Oxford University’s Long Haul

Sheldon Rothblatt

  • The History of the University of Oxford. Vol. I: The Early Oxford Schools edited by J.I. Catto
    Oxford, 684 pp, 55.00, June 1984, ISBN 0 19 951011 3
  • The History of the University of Oxford. Vol. III: The Collegiate University edited by James McConia
    Oxford, 775 pp, 60.00, July 1986, ISBN 0 19 951013 X
  • The History of the University of Oxford. Vol. V: The 18th Century edited by L.S. Sutherland and L.G. Mitchell
    Oxford, 949 pp, £75.00, July 1986, ISBN 0 19 951011 3
  • Learning and a Liberal Education: The Study of History in the Universities of Oxford, Cambridge and Manchester, 1880-1914 by Peter Slee
    Manchester, 181 pp, £25.00, November 1986, ISBN 0 7190 1896 X

The new History of the University of Oxford, already some twenty years in the making, is a prodigious achievement and a posthumous tribute to its general editor, the late T.H. Aston. To date, some 2500 pages of text, footnotes, tables, plates and indices have appeared, and there are four centuries and five volumes to come. As the centuries advance and the evidence mounts, the volumes become fatter. Those who have laboured in the past through D.A. Winstanley on Cambridge, C.E. Mallett on Oxford and Hastings Rashdall on the Medieval university will find the going even heavier: a reflection of the state of historical research today and the problems of assimilating or reducing unprecedented quantities of information. One reading will certainly not suffice. These are volumes for rereading and reference (and let us hope the indices are up to it, for there appear to be lacunae).

Conveniently, Volume I appears first – an editorial achievement, for collaborative undertakings of this magnitude are always subject to delays. The obscure origins of the University are carefully reconstructed. In Sir Richard Southern’s distinction, Oxford was not ‘created’ – it ‘emerged’. The contributors explain the significance of its geographical location and its importance as a centre of legal activity. They discuss how it separated from the town and the existing religious orders, and how it gradually assumed a corporate identity with (at least to begin with) a strong Chancellor. The influences of the older University of Paris on Oxford’s earliest history are examined and differences noted (Oxford did not, for example, develop the kind of disciplinary faculties known in Europe). Nearly half the volume is a discussion of the studies and degree courses and the state of learning and scholarship as they bear on the professional and intellectual life of Medieval England. Historians of the Modern period are often baffled by the Medieval system of instruction, but the scales are now lifted from their eyes. There are many fine chapters on texts, lectures, and the uses of scholastic logic in imparting ‘mental discipline’ in ages distant from the 19th century when that conception returned as part of general education. The discussions by J.M. Fletcher and J.A. Weisheipl on the arts curriculum and 13th and 14th-century science are especially illuminating. Relatively speaking, Oxford was an instant success. By the time of the Black Death she was the most favoured and the most intellectually distinguished of all European universities, the home of Duns Scotus, William Ockham and the Mertonian school.

Volume III brings us to the Renaissance. We notice immediately the firm direction of the editor, James McConica, who has imposed an order on the writing of the history of the University in the 16th century that is uncommon in productions by diverse hands. His long-standing interest in the social composition of Oxford, and his familiarity with some of the contributions of the social sciences to the history of education, have enabled him to pull many of the chapters together, and he has produced three good ones of his own, two on the Elizabethan college and the emergence of the collegiate university and one on faculties and studies.

The editorial task of integrating the history of the 16th century was assisted by a clear historical theme: the formation of the Tudor state and the imposition of royal authority on Oxford. The upheavals in church and state reverberated throughout Oxford and were felt in the areas of university and college governance, the curriculum, scholarship, matriculations, and the appointment of lecturers and professors. The royal government engaged in systematic and often successful attempts to influence religious belief, scholarship, teaching and student discipline. The dissolution of monastic houses and the diversion of their income to Oxford, in conjunction with an increase in outside patronage, had a lively effect on the growth of libraries and collections, on the fabric of colleges and on the standard of comfort, as fellows and undergraduates rebelled against the spartan values of preceding centuries. Several chapters provide detailed discussions of college and university finances and new endowments, and there are accounts of church, state and university relations in a tempestuous century of disagreement and violent change.

