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Popular Science Monthly/Volume 56/November 1899/An English University

< Popular Science Monthly‎ | Volume 56‎ | November 1899


MOST minds in America, as in England, if they think about the subject at all, impute to the two ancient centers of Anglo-Saxon learning—Oxford and Cambridge—an unquestionable supremacy. A halo of greatness surrounds these august institutions, none the less real because to the American mind, at least, it is vague. Half the books students at other institutions require in their various courses have the names of eminent Cambridge or Oxford men upon the fly leaf. Michael Foster's Physiology, Sidgwick's Methods of Ethics, and Bryce's American Commonwealth PSM V56 D0022 Michael Foster.pngMichael Foster, K. C. B., M. A., F. R. S.
Trinity. Professor of Physiology.
are recognized text-books wherever the subjects of which they treat are studied; while Sir Gr. G. Stokes, Jebb, Lord Acton, Caird, Max Müller, and Ray Lankester are as well known to students of Leland Stanford or Princeton as they are to Englishmen. One can scarcely read a work on English literature or open an English novel which does not make some reference to one or other of the great universities or their colleges, inseparably associated as they are with English life and history, past and present. Our oldest college owes its existence to John Harvard, of Emmanuel, Cambridge, and the name of the mother university still clings to her transatlantic offspring. The English institutions have become firmly associated in the vulgar mind with all that is dignified, venerable, and thorough in learning, but, beyond a vague sentiment of admiration, little adequate knowledge on the subject is abroad. American or German universities are organizations not very difficult to comprehend, and a vague knowledge of them is perhaps sufficient. The understanding, however, of those complicated academic communities, Oxford and Cambridge, is a matter of intimate experience. They differ widely from their sister institutions in other countries, and in attempting to give some conception of their peculiarities the writer proposes to restrict himself chiefly to Cambridge, because there are not very many striking differences between the latter and Oxford, and because the scientific supremacy of PSM V56 D0023 Lord Acton.pngThe Right Hon. Lord Acton, M. A., LL. D., Trinity. Professor of Modern History. Cambridge is sufficiently established to render her an object of greater interest to the readers of the Science Monthly.

First of all, it must be borne in mind that throughout most of their history these institutions have been closely related, not to the body of the people, but to the aristocracy. This was not so much the case at first, before the university became an aggregate of colleges. Then a rather poor and humble class were enabled, through the small expense involved, to acquire the rudiments of an education, and even to become proficient in the scholastic dialectic. But ere long, and with the gradual endowment of different colleges, the expenses of a student became much greater, and, save where scholarships could be obtained, it required some affluence before parents could afford to give their sons an academic training. Hence, the more fortunate or aristocratic classes came in time to contribute the large majority of the student body. Those whose intellectual attainments were so unusual as to constitute ways and means have never been debarred, but impecunious mediocrity had and still has little place or opportunity. It is well to remember, in addition, that the Church fostered these universities in their infancy, that it deserves unqualified credit for having nursed them through their early months, and that it continues to have some considerable influence over the modern institutions. Finally, the growth of Cambridge and Oxford has largely been occasioned by lack of rivals in their own class. In this branch or that, other institutions have become deservedly famous. Edinburgh has a high reputation in moral science; Manchester is renowned for her physics, chemistry, and engineering; and London for her medical schools. But Oxford and Cambridge are strong in many branches. Financially powerful, they are able to attract the majority of promising and eminent men, whence has resulted that remarkable coterie of unrivaled intellects through whom the above-named universities are chiefly known to the outer and foreign world. This characteristic has its opposite illustrated in the United States, where the tendency is centrifugal, no one or two universities or colleges having advantages so decided as inevitably to attract most of the best minds, and where, in consequence, the best minds are found scattered from California to Harvard and Pennsylvania.

