn in the Turl but that was merely a survival. The don was, to adapt an American movie conceit, a ‘watermelon man’, one colour outside and quite another inside. A century’s worth of secularisation had captured Oxford. No longer was Church preferment the first object of a don and so no longer was Oxford merely a caravan stop on the way to another career: university teaching had become an end in itself.

The word that sums up this transformation is ‘professionalism’, not the self-employed but the institutional model of professionalism. The subject is much written about these days. Studies have appeared on the theory of professionalism and on specific professions like law, medicine, engineering and accounting and on such academic sub-specialities as literary criticism, history and economics. The academy is interested in itself; and as academics are numerous, the literature will soon prove daunting.

That is not the only or perhaps even principal reason why the history of the professions has become popular. There are at least two other interconnected reasons. The first is the rather astounding contemporary fact that in Britain and the United States more people are employed in the service sector of the economy than in production. Scholarly attention has naturally shifted along with this remarkable historical reversal.

The second reason for academic interest in the growth of professions is the reaction to Marxist historiography. Twenty-five years ago it would have been quite impossible to write about changes in the structure of teaching in 19th-century British universities without considering the class status of dons and students. Matriculations were discussed in connection with pressures from middle-class parents, and the issues of access and exclusion were continually debated. Meritocratic policies were derided as a form of expropriation. Professionalism as a force directing internal social change and as a significant factor in social stratification was noted by historians, but class was the exciting issue.

Engel begins in 1800, the year in which Oxford established its famous honours schools examination, a departure from historical precedent which is not yet fully understood. The new examinations revivified teaching. Instruction now had a specific as well as a wider purpose. In the following decades, to the accompaniment of cries of cheating, cramming and the playing of favourites, a variety of official and unofficial teaching solutions emerged. Among the former was a much strengthened collegiate teaching commitment on the part of a generation of serious-minded younger dons – Evangelicals and proto-Broad Churchmen at Cambridge, Tractarians at Oxford, ‘humanists’ and ‘utilitarians’, young men who had come to maturity in the age of the European revolutions and the Romantic movement. Here and there – for example, at Oriel College – the younger dons led by John Henry Newman developed a pastoral conception of teaching very much in line with the later character-formation theory of liberal education adopted by the public schools and Oxbridge colleges. At both senior universities an extensive and important system of private teaching arose unofficially, utilising the available ‘surplus’ teaching and generating additional income for dons already holding teaching appointments. Gradually the ‘old college system’ took shape. It was early 19th-century in origin but predicated on the ‘whole man’ or Renaissance theory of education inherited from the past. The theory survived, but the old college system had to be overthrown in the Mid-Victorian period since it did not provide sufficient career opportunities.

Very Victorian in their sense of duty and mission, encouraged by rising enrolments (although these were erratic), the younger dons upon whom the burden of college teaching fell conceived of tuition as a full-time commitment and career. To be realised, such an idea required a completely altered system of remuneration and the removal of certain irritating restrictions such as celibacy. The college tutors formed a Tutors’ Association to press for these ends. They were met by the opposition of Oxford’s gerontocracy, the old ‘Abominable’ or Hebdomadal Board which, like the Caput at Cambridge, was a committee of heads of houses determined to deny a greater share in university governance to romantic hotheads. There were many vested interests with a stake in the old ways. The Church party, which thought of fellowships as a holding pattern for future clergymen, and ambitious young men who thought of them as ‘prizes’ to be used for other forms of career preparation, resisted the proposal to make fellowships the basis of an Oxford career. The professoriate, weaker and less influential at Oxford than at Cambridge, had grievances of its own. True, their audiences had dwindled in the 18th century when matriculations were low and examinations perfunctory, but the strengthening of collegiate instruction and the practice of private teaching under the old college system weakened them further. University lectures were useless for the purpose of passing examinations; and for the professors to shape their lectures in accordance with the requirements of the final exams was to put them in direct competition with the tutors. It also deprived them of their only chance (should they choose to use it) of pursuing an independent line of scholarly work.