By contrast with Volume III, or even Volume I, where the comparative unity of the intellectual and institutional life of Medieval religious civilisation brings an order of sorts to the history of the first two centuries of Oxford’s existence. Volume V is a great mélange. One can only sympathise with the task of the editors, L.G. Mitchell and the late Dame Lucy Sutherland. There is no general theme that ties the history of the 18th century together, nor are there solid historiographical precedents for writing a history of Oxford in relation to society. The bewildering events of the reigns of James II, William and Mary, Queen Anne and the Hanoverian monarchs include such astonishing changes as the revolution of 1688 and its aftermath, banking, commercial and industrial transformations, the American and French revolutions, the Enlightenment and the coming of Neoclassicism and Romanticism. Most of the economic changes appear to have affected Oxford only indirectly, but the American and French revolutions brought the University out of a long period of parochialism and into active support of monarch and minister. Intellectual changes associated with the Age of Reason affected Oxford more at the margins than in the mainstream, but everyday affairs and the structure of teaching were influenced to a greater extent than might be supposed from a general record of falling enrolments and a taste for the easy life.

As the editors are primarily students of the political life of the 18th century, the first two hundred pages of Volume V are devoted to discussions of ideological conflicts and party politics within church, state and university. One result was the formation of a Tory bias within Oxford, although moderate, anti-Whig and anti-ministerial more than dogmatic or fanatical, reflecting the political outlook of the Midlands gentry so closely associated with the University. Other chapters are devoted to the continuing influence of the Church on university life and administration. There is a great deal of valuable information on the development of a college staff. Half of Volume V is devoted to accounts of degree programmes, developments in the study of ancient and exotic languages, the importance of music to the social and aesthetic life of Oxford, the state of the professional disciplines, the several libraries, the University Press and architectural innovations. There is much miscellaneous information on the social life of students and dons, on the use of time, status distinctions, and what today we refer to as extracurricular activities and studies.

How is it possible to summarise the contributions of no less than half a hundred scholars representing many different styles and traditions of research packed into three dense and demanding volumes? One way is to comment that these are volumes for the researcher much more than for the general reader. Many chapters are highly technical – those on finances, for example – while others will appeal mainly to specialists in the history of logic, the politics of the later Stuarts, the history of antiquarian learning, and stained glass or building. Some chapters appear to be more ‘original’ than others, but it may also be the case that the information is less generally familiar. ‘Technical’, ‘specialist’ or ‘original’ are relative and even arbitrary terms. Less relative is the conclusion that the systematic investigation into the holdings of Oxford and foreign collections, archives and muniment rooms has produced countless riches.

Are there new findings and interpretations? Yes, but these come in different sizes and shapes. There are what may be called teasers, observations dropped in passing that invite further reflection. For example, we learn that the Medea was the most widely read of the plays of Euripides in the 18th century, and we may well wonder how a ‘feminist’ drama was interpreted or used in teaching. In the same period, politically radical students refused to powder their wigs, and the significance of this as a symbol of rebellion is intriguing.

One-tenth of the scholarship students admitted to New College between 1386 and 1540 died before taking a degree – an indication of the effect of high mortality rates on creativity and progress. M.L. Clarke explains the importance of verse-making in Georgian England and opens up a different perspective on the nature of the undergraduate curriculum. J.I. Catto points to the origins of the view in the 15th century that academic life possesses special characteristics. This is not elaborated but leads to an important question. Was the development of a sense of the special mission of a university more than just a question of a separate corporate identity or the preservation of privileges: did it entail an understanding of the particular advantages of a free – let us say ‘detached’ – environment for learning?