The characteristic peculiar to Cambridge and Oxford, and which distinguishes them not only from American but also from all other universities in England and elsewhere, is the college system. Thus Cambridge is a collection of eighteen colleges which, though nominally united to form one institution, are really distinct, inasmuch as each is a separate community with its own buildings and grounds, its PSM V56 D0024 J J Thompson.pngJ. .J. Thomson, M. A., F. R. S., Trinity.
Professor of Experimental Physics.
its own resident students, its own lecturers, and Fellows—a community which is supported by own moneys without aid from the university exchequer, and which in most matters legislates for itself. The system is not unlike the American Union on a small scale, with its cluster of governments and their relation to a supreme center. The advantages of this scheme might theoretically be very great. With each college handsomely endowed and, though managing its own affairs, entering freely, in addition, into those relations of reciprocity which make for the good of the whole, one can readily imagine an ideal academic commonwealth. And while the present condition of the university can scarcely be said to approximate very closely to such an academic Utopia, it yet derives from its constitution numerous obvious advantages which universities otherwise constituted would and do undoubtedly lack. The chief evils besetting the university are perhaps more adventitious than inherent; they are largely financial, and arise from carrying the system of college PSM V56 D0025 G H Darwin.pngG. H. Darwin, M. A., F. R. S., Trinity.
Plumian Professor of Astronomy.
individualism too far. A description of the college and university organization may make this apparent. By its endowment a college must support a certain number of Fellows and scholars. The latter form a temporary body, while the former are more or less permanent, and therefore upon them devolves the management of the college. Business is usually done by a council chosen from the Fellows, and the election of new Fellows to fill vacancies is made by this select body. The head of a college is known as the master; he is elected by the Fellows save in one or two cases, where his appointment rests with the crown or with certain wealthy individuals. He lives in the college lodge especially built for him, draws a salary large in proportion to the wealth of his college, and exerts an influence corresponding to his intelligence.

The Fellows are in most cases chosen from those men who have achieved the greatest success in an honor course. At Cambridge College individualism has progressed so far that the Fellows of, say, Magdalen must be Magdalen men, the students of Queens', St Catherine's, or any other being ineligible save for their own fellowships. Oxford obtains perhaps better men on the whole by throwing open the fellowships of each particular college to the graduates of all, thus producing a wider competition. A fellowship until recently was tenable for life, but it has been reduced to about six years, the Fellows as a whole, however, retaining the power to extend the period of possession. And, further, the holding of a college office for fifteen years in general qualifies for the holding of a fellowship for life, and for a pension as lecturer or tutor. Thus a man is able to devote himself to research with little fear that at the latter end of his career he will lack the means of support. It is perhaps not too much to say that the offices of college dean, tutor, and lecturer are more perquisites than anything else. They are meant to keep and attract men of ability and parts. However, their existence reacts upon the student body by augmenting the expenses of the latter out of proportion to the benefits to be obtained. For instance, instead of utilizing one set of lecturers for one class of subjects, which all students could attend for a small fee, each of the larger colleges, at any rate, pays special lecturers, drawn from its own Fellows, to speak upon the same subjects each to a mere handful of men from their own college only. The tutor is another luxury inherited from the middle ages and therefore retained, and one for which the students have to pay dearly. The chief business of the tutor is not to teach, but to "look after" a certain number of students who are theoretically relegated to his charge. He looks up their lodgings for them, pays their bills at the end of the term, gets them out of scrapes, and draws a large salary. The tutorships seem to the writer to be a good illustration of how an office necessary to one period persists after that for which it was instituted has ceased to exist. When the students of Oxford and Cambridge were many of them thirteen and fourteen years of age, as in the fourteenth century, nurses were doubtless necessary, but they are still retained when the greater maturity of the students renders them not only unnecessary but at times even an impertinence.

The dean is not, as with us, the head of a department; his functions are not so many, his tasks far less onerous. It is before a college dean that students are "hauled" for such offenses as irregularity at chapel, returning to the college after 12 p.m., smoking in college precincts, bringing dogs into the college grounds, and other villainous offenses against regulations. A dean must also attend chapel. Some colleges require two deans to struggle through these complicated and laborious duties, though some possessing only a few dozen students succeed in getting along with one.

