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No. 11, May 1998
Moving forward, but with an eye to the past


No. 13 - Dec 2000 (PDF)

No. 12 - Sep 1999

No. 11 - May 1998

No. 10 - Jun 1997

Anna Guagnini on The History of the University of Oxford, Volume VI, Nineteenth century Oxford, Part One, edited by Michael G.Brock and Mark Curthoys (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997); and Volume VIII, The twentieth century, edited by Brian Harrison (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994)

Histories of universities tend to be written on the occasion of anniversaries or other celebrations, and often they turn out to be either well illustrated coffee-table books, or descriptive accounts, rich in names, dates and anecdotes, but seldom satisfactory from a scholarly point of view. This is definitely not the case with the History of the University of Oxford to which these two volumes belong. The aim of the series, consisting of eight substantial volumes, is to offer a thorough and comprehensive historical analysis of this ancient and very particular institution, from its origins in the twelfth century to 1970. With only one volume still to be published, the series is now approaching completion, and there is no doubt that it sets a very high standard for future historical accounts of individual institutions of higher education. The variety of the themes is remarkable, exploring as they do all aspects of the life of the university and its constituent colleges - institutional, social, political and economic; the quality of the contributions is outstanding, and the editorship magisterial.

The last two volumes that have been published cover the most recent history of Oxford, from 1800 to the present, with a gap to be filled by the forthcoming Volume VII, devoted to the decades from c. 1880 to the first world war. What makes these collections of essays particularly fascinating is that they explore the very foundations on which the present day success and the fortunes of the University of Oxford rests. While Volume VI takes off from a decayed institution and examines the period in which the seeds of reform were laid and produced the first results, Volume VIII considers the extraordinary expansion of the period after 1914 - an expansion that changed profoundly the academic and institutional profile of the university, while maintaining some of the most distinctive characteristics of its structure.

At the beginning of the nineteenth century Oxford and Cambridge were described as two seminaries for instruction in the national religion. Although this comment was meant to be provocative, it was not far from the truth: Oxford was predominantly an Anglican institution whose main concern was to prepare young men for the Church (until 1850 the majority of the undergraduates went on to take holy orders), while also entertaining young gentlemen in a suitably dignified environment and screening them as well as possible (though in fact not very effectively) from potential sources of trouble and temptation. The core of the university was a confederation of colleges, each of them with a head and a governing body, independently endowed, and exceedingly keen on preserving their autonomy. The university and colleges were constantly at loggerheads with each other, but always ready to pull together in order to fight off external interference. Colleges did not regard formal teaching as their highest priority; the aim was rather to provide an environment that was favourable to "gentlemanly cultivation" and the formation of personalities. At Oxford, the study of classics, with a strong emphasis on Greek and Latin texts, was regarded as the most appropriate way of achieving that objective; and the strong anti-utilitarian spirit that permeated the Oxonian approach to the classics remained one of the fundamental tenets of the university. Other disciplines were cultivated but in an ancillary way, and neither the sciences nor medicine (nor, for that matter, history, law, or modern languages) were taught as degree courses.

However, by mid-nineteenth century external as well as internal pressures for a reform of both the contents and the structure of this institution were mounting. Reform was approached amid extraordinarily tense and at times dramatic debates on the very meaning of education, the role of a university, its relation to the state and to the church. Thirty years ago, Sheldon Rothblatt argued that current interpretations of the development of Cambridge and Oxford in the nineteenth century focused too narrowly on the attempt to identify close correlations between social and political change on the one hand, and specific educational reforms on the other. For Rothblatt, too many accounts of the ancient universities were flawed by a "dislike of plural elements, of strains and counter-strains, of the curious rivalries and unresolved tensions so common to history that make absolute social unity difficult" [1]; such factors as the interplay of complex personal motivations and beliefs and the impact of contingent circumstances tended to be underestimated. These were the elements that Rothblatt sought to include in a broader study of the development of Victorian Cambridge. The contributors to the two volumes under review (Rothblatt is one of them) fully endorsed this approach in dealing with Oxford. Their studies highlight the complexity and the multifaceted nature of the opposing sides in the debate on the reform of the institution, unravelling the variety of religious, political and philosophical arguments that were raised, and the kaleidoscopic combination of positions and alliances that were thus generated.