Paradoxes abound. In Tudor Oxford royal interference with university administration, teaching and scholarship occurred at the same time that growing wealth and patronage created splendid libraries and led to more flexible arrangements for teaching. In the 18th century, the official arts degree examinations were in decline and the medical school collapsed. Yet at the same time a brilliant tradition of Classical scholarship and linguistic studies arose, and the foundations of a great botanical garden were established. Music flourished, and musical scholarship commenced as an academic study. In the Hanoverian period, Oxford lay under the interdict of the Laudian statutes of the 17th century which hampered institutional change. Yet, as Dame Lucy explains in one of her many splendid contributions, the great Oxford legal scholar and justice, William Blackstone, found ways of circumventing the legal and political restrictions, so that reforms in the Vice-Chancellor’s court, in the programme of legal studies, and in the University Press, were possible.

The History is structured around periods, not problems, although Volume III has some of the characteristics of a combination of the two. If the emphasis is reversed and problems rather than periods stressed (even at the risk of a loss of context), we derive a very interesting perspective on developments over the ‘long duration’. Several themes then become clearer. One such theme with a topical reference is the long-term relationship between Oxford and the state, a relationship complicated by the Erastian constitution of the Church of England from the 16th century onwards. Inclined to consider the close involvement of Oxford with the state as a primary outcome of the Reformation, we may be surprised to learn how early the University became willingly dependent upon the patronage of the Court. By the mid-13th century – that is, virtually from the start – the regent masters or dons of their day reached out for royal favour in an effort to free themselves from the jurisdiction of the bishop and diocese of Lincoln. Papal recognition was next sought and gained, but in all subsequent periods Oxford was far more inclined to appeal for assistance to the Crown than to Rome. On its part, the Crown soon perceived the advantages of a strong university tie from which it obtained international prestige and trained administrators. Oxford (and Cambridge) rapidly acquired a monopolistic educational position within the polity and an association with the state which it might one day rue.

Monarchs showed their teeth in the Renaissance. Assaults by Tudor governments on Oxford took the form of periodic purgings of heterodox faculty, the requirement of subscription by laymen to the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England and the substitution of oligarchic constitutions in college and university for the more democratic Medieval arrangements. The state appears to have favoured clear lines of administrative and decision-making authority within the University. (Are we at liberty to hypothesise that current changes in government and university relations represent a similar trend, as the UGC disappears as a ‘buffer’ and stronger Vice-Chancellors and registrars emerge in response to government pressure?) In the centuries that followed, efforts to ensure the political and academic loyalty of Oxford to the Court continued.

James II hoped to Catholicise the University with the assistance of his army, and the ministerial Whigs of the first half of the 18th century tried in less brutal ways to make the dons more compliant. The turnaround in university/state relations occurred in the second half of the century. Oxford rallied to the King during the difficulties over the American colonies, and changes were introduced in college and university to strengthen teaching and internal discipline. It is pleasing to have some of my own views on the origins of honours examinations in late Georgian Oxford corroborated by V.H.H. Green in his chapter on ‘Reformers and Reform in the University’.

A giant’s strength is wonderful, proclaims Miranda, but not if monstrously used. If, however, as Metternich said, you can do anything with bayonets except sit on them, then surely you can do anything with gigantic strength except restrain it? In a chapter on economics and finance from 1530 to 1640, G.E. Aylmer calls for ‘good and effective friends in high places’ to rescue Oxford from the unrelenting budgetary axe of the present government. Must friends always or only be in ‘high places’? In the past, Oxford has cultivated the Court, the government, the civil service, the Church and the ‘nation’ – but rarely the ‘public’. No sooner had Medieval Oxford obtained royal protection than her active graduates used their top connections to suppress potential rivals surfacing in such inchoate centres of learning as Salisbury and Northampton. An essential dislike of competition and a distaste for market forces are not, therefore, only features of Oxford’s history in the early 19th century, when dons opposed the new foundation of the ‘godless’ University of London. Historically, Oxford has not been interested in friends in low places, in the untapped markets of possible students and graduates who, in a democratic age, might be willing to support alma mater through the very same political process that has made the present university situation in Britain so precarious.