The line of demarcation between the university and the colleges is very distinct. The legislative influence of the former extends over a comparatively restricted field. All professorial chairs and certain lectureships belong to and are paid by the university; the latter has the arranging of the curricula, the care of the laboratories, the disposition of certain noncollegiate scholarships; but, broadly speaking, its two functions are the examination of all students and the conferring of degrees. The supreme legislative body is the senate, and it is composed of all masters of arts, doctors, and bachelors of divinity whose names still remain on the university books—that is, who continue to pay certain fees into the university treasury. In addition to the legislative body there is an executive head or council of nineteen, including the chancellor—at present the Duke of Devonshire—and the vice-chancellor. Both these bodies must govern according to the statutes, no alteration in which can be PSM V56 D0027 R C Jebb.pngK. C. Jebb, Litt. D., M. P., Trinity.
Regius Professor of Greek.
effected without recourse being had to Parliament. The senate is a peculiar body, and on occasions becomes somewhat unwieldy. It consists at present of some 6,800 members, of whom only 452 are in residence at Cambridge. Upon ordinary occasions only these 452 vote upon questions proposed by the council; but on occasions of great moment, as when the question of granting university degrees to women came up, some thousands or more of the nonresident members, who in many cases have lost touch with the modern university and modern systems of education, swarm to their alma mater, annihilate the champions of reform, and are hailed by their brethren as the saviors of their university.

The university's exchequer is supplied partly by its endowment, but chiefly by an assessment on the college incomes, a capitation tax on all undergraduates, and the fees attending matriculation, examinations, and the granting of degrees. The examinations are numerous. Every student on entering is required to pass, or to claim exemption from, an entrance examination. In either case he pays £3 to the university, and upon admission to any honor course or "tripos" to qualify for the degree. of Bachelor of Arts £3 more is exacted. The income of the university from these examination fees alone amounts to £9,400 per annum, £4,600 of which goes to pay the examiners. In America this is supposed to be a part of the professor's or instructor's duty, no additional renumeration is allowed, and hence it does not become necessary to make an additional tax upon the students' resources. The conferring; of degrees is also made a very profitable affair. Each candidate for the degree of B. A. pays out £7 to the voracious 'varsity chest, and upon proceeding' to the M. A. a further contribution of £12 is requested. PSM V56 D0028 Henry Sidgwick.pngHenry Sidgwick, Litt. D., Trinity.
Knightbridge Professor of Moral Philosophy.
In this way the university makes about £12,000 a year, and, as though this was not sufficient, she requires a matriculation fee of £5 for every student who becomes a member. By this means another annual £5,000 is obtained. It must be remembered that these fees are entirely separate from the college fees. When the £5 matriculation for the latter is taken into consideration and the £8 a term (at Trinity) for lectures, two thirds of which the student does not attend, when it is understood that all this and more does not include living expenses, which are by no means slight, and that there are three terms instead of two, as with us, it will be obvious that Cambridge adheres very closely to the rule that to them only who have wealth shall her refining influence be given. That the greatest universities in existence should render it almost totally impossible for aught but the rich to obtain the advantages of their unusual educational facilities jars with that idea of democracy of learning which an American training is apt to foster. But, as we shall point out later, an aristocracy of learning may also have its uses.

With all the revenues the university collects from colleges and students, amounting in all to about £65,000, Cambridge still finds herself poor. Some of the colleges, notably King's and Trinity, are extremely wealthy, but the university remains, if not exactly impecunious, at least on the ragged edge of financial difficulties. The various regius and other professorships, inadequately endowed by the munificence of the crown and of individuals, have each to be augmented from the university chest. The continual repairing of the old laboratories and scientific apparatus, the salaries to lecturers, to proctors, bedells, and other officers, cause a continual drain on the exchequer, which, with the rapidly growing need for larger laboratories and newer apparatus, has finally resulted in an appeal to the country for the sum of half a million pounds.