Not surprisingly, the pace of change along such a convoluted route was painstakingly slow; the reform process was approached in a piecemeal way, and the solutions that were adopted were more the result of compromises than of the victory of one party over its opponents. As one of the contributors points out, the outcome did not resemble any of the plans put forward by the contenders.

The volume ends with the launching of new honours schools in Modern History and Law (split into two separate schools in 1872) and in Natural Sciences, and the adoption of higher academic standards. While in the mid-nineteenth century half of the undergraduates took the easy option of the pass degree (and many of them did not sit for the final examinations at all), by the late 1860s 40% of the undergraduates chose the more demanding honours degree. Finally, in 1871, the religious tests that banned the admission of non-Anglican students were abolished; and in 1884 women were allowed to take the final examinations of honours schools, although they were not yet fully admitted as university students and were not awarded degrees.

Timely as they were, the first endeavours to push Oxford in the direction of a modern ideal of university did not herald rapid changes. At the turn of the century Oxford stood as firmly as ever as a shrine to the cult of the humanities and the ideals of a liberal education. The colleges still prevailed over the university; teaching standards were improved, but occasional attempts to foster research met with stiff opposition, mainly from the college tutors. Ordination was no longer the commonest occupation of former students, who now found new career opportunities in the expanding sector of secondary education and the civil service; however, only a minority of graduates entered the liberal professions, and even less industry. And yet, in the crevices of this fragmented world, some modern "experiments" emerged. Chemistry laboratories existed within the ancient and venerable walls of some colleges, and despite the makeshift arrangement of the facilities, the teaching that was provided there was by no means ineffectual. More visible, and inevitably more controversial, was the opening of the University Museum, a neo-gothic palace that physically embodied the ideal of the unity of the sciences and provided a focus for a scientific community that had remained until then confined to the margins of the university system. Completed in 1860, the Museum was a clear sign of the determination to establish a solid foothold for the sciences in Oxford, but the controversy it aroused laid bare the widespread unease with the tide of specialization that was beginning to characterize the development of scientific disciplines in other universities in Britain and elsewhere. Equally remarkable was the decision to set up a physics laboratory. Opened in 1870, with funds made available by the Clarendon trustees "for the honour and benefit of the University" (and originally earmarked for a riding school), it was one of the first purpose-built physics laboratories in Europe. However, it became obsolete soon after its inauguration; the fact is that precisely in this period physics entered a new phase of rapid expansion for which the laboratory was not equipped. It would be easy, and not totally untrue, to say that this decline was an indication of the prevailing hostility, or at least indifference, of the colleges towards the sciences. However the authors of the essays on the sciences suggest that other factors should be taken into account; among them, the personal attitudes of the professoriate, who prized breadth of preparation far more than professional training, and would not adjust to the growing emphasis on research.

It will be the task of Volume VII to consider what circumstances prevented some of the early attempts to bring Oxford to modernity from taking root earlier and more vigorously. For it was only after the upheaval of the first world war, and even more so after the second, that the engine of transformation changed gear, and when it gathered speed, the results were momentous. In this respect, there is no doubt that the contributors to Volume VIII were confronted with a formidable task. For they were asked to examine and comment upon a transformation of unprecedented scale in the organization of the university, and an equally extraordinary expansion of its structure. In the best Oxford tradition, it was not a change that rested on a coherent, comprehensive plan, but rather the result of a chain of measures painstakingly discussed in the context of internal and external committees of inquiry into the state and the future of the University of Oxford, of negotiations with governmental departments and agencies and with a variety of public and private agencies involved in the organization and in the funding of new initiatives, especially (but not exclusively) in the areas of science and medicine.

Oxford after 1918 was a relatively small centre, with a population of about 4,000 students and, despite attempts to consolidate the late nineteenth century moves towards modernization, still retained most of its original distinctive features. The colleges, with their overriding commitment to undergraduate teaching, still prevailed over the university. Research was not encouraged, and although DPhil degrees were introduced in the 1920s, no provision was made for postgraduate teaching. The humanities continued to attract the ablest students, while the sciences were still regarded as a less distinguished pursuit. The majority of the entrants came from public (i.e. private) schools, and the cost of education was such as to inhibit the access of students from the lower classes. Honours degrees were steadily becoming more common, but the students' performance was very uneven; as one of the contributors points out, the offspring of the well-to-do who did not have scholarly ambitions continued to enjoy in Oxford a civilizing interval during which they had time to recover from adolescence. As for women, they were finally admitted to full university membership in 1920, but Oxford remained, as firmly as in the past, a male-centred society.