A second theme that cuts across the division into centuries is the history of the colleges. The most distinctive educational feature of Oxford is the evolution of its collegiate structure. (We badly need an analysis of why colleges flourished in England and disappeared from universities on the Continent.) Volume III establishes in precise detail how collegiate supremacy in teaching and discipline was achieved in the 16th century, when the colleges also acquired control over admission. But collegiate history begins much earlier, and for that story we can turn to Volume I. Housing expenses in Medieval Oxford, combined with the violence of the streets, early led to the establishment of residence halls which shaded imperceptibly into colleges. With the foundation of Oriel in 1324, the word ‘college’ was used to designate an endowed house. Some form of supplementary teaching went on in halls and colleges from the start, although the evidence is thin and tutorial arrangements were probably discontinuous. By the end of the 16th century the college was the central institution of university life, especially with the foundation of new societies like Corpus Christi. It appears that even before colleges existed BA candidates were assigned to masters and lecturers personally responsible for their instruction, progress to examinations and moral superintendence. Sometimes this must have backfired. First-degree candidates in the Medieval university were often close in age to their teachers, and both were not above carousing in the town. Doubtless a variety of tutorial arrangements existed through the centuries, and the system of college teaching must have undergone many transformations. College tutors and lecturers were usually paid by fees, but whether these were collected and distributed by the colleges is not generally clear, although we know of instances in which this was the case. It was at New College in 1765 that lecturers began to receive salaries, and one small step in the long process of turning college staff into career dons was taken. We know from 19th-century sources that the tutorial office still faced a considerable evolution before becoming the famous Victorian institution.

Inseparable from the idea of a college is the notion of in loco parentis, but this important pedagogical conception is not discussed in Volume III under that designation, and its origins, functioning and evolution are therefore impossible to trace at the moment. In loco parentis is a critical feature of many forms of Anglo-American liberal arts education, at least for élite groups of students, but is absent from European countries like Sweden and Denmark. In time, in loco parentis became a primary justification for the college plan. Even today, America has not quite reconciled itself to the idea of the fully independent university undergraduate of the Continental variety, as her mass-access institutions continually experiment with ways of closing the gap between academic life and student subcultures.

The question of in loco parentis leads us to the issue of celibacy. Not all college fellows were prevented from marrying, but it was only a century ago that the majority were allowed to combine tenure with marriage. Celibacy was required in the Roman Catholic university of the Middle Ages, a primary training-ground for clergy, theologians and ecclesiastical administrators, but why restrictions on marriage were retained as a condition of holding fellowships once the Church of England was established remains a puzzle. More than any other single factor, the prohibition on marriage inhibited the emergence of a professional academic career. Was the retention of a celibacy requirement an effort to stabilise tuition charges in an era in which wealthy students were driving up costs, since arguably it was more expensive to maintain a married than a single fellow? If so, it was not successful. Was it yet another attempt in the 16th century to tighten discipline in an age of competing religious and political ideologies? Or was it linked to a theory of pedagogy similar to the one-on-one philosophy of teaching so familiar today?

The ban on marriage suggests a strongly conservative role for the college of the 16th century, but new sources of information in the History of Oxford allow us to reconsider the long-term history of the college as a place of innovation. At the time of the great reforms of the middle decades of the 19th century, it was claimed that colleges stood in the path of curricular reform. It was impossible, said critics, to obtain the simultaneous co-operation of some two dozen quasi-autonomous republics. Nevertheless, it was in colleges that the standard of intellectual discipline was first raised, and what is true of the 19th century is also true of past centuries. It was in the late Georgian colleges, especially the wealthy and aristocratic Christ Church, that ‘polite learning’ was introduced into college teaching, leading to Greats, the first honours examination. It was through Renaissance Magdalen that Humanism first penetrated scholastic Oxford. That same college lent its lecturers to the University and began to admit fee-paying students (not just foundationers) and provide for their instruction, while the University itself signally failed to recognise the existence of a new clientele. It was Merton College in the 14th century that led Europe in natural philosophy. Throughout the centuries, in ways that we are now beginning to appreciate, the college was a source of intellectual and structural innovation.