The only solution to this impasse was for the young dons to seek outside help from the state. The creation of a Royal Commission, the legislation that ensued and the subsequent decision to require the colleges to revise their statutes under the direction of an Executive Commission established the principle of state intervention. Only the principle was established, however. State intervention took place along classic Victorian lines. No money or ongoing regulation of the universities was provided for by the Act of 1854. The state had intervened because self-help had failed. It had intervened, as it intervened elsewhere in English society, because the way the university discharged its fiduciary responsibilities had been called into question. Its management of endowments was suspect. Many practices contrary to the wishes of the founders had accrued in ‘the long 18th century’, and as the colleges seemed helpless to eliminate these unaided, their autonomy had to be breached.

The reforms of the 1850s were not intended to be thoroughgoing. They were piecemeal in typical Victorian fashion, but they did liberalise the tenure of fellowships, revise the system of scholarships and reduce the power of the heads of houses. This was precisely the opening the Tutors’ Association needed in order to press for further changes. In time they captured the faculty boards and reduced the influence of non-resident MAs in Convocation.

Engel concentrates on the activities of the tutors and the Tutors’ Association, and this is his single most important contribution to our understanding of the internal pedagogical revitalisation of Oxford. He handles this subject with his customary competence. No comparable organisation of dons existed at Cambridge, where the colleges were fewer; and several together, the mammoth Trinity and St John’s, joined by smaller colleges such as King’s, could carry the reform movement. The Cambridge professoriate – the so-called ‘Cambridge network’ of scientists and philosophers – enjoyed more authority, and in general there appears to have been more cooperation between professors and fellows at Cambridge than at Oxford. It was the Oxford tutors, according to Engel, who won over the incomparable Gladstone, then MP for Oxford, to their cause (why exactly Gladstone went with the tutors he does not say, although one can guess). At both universities the Royal Commissioners favoured the reforming party, partly because the Commissioners themselves tended to be drawn from sympathisers – a clear indication of where the Government stood on the issue – and partly because the academic Tories refused to co-operate.

In the next half-century the clerical Establishment retreated. The tutors extended their influence over the examination syllabus and refashioned the fellowship system to make it a satisfactory source of remuneration for those who were building a career in it. Celibacy was a special target, for the celibacy clauses were a mechanism for insuring high turnover of fellowships. Two additional and obviously related questions were retirement and incremental fellowship increases which could function as incentives. These matters were pursued relentlessly.

In the second half of the 19th century the tutors faced opposition from the professors, and especially from the advocates of what was called ‘the endowment of research’. The college teaching system had built upon the pastoral conception of a liberal education introduced by the Oriel Noetics and Tractarians earlier in the century. It had broadened after the mid-century to produce a system of co-operative collegiate lecturing known as the ‘Combination System’ (and in Cambridge more prosaically as ‘inter-collegiate lectures’). This was sometimes fee-supported, as in the case of Classics. Such a policy of pooling resources made disciplinary specialisation possible, eliminating some of the hasty preparation required of the generalist. But once again the professoriate was angered. They had received only token assistance from the Royal Commissioners, and the growth of the Combination System was yet another usurpation of their university function. Engel does not mention this point but one of the first manifestations of the Continental research ideal in Oxford was not specialism per se but the notion of universal knowledge. In this demanding, encyclopedic form it claimed some casualties: not only George Eliot’s Casaubon and the Mark Pattison upon whom the character is often said to be based, but H.H. Vaughan, Regius Professor of History. Gradually an accommodation between the two groups was worked out. Engel closes with a fine analysis of the effects of the agricultural depression on the newly-emerging career structure, which, he convincingly argues (although he is not the first to do so), exacerbated the conflict between the rival groups, both of which, for different reasons, ended up accepting specialisation as the cognitive basis of an academic career.