And yet, not even the high walls of the colleges could screen Oxford from the profound changes that were taking place after the war in the sphere of higher education and in society at large. Once breaches were opened it was impossible to avoid further adjustments. For all their desire to indulge in the reveries of the past, the donnish inhabitants of the dreaming spires had to resign themselves to the fact that life at the ground level had definitely taken a new and irreversible turn. However, once again the process was effectively controlled and steered from within, as the story of the Asquith Commission of 1919-1921 shows. Oxford is definitely not a place for revolutions; but here as anywhere else, "le acque chete corrodono i ponti".

The essays in Volume VIII examine the transformation of Oxford into a modern university, highly competitive insofar as research is concerned but resolutely committed to preserve her teaching tradition; a university that ranks firmly at the top level of the British university system and attracts students from all over the world. New programmes were introduced in the sphere of the humanities in order to provide an alternative to Greats and modern history; the honours school of Politics, Philosophy, and Economics was (and still is) a success story, and paved the way for a number of other combined subjects. However, the most remarkable transformation in recent times, especially after the second world war, was the growth of the sciences. Slowly but steadily the old University Museum was engulfed by new buildings, departments and laboratories, housing a rapidly growing community of researchers and students. In 1939 no more than 19% of the undergraduates read scientific subjects; by 1975 they were already 35%.

The expansion of the sciences in the aftermath of the war greatly contributed to the enhancement of the status of the university; but it entailed also the necessity of securing financial support for equipment, facilities, and personnel, and a growing dependence on government grants and private donations. Inevitably, these liaisons were bound to produce forms of external pressure that the colleges were reluctant to accept. The introduction of new disciplines generally, and especially the growth of the science sector, rekindled the tension between the university and the colleges; for the colleges were reluctant to alter their internal structure, oriented towards the teaching of traditional mainstream subjects, and to admit into their society professors and researchers of specialistic disciplines appointed not by themselves but by the university. In fact, the attempt to resist the siege of the science "troops" was as traumatic as the decision to admit women students.

Volume VIII provides an excellent survey of the developments that took place in all sectors of Oxford life: its internal structure, the university/college relations, finances, college organization, the social profile and career patterns of students, are all thoroughly examined. Due attention is paid to the role of Oxford in the political life of Britain, the presence of foreign students, and the changes in the architectural layout of the university.

The plan of the volume is exceedingly ambitious insofar as the variety of the themes examined is concerned. By comparison, the development of the disciplines has been surveyed in a rather compressed way, especially in view of the extraordinary diversification of the curricula that took place after the second world war, and of the growing importance played by research. The sciences, in particular, would have benefited from a more detailed treatment, even if that would have probably made it necessary to split Volume VIII in two parts. This is certainly one of the areas that awaits further research; Jack Morrell has just completed a book on science in Oxford in the inter-war period [2], and a collaborative study of the origins and development of the Clarendon Laboratory of physics is already in progress [3]. We hope to see more on other departments.

In fact, one of the merits of the project that led to the publication of these volumes was to promote at local level a series of initiatives for the systematic organization of documents and data on the history of Oxford.

As the editors of both Volume VI and Volume VIII point out, much more information has been collected that could have possibly been conveyed in the volumes. This wealth of resources is now available for further and more detailed studies, and one of the aims of the History of the University of Oxford is precisely to stimulate new research in the field.

For those who organized the project, this was clearly a labour of love for their institution as much as a scholarly achievement.


-1. Sheldon Rothblatt, The revolution of the dons. Cambridge and society in Victorian England (London: Faber & Faber, 1968), p. 25.

2. Jack Morrell, Science at Oxford 1914-1939. Transforming an arts university (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997).

3. The theme of the collaborative work is the history of the Clarendon Laboratory and Oxford physics between the mid-nineteenth century and 1939. A volume, edited by Robert Fox and Graeme Gooday, is planned.

-Address: Anna Guagnini, Department of Philosophy, University of Bologna, via Zamboni 38, I-40126 Bologna.