Collegiate universities are federal systems. If the university as a whole is difficult to reform precisely because of the presence of so many quasi-independent bodies, the existence of separate colleges allows for a significant amount of internal diversity and flexibility. In small societies a single dynamic personality can have a major impact, and this is demonstrated repeatedly in the History. Perhaps this is Ox ford’s historic secret, for even in periods of low intellectual respectability like the first half of the 18th century, when places such as Trinity College, Dublin, Edinburgh University and the Dissenting academies were in many ways educationally superior, some academic successes were recorded at individual colleges.

The other segments of the University can likewise show independent vitality. For several decades in the mid-18th century the Ashmolean sponsored teaching in science and drew large crowds. What we have been learning from more recent studies of universities and colleges in Europe and America is therefore reinforced by the new Oxford history. Universities are complex institutions with many parts, and the absence of significant activity in one part does not bring all educational progress to a standstill.

Readers will find a considerable amount of information on the social composition of Oxford’s students at different points in time. While there are no real surprises, there are many important adjustments and refinements to existing views, so that for the 18th century it is possible to say that the richer students continued to patronise the university in roughly the same proportions as earlier. It is also possible to confirm that the real decline in poorer students (which never meant the sons of urban and rural workers) occurred in the 18th century, which may be one of several reasons why certain kinds of menial status distinctions were abandoned. No study of admissions standards, however, appears to have been undertaken, so that while we know the sections of society from which matriculands were drawn, we do not know how students, particularly commoners, were actually selected or rejected.

We do learn that in various historical periods (quite possibly in all of them) the achievement levels of what after the 16th century are called ‘undergraduates’ were not particularly high, and McConica says that the gentry of the Tudor period regarded the universities as places of advanced schooling. We are indeed accustomed to thinking about the ancient universities as finishing schools, especially in the 18th century. In truth, the line between school and university is difficult to draw historically, but in order to draw it we need to know more about the academic preparation of students applying or recommended for admission. Preparation is one issue, age is another. The ages of entry cohorts were so disparate in all periods that tutors and lecturers must have been continually faced with the problem of weakly-prepared students, a fact which makes the question of admissions criteria even more interesting.

The problem of prior schooling is therefore genuinely central. Southern comments that the emergence of Oxford was only made possible because of the existence of a great mass of smaller and lesser schools, but this vital suggestion is not subsequently taken up. There are some passing remarks on the grammar and other schools of Medieval England, but virtually nothing on the public schools of the Georgian period, which had a major, I am tempted to say ‘decisive’, impact on the curriculum and way of life of the ancient universities until well into the 19th century.

Varied as the contributions to the History of the University of Oxford are, one approach is conspicuously under-represented, the analysis of institutions in relation to culture. Granted that it is by no means possible to include every approach or outlook in a work of joint scholarship, the omission is still odd in the light of T.H. Aston‘s long service as editor of Past and Present, that French-inspired, Oxford-produced academic journal, featuring articles on the interconnections between structures, society and belief systems. While the methods of intellectual history are central to the History, cultural history appears only obliquely. No chapters or segments are devoted to analysis of the use of ceremony or ritual in creating or promoting self-identity and institutional loyalty or the sense of mystique which has always been part of Oxford’s appeal. The great religions apart, it is hard to think of institutions in Western civilisation more self-consciously concerned with the observance of custom and tradition than universities. Even wholly new foundations begin life with a handsome cultural inheritance (which enables some of them to become instantly archaic). University students, especially students in residential institutions, are still made to undergo the rites of passage that define their separation from the larger society and their return to it, and it would have been particularly interesting to have some reflections on university conduct in relation to the symbols and norms of university and collegiate life in specific historical contexts.

Connections between the cultural, sociological and institutional features of Oxford are difficult to make, but they are necessary. Such connections have a number of uses. They identify the fault lines in the university structure, the places where institutional breakdowns and tension arise. They help us understand how universities function as teaching institutions and agencies of socialisation, as homes for scholarship and science and as sources of orthodoxy or innovation. In short, they tell us how universities actually work by bringing disparate parts into some sort of pattern.

