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.

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