The History of the University of Oxford, Part I

By Carter, Grayson | Anglican and Episcopal History, December 2001 | Go to article overview

The History of the University of Oxford, Part I


Carter, Grayson, Anglican and Episcopal History


M. G. BROCK AND M. C. CURTHOYS, EDS. The History of the University of Oxford, Part I. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997. Pp. xxxviii, 806, 60 plates (with commentary), figures, tables, introduction, index. $145.00.

The first part of Nineteenth-Century Oxford (a volume of the official seven-volume history of the University of Oxford; part two, published separately, will be reviewed later in this journal), presents a masterful account of a period (c. 1800-70) of rapid transition in the university and in English society itself. Though England avoided a French-style revolution, its social system had to come to terms with the onset of rapid industrialization, and its traditional institutions had to adapt as best they could to liberal ideologies and demands for reform, or at least "improvement." Perhaps nowhere was this more evident than at Oxford and Cambridge, where long-held assumptions about the nature of a university, its role and function in a Christian society, and its methods of inculcating knowledge and morality, all came under scrutiny and pressure to reform.

In 1800, Oxford still bore some resemblance to a semi-monastic Anglican seminary, serving the requirements of a (largely) Anglican society. One of its most important functions was therefore the upholding of Christian doctrine as taught by the Church of England. The students (many the son of parsons, and many aspiring to careers in the church) could neither matriculate nor graduate without subscribing to the Thirty-nine Articles. Christian theology was considered by many in Oxford the basis of all academic subjects, including the classics, history, science, and mathematics. Because the state looked to the university to develop and maintain respect for authority, and because of the unique relationship between the ancient universities and parliament, religious heterodoxy and denominational diversity were rigidly proscribed.

Within this traditional atmosphere, clerical influence remained largely unchallenged. Convocation (the university's governing body) was dominated by parsons, celibacy was required among Fellows, most of whom were in holy orders, many tutors (teaching fellows) adhered strictly to the educational and moral ideas of their office, the colleges maintained their own chapels (and chaplains) with compulsory morning and evening services, and all candidates for the B.A. (under the reformed examination decrees of 1800) were required to demonstrate a knowledge of the gospels in Greek, the Thirty-nine Articles, and Joseph Butler's Analogy of Religion (1736). Of course, unless married to the vice-chancellor or a head of house, women remained conspicuously absent.

During the first quarter of the nineteenth century, under increasing external scrutiny, Oxford embarked on a gradual and often embittered period of reform. Academic rigor became more common. The establishment of the honors system encouraged specialization, competitiveness, and the close assessment of competence, while also providing enhanced opportunities for clever undergraduates lacking in family means or connections. Religious tests were relaxed and eventually abolished; the Anglican monopoly was eroded to permit religious pluralism. Consequently, there was a growth of secularism, even hostility to religion. The syllabus, which had been based almost exclusively on classical subjects, was opened up and made more practical. Modern history, law, and theology were added as separate subjects; the teaching of natural science gained particular prominence, with chemistry, physics, physiology, zoology, botany, and geology all being introduced, followed by astronomy and engineering. …

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