To give an example of connections, we may wonder how the distinctive architecture of Oxford (and Cambridge) is related to the history of teaching or to the conception of the college as a total environment for learning. H.M. Colvin’s discussion of architectural innovation in the 18th century is interesting: but deals mainly with style, building materials, architects, master masons, patrons and certain valuable technical details. Equally important is space use. For example, the famous Oxbridge ‘staircase’ suggests a theory of pedagogy, élite selection and peer-group formation that can be contrasted with the American practice of stringing students out along endless corridors, yet we do not know when such uses were first envisioned. The American pattern of multiple-room occupancy, typical of all its higher education institutions, can likewise be contrasted with the evolution of single-room occupancy in England. From Medieval times onward students and fellows shared rooms, a practice known as ‘chumming’. McConica mentions that among the innovations introduced at Corpus Christi by its 16th-century founder Richard Fox was the reduction of chamber occupants from as many as four to two, a fellow and his ‘disciple’, presumably to emphasise ‘training and discipline’. McConica also notes that Fox’s reforms anticipated (if inadvertently) the penchant for privacy which appeared in the 18th century when single-room occupancy became common, reflecting the wealthier student’s new taste for spacious and luxurious accommodation. We are left with a series of questions. How did a room of one’s own affect the teaching relationship that was the object of Fox’s reforms? How did a sense of privacy alter the customary pattern of student relationships or facilitate study? Did it produce tensions between a desire to be alone and the object of living in the world so conspicuous a feature of the Augustan age? Can we also connect the growing desire for privacy with the intellectual revolution that J. Yolton mentions in his stimulating discussion of logic and philosophy? The epistemological shift in 18th-century thinking gradually altered Oxford’s mental environment. Truth as a form of victory achieved through public debate and disputation with the aid of the tools of scholastic logic was gradually replaced by more modest conceptions of knowledge as something that could emerge from isolation and reflection.

Towards the end of the 18th century, this silent revolution was being accompanied by an extension of the notion of privacy to Oxford’s material environment. Oxford’s self-perception began to shift. David Fairer’s absorbing chapter on ‘Oxford and the Literary World’ explains how the romance of Oxford began in the later 18th century. We perceive the beginning of an attitude that defines a university and especially Oxford as a kind of secret epicurean garden distinct from the world outside, a spatial organisation of private enclosures and protected areas, in which students and dons alike take refuge far from the madding crowd. We start to notice the first signs of a greater concern for the intensity and intimacy of university life which will become characteristic of the 19th century. Ironically, this special kind of withdrawal occurred at precisely the moment Oxford patched up its differences with royal government and ended her long political isolation.

Oxford began the 19th century with a brilliant reform when her first honours school was created. All in all, it was a great century of university history, and we await the forthcoming volumes of the History to supply us with details and appropriate qualifications. In the meantime Peter Slee, in a trim and readable book, offers us his views on the place of history teaching in undergraduate liberal education at Oxford and Cambridge and in the new Late Victorian university college at Manchester. His concern is principally with what was called ‘modern’ – that is, post-Roman – history. We learn from Volume V of the History that Ancient History teaching began to creep into the college curriculum in 18th-century Christ Church as an optional subject suited for gentlemen intending to enter public life. Memoirs and biographies show us how a taste for history generally spread through the university in the early 19th century, just as it was spreading through society, manifesting itself in prize essays, poetry, college exercises, private reading and student debating societies. However, it was not until the second half of the century that a history honours school was created at the university level. Its form and substance were not the same at Cambridge as at Oxford, and differences in structure, traditions and the comparative strength of college tutors and university professors produced different weightings and styles of teaching. Slee maintains that despite these differences, important in themselves, the study and teaching of history at both universities were primarily thought of as part of a liberal education. To be considered ‘liberal’ a subject had to be a ‘discipline’ – that is, conform to the requirements of the theory of faculty psychology which dominated pedagogy in the 19th century. Critics contended that history merely strengthened memory, a lesser mental faculty, but in time history teachers were able to demonstrate that their subject also sharpened the intellect and improved the judgment. History consequently assumed a prominent place in the teaching of undergraduates and rose in popularity.

