English Ideas of the University in the 19th Century

By Gillispie, Charles Coulston | Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, September 1, 2006 | Go to article overview

English Ideas of the University in the 19th Century


Gillispie, Charles Coulston, Transactions of the American Philosophical Society


THE ESSAY THAT FOLLOWS was one of three delivered orally in a session chaired by Margaret Clapp at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association held in Boston in 1949. Paul Farmer of the University of Wisconsin and George Pierson of Yale, gave the other papers, the former on European and the latter on American developments in the same period. George Pierson, one of whose major works is the history of Yale, was the senior member of the panel by far.

Although it was W. K. Jordan's seminar that opened my eyes to the thrill of original research, 19th-century England attracted me more strongly. That had been the field of my mentor at Wesleyan, H. C. F. Bell. At Harvard David Owen was the specialist on the Victorian period. Owen was a fine lecturer and by far the most approachable member of a department that sometimes seemed to beginning graduate students a touch cold, distant, and collectively self-satisfied. Though in no way involved in history of science, he encouraged my idea of looking into science and religion before Darwin and read the successive chapters of Genesis and Geology closely, offering not so much guidance as encouraging criticism.

David Owen recommended me to the History Department in Princeton in 1947, and we kept in touch for some years thereafter. A Yale Ph.D., he was probably the one who proposed the unknown young historian I then was to whoever initiated the session on universities, presumably Pierson. If this paper is written in a reasonably straightforward manner, and reading it over, I think it is, I have Owen largely to thank. After reading the draft of the first chapter of Genesis and Geology, he gently said, "too many syllables." A fellow instructor at Princeton, the late Walter Woodfill, furthered the cure, observing of the draft of this paper that there were irritating sentences purporting to be jocular. When I finished reading it at the Boston session, Pierson on his way to the podium kindly remarked quietly to me that it was a sprightly paper.

The third of the trio of early papers on English history, the appreciation of the works of Élie Halévy, appears later in this volume in the section on historians. The existence of that paper, too, I owe to a suggestion by David Owen. When I told him how valuable in preparing for the general examination I had found England in 1815 and The Growth of Philosophical Radicalism, he was interested and said, "Why don't you write that up?" Accordingly I read the rest of Halévy's writings and, as will appear below, I did. Evidently Halévy's sobriety had ended any tendency on my part to ornate writing.

TWO

English Ideas of the University in the 19th Century*

Oxford and Cambridge over the centuries have traveled as far from their medieval origins as have the European universities. Since the Reformation, however, they have done so more gradually, retaining wherever possible the picturesque externals and ceremonial formalities with which they flavor their traditions.

In England as on the continent the intellectual vitality of the universities reached its lowest ebb during the Age of the Enlightenment, when the world of science, literature, and the arts lay almost entirely outside their walls. It is possible that the familiar picture of academic torpor in i8thcentury England, confirmed though it is by the accounts of people as dissimilar as Edward Gibbon, Adam Smith, Lord Chesterfield, and Lord Eldon, has been drawn a little too dark and that it should be touched up here and there with occasional gleams of light and a few real flashes of mental energy. Nevertheless, it would be difficult to show that Oxford and Cambridge at the opening of the nineteenth century gave rise to any real ideas about a university.

The only important thing then coming out of the English universities was the English governing class, and it emerged less the product of education than of a sort of molding process in which the universities finished what the public schools had begun.

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