It has been seen that the drains on a student's pocket are very considerable at Cambridge, owing to the number of perquisites showered by the colleges on their Fellows, and it may appear that this state of things is unjust and wrong. At present Oxford and Cambridge are practically within the reach of only the moneyed population. According, however, to a plausible and frequently repeated theory, it is not the function of these universities to meet the educational needs of the mediocre poor. The writer's critical attitude toward the financial system in vogue at Cambridge is a proper one, only on the assumption that a maximum of education to all classes alike at a minimum of expense is the final cause and desideratum of a university's existence. But if one assumes that Oxford and Cambridge exist for a different purpose, PSM V56 D0029 Donald MacAlister.pngDonald MacAlister, M. A., M. D., St. Johns.
Linacre Lecturer of Physics.
that the chief end they propose to themselves is individual research, and the advancement, not the promulgation, of learning, it must be admitted that their system has little that is reprehensible. According to this standpoint the students only exist by courtesy of the dons (a name for the Fellows), who have a perfect right to impose upon the students, in return for the condescension which is shown them, what terms they see fit. And they argue that this view is the historic one. The colleges were originally endowed solely for the benefit of a certain limited number of Fellows and scholars. The undergraduate body, as it at present exists, is a later growth, whose eventual existence and the importance of which to the university was probably not anticipated by the college founders. Starting with this, the defenders of the present regime would point out, in addition, that there are other English institutions where the poorer classes may be educated, that Cambridge and Oxford are not only not bound to take upon themselves this task, but that they actually subserve a higher purpose and one just as necessary to the development of English science and letters and to the education of the English intellect by specializing in another direction. The good of a philosopher's lifelong reflections, they would say, is not always manifest, but the teachers who instruct the nation's youth are themselves dependent for rational standpoints upon the labor of the greater teacher, and they act as the instruments of communication between the most learned and the unlettered. So Oxford and Cambridge are the sources from whose fountains of wisdom and culture flow streams supplying all the academic mills of Britain, which in their turn are enabled to feed the inhabitants. It would be absurd, they maintain, to insist that the streams and the mills could equally well fulfill the same functions. Cambridge and Oxford instruct just so far as so doing is compatible with what for them is the main end—the furthering of various kinds of research and the offering of all sorts of inducements in order to keep and attract the interested attention of classical butterflies and scientific worms. How well they succeed in this noble ambition is known throughout the civilized world.

Mr. G, H, Darwin, a son of Charles Darwin, has recently had occasion to mention the enormous scientific output of Cambridge University. After saying that the Royal Society is the Academy of Sciences in England, and that in its publications appear accounts of all the most important scientific discoveries in England and most of those in Scotland, Ireland, and other parts of Europe, he goes on to state that he examined the Transactions of this society for three years and discovered that out of the 5,480 pages published in that time 2,418 were contributed by Cambridge men and 1,324 by residents.

In view of these facts, and despite the shortcomings of this university as a teaching institution, it is to be hoped that private generosity will answer her appeal for financial assistance. Her laboratories are a mine of research, and it is in them and in the men who conduct them that Cambridge is perhaps most to be admired.