This is correct and well said, but it is not exactly new. A surprising number of scholars have been at work in the past two decades exploring the place of the study, teaching and writing of history in English education in the Victorian and Edwardian periods. John Burrow, Reba Softer, Doris Goldstein, Donald Winch, Stefan Collini, Dwight Culler, Deborah Wormell and Rosemary Jann among others have written on one or another dimension. As a secondary but related argument, Slee says that scholars have tended to use the word ‘professional’ as if it only applied to specialist researchers, whereas an Oxford don of 1880 would certainly have considered himself to be a ‘professional’ history teacher even if he wrote no books, produced no learned articles, attended no scholarly assemblies and had ventured into original documents no further than Bishop Stubbs’s Charters.

Here, too, he is undoubtedly correct, if not alone, since it has long been known that ‘professional’ was really a synonym for ‘academic career’ in the years before the abolition of celibacy. There are other notions of ‘professional’ that we could winkle out of the earlier sources. But Slee has a thèse. He believes that other scholars, including myself, have left readers with the misleading impression that liberal education was on the way out of the curriculum circa 1900 as ‘professional’ researchers took over, influencing such subjects as history. It appears from several citations that he may not always be reading closely. The argument that some scholars have made is not that the research ethos immediately forced the capitulation of liberal education, but that by the beginning of the 20th century higher education in Britain was displaying extraordinary institutional diversity, incorporating technical, vocational and professional as well as liberal forms of instruction. Competing forms of university mission were everywhere evident, both within and across institutions, and indeed Slee’s own evidence confirms this. Such was the overall situation, if not equally true for each institution or each discipline or school of studies.

Furthermore, as ‘useful knowledge’ competed with liberal education for a place in the university curriculum, the Oxbridge colleges were free to assert their historic concern for the total welfare of undergraduates and became the great carriers of an older conception of liberal education. It was the institutional life of the colleges more than the curriculum that gave Oxbridge its unique place in the history of undergraduate instruction. The curriculum could be emulated anywhere, especially in new low-cost universities, but the collegiate structure was special. The fundamental point is that liberal education was not just a question of mental training. That was necessary but not sufficient. It was also a matter of relationships, to include the teaching relationship, of friends, of environment, of exposure to a common way of life. These non-intellectual facets of education have always been important and simply need to be acknowledged.

Universities have been known to shed functions over the centuries, but mostly they are imperialistic, retaining a hold on older jurisdictions while acquiring new ones. Even when the humanist curriculum was introduced into Oxford, the scholastic one carried forward into and through the 18th century, if not precisely in its original state. The result at any time, but especially at times of general social change, is a bewildering mixture of values, programmes, specialisms, rationalisations and claims. Slee finds continuity in the meaning of liberal education as it was known in English universities from 1800 to 1914. There was such, and many continuities still exist. But there were also discontinuities, ambiguities, contradictions, and subtle shifts in the whole notion and practice of liberal education. We might, for a start, wonder how a pseudo scientific theory of mental stimulation managed to replace a far less cerebral and far more gentlemanly conception of general education. We might be perplexed by the fact that a theory of liberal education once grounded in assumptions about ‘polite’ behaviour and still containing strong elements of the Renaissance courtier ideal of the whole or integrated personality came after 1800 to be so intimately associated with one of the most gruelling written university examination systems known to Western society, famous for promoting the spirit of competition. To dispute in hall, said a gentleman-commoner at University College in 1721, was beneath his dignity, and he was sure to be found ‘guilty of great singularity and be accounted a Person proud of his own performances’. Not so later on. Are we speaking about the same kind of liberal education, in theory and practice, or have some structural, institutional or cultural changes occurred that deepen the issues and alter the questions?

For those wanting a guide to present difficulties, there are no ‘lessons’ to be drawn from the new History of Oxford University. We must be content with observations, patterns and linkages, many as yet to be made. That they can be made at all is evidence of the success of an enterprise unique in publishing history. One of the many selfish characters in Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews wonders how anyone can starve when excellent salads are to be gathered from every field. He never pauses to consider whether the field is open to all. It can be said of the new History of the University of Oxford that excellent salads can be gathered from every page and that the pages are open to all.