In outline, the stages of career development discussed by Engel are known from previous studies, and these include his own articles on Oxford, which began appearing nine years ago and are incorporated in his book. (He has also written an original and fascinating article on prostitution in Oxford.) But the form of argument and the facts are very much his own. He is an experienced researcher in Oxford archives, knows the Blue Books well and has written a highly-disciplined account of the growth of the spirit of professionalism within Oxford. It is perceptive, it is in many respects new, and it can be readily used and built upon by other scholars. It demonstrates very clearly how the pre-existing organisational structure of a university shapes the occupational drives that initially challenge it.

His strengths are also a special kind of limitation. Engel has fiercely isolated his subject from all other sources that might render his argument more complicated. It is not that his argument is simplistic – far from it. Its very severity is quite sophisticated. Rather he avoids or minimises historical confusion. Nothing is allowed to interfere with the donnish goal of career-building, and no obstacles, other than rival claims and the structure of the institution itself, are considered in following the process of professional development. By its very nature, a monograph cannot entertain every possible variable in a particular historical situation, but it can hint or suggest, and broaden the perspective of the reader. What is missing from this impressively-structured book is a hidden authorial passion for the educational process itself; and what Engel appears to deny to himself, he denies to others. An admirably ‘professional’ historian has written a book about his profession. Academic self-interest is the subject. While it is refreshing to read an account of higher education empty of cant and tiresome self-praise, there is a puzzling lack of concern for all the other issues that bewildered the generations of Victorians who made Oxford and Cambridge into the singular institutions they became. These issues are well aired in the sources he has used and in the books of his predecessors. Even the principal actors do not, as personalities, intrigue Engel, which is not to say that he cannot on occasion be exceedingly shrewd in his assessments.

It is a nice question whether money, status, career advancement, the outward face required of a Victorian gentleman, are sufficient depictions of professional springs of action. Completely necessary no doubt, but sufficient? Any profession which grounds its aspirations exclusively on the narrowest Smithian premises is bound to desiccate in time and to lose precisely the degree of public esteem and confidence vital to its maintenance. That is, among other things, what has happened to the professions in our time. The Victorians understood very well the relationship between getting and spending, but they also continually explored the moral basis of what was a new kind of civilisation: urban, industrial, plural, quasi-democratic. Wider emotional issues were inseparable from narrower occupational ones. Service roles create such dilemmas. In these circumstances, it is a wise professional indeed who knows his own self-interest.

The Oxbridge dons who over time and in the stages so well described here changed the tutorial system from a mode of schoolboy recitation into a method of character formation were propelled by the thought that this was the most effective way to educate an élite for service roles in a society whose political institutions were undergoing stress. Their animating conception is totally overlooked. The whole idea of a life to be spent instructing the young in ‘total’ institutions provided a force and vision inseparable from the idiosyncratic 19th-century personality. The vision gripped the public schools as well, and for most of the century dons and beaks were interchangeable. If at Oxford and in the sixth forms ‘literature’ or ‘humane learning’ was thought to be the form of instruction best suited to character development, it was because of the overriding concern with the effects of social and geographical mobility on young persons inexperienced in the ways of a deracinating world. It was not readily apparent how this kind of moral development could be achieved by the study of subjects such as science and technology. Obviously teaching had an immediate purpose. Could the same thing be said of scientific research?

In time, dons of every stripe accepted research – Engel is quite right about that. But they did so not only for the reason he gives – a way of separating university teaching from schoolmastering – but also because the very success of the public schools in forming character reduced the need for a similar undertaking at the level of ‘higher’ education.

Entangling emotions and visions are also missing from Engel’s recapitulation of the fight between science and Classics dons at the turn of the century. He explains it largely as a matter of the allocation of resources. It, too, had to be more than that. What was at issue were two approaches to the betterment of mankind: one through material and environmental reconstruction (Swift of course did not see it that way), the other student or person-centred. Yet the disciplinary lines of combat were never clearly drawn, though Engel makes them seem so.

The last word belongs to Henry James: ‘It is not my fault if I am so put together as often to find more life in situations obscure and subject to interpretation than in the gross rattle of the foreground.’