The Cavendish Laboratory of Physics, where Clerk-Maxwell and afterward Lord Rayleigh taught, and which is at present in the hand of their able successor, J. J. Thomson, is a building of considerable size and admirably fitted out, but the rapidly increasing number of young physicists who are being allured by the working facilities of the place, and by the fame of Professor Thomson, is rendering even this splendidly equipped hall of science inadequate. The physiological laboratories are many, they are completely furnished with appliances, and a large number of students are there trained annually under the supervision of one of England's most eminent living scientists, Michael Foster, and his scarcely less able associates—Langley, Hardy, and Gaskell. Chemistry, zoölogy, botany, anatomy, and geology have each their well-appointed halls and masterly exponents. The names MacAlister, Liveing, Dewar, Newton, Sedgwick, Marshall Ward, and Hughes are not easily matched in any other one institution. Indeed, it is when one stops to consider the intellects at Cambridge that it becomes a PSM V56 D0031 G G Stokes.pngSir G. G. Stakes, Bart., M. A. . LL. D. Sc. D., F. R. S., Pembroke. Lucasian Professor of Mathematics. dangerous matter to institute comparisons, and to say that this discipline or that is most rich in eminent interpreters. In science, at any rate, and in all branches of science, Cambridge stands alone. Not even Oxford can be considered for a moment as in the same class with her. And of all the sciences it is undoubtedly in mathematics and astronomy that the supremacy of Cambridge is most pronounced. The names of Profs. Sir G. G. Stokes and Sir R. S. Ball will be familiar to every reader, while those of Profs. Forsythe and G. H. Darwin and Mr. Baker will be familiar to all mathematicians. In classics Cambridge, while not possessing a similar monopoly of almost all the talent, still holds her own even with Oxford. Professors Jebb, Mayor, and Ridgeway, and Drs. Verrall, Jackson, and Frazer constitute a group of men second to none in the subjects of which they treat. Professor Jebb is also one of the university's two representatives in Parliament. In philosophy Cambridge has two men, Henry Sidgwick and James Ward, the former of whom is perhaps by common consent the first living authority on moral science, while the latter ranks among the first of living psychologists. These men, while representing very different philosophical standpoints. unite in opposition not only to the Hegelian movement, which, led by Caird and Bradley of Oxford, Seth and Stirling of Edinburgh, threatens the invasion of England, but also to the Spencerian philosophy. The latter system has not many adherents at either university, but the writer has been told by Professor Sully that the ascendency of the neo-Hegelian and other systems is by no means so pronounced elsewhere in England. The Spencerian biology, on the contrary, has been largely defended at Cambridge, while Weismannism, for the most part, is repudiated there and at Oxford.

The teaching at Cambridge, as at all universities, is of many grades. In many subjects the lectures are not meant to give a student sufficient material PSM V56 D0032 James Ward.pngJames Ward, Sc. D., Trinity.
Professor of Mental Philosophy and Logic.
to get him through an examination, and a "coach" becomes requisite, or at any rate is employed. This system of coaching has attained large dimensions; its results are often good, but it means an additional expense and seems an incentive to laziness, making it unnecessary for a student to exert his own mental aggressiveness or powers of application as he who fights his own battles must do. The Socratic form of instruction, producing a more intimate and unrestricted relation between instructor and student, and which is largely in operation in the States, is little practiced in England. In science the methods of instruction at Cambridge are ideal. That practical acquaintance with the facts of Nature which Huxley and Tyndall taught is the only true means of knowing Nature, is the hey according to which all biological and physical instruction at these institutions is conducted.

Tn the last half dozen years two radical steps have been taken by both Oxford and Cambridge—steps leading, to many respectable minds, in diametrically opposite directions. The step backward (in the writer's view) occurred when the universities, after much excitement, defeated with slaughter the proposition granting university degrees to women. It was simply proposed that the students of Newnham and Girton, who should successfully compete with male students in an honor course, should have an equal right with the latter to receive the usual degrees from their alma mater. After industrious inquiry among those who were foremost in supporting and opposing this movement the writer has unearthed no objection of weight against the change. "If the women were granted degrees they would have votes in the senate," and "It never has been done"—these are the two reasons most persistently urged in defense of the conservative view; while justice and utility alike appear to be for once, at any rate, unequivocally on the side of the women. Prejudice defeated progress, and students celebrated the auspicious occasion with bonfires. The step forward was taken when the universities and their colleges decided to throw open their gates to the graduates of other universities in England, America, and elsewhere for the purpose of advanced study. But here, as in other things, Cambridge leads the way, and Oxford follows falteringly. The advanced students at Cambridge are treated like Cambridge men, they have the status of Bachelors of Arts, and possess in most respects the advantages, such as they are, of the latter; while at Oxford the advanced students are a restricted class, with restricted advantages, and their relation to the university is not that of the other students. In Cambridge the movement which has resulted in the present admirable condition of affairs was largely brought about by the zeal and enterprise of Dr. Donald MacAlister, of St. John's College, the University Lecturer in Therapeutics, a man of wide sympathies and ability, and whose name is closely associated with this university's metamorphosis into a more modern institution.