The following passages come from Crook's Brasenose: The Biography of an Oxford College (2008) — George P. Landow

The Undergraduate Curriculum

Extraordinary, really: post-medieval Oxford, prior to 1850, taugnt little or nothing in the way of law, or medicine, modern languages, or even theology. There was some mathematics, a little physics, a very little chemistry, and of course a touch of divinity. But the bulk of college teaching scarcely spread beyond a conventional range of Greek and Latin texts, plus a smattering of ancient history, logic, and philosophy. And this in the university of Locke and Butler.31 As for higher degrees, these had atrophied over the years into little more than relics of the medieval Faculty system. Oxford education in the 1840s may have been liberal, but it was also very limited. A whole spectrum of subjects—what Halford Vaughan neady termed 'delightful gymnastics of the mind'— had been effectively excluded from the University curriculum. The emancipation of the sciences—that is their examination in a separate School, independent of the classical curriculum—arrived only in 1849; law and modern history followed with their own School in 1850, though their separation had to wait until 1872. [210]

Pedagogy at one eighteenth-century Oxford college

So there it is, mid-Georgian pedagogy at Brasenose: daily tutorial classes, regular lectures and disputations; weekly themes; termly declamations. The framework of tuition was there, albeit narrowly tied to Greek, Latin, and mathematics. But in practice the system seems to have atrophied into ritual. The emphasis is on verbal facility. But the exercises are mostly formulaic; rote learning and memory work, with small scope for development and little sense of competition. Crucially, there was no notion of verifiable standards: curriculum-based final examinations had yet to emerge. The medieval system of disputation—Opponent versus Respondent in the Examination Schools — had degenerated into a charade performed with proctorial connivance and the use of syllogistical cribs. What was once a serious trial of wits had declined into nothing more than a ceremony. [117; emphasis added]

Poor performance; attempts at improvement

Between 1839 and 1848 an average of only 92 candidates from all colleges achieved classical Honours, as against an average of 115 for the years 1831—8. As for Honours in mathematics and physics, the numbers by mid-century were very small: only 20, for example, in 1846. Some colleges provided no mathematical instruction whatsoever. Brasenose was unusual in starting to take the subject seriously: there were seven Firsts in maths during the 1840s, more than any other college. But there must still have been a good deal of time wasting. After 1850, therefore, the system was tightened up. Responsions—known since their introduction in 1808 as 'Little Go': they included simple mathematics as well as one Greek and one Latin author— were brought forward from the 6th/9th term to the 3rd/7th term; a new Intermediate Examination—compulsory classical Mods.—was instituted; and Final Examinations or 'Great Go' were revised to include a syllabus for both Pass and Honours degrees, the Honours section linking compulsory Lit. Hum. papers with alternative programmes in mathematics, natural science, and law and modern history. That was certainly a heavy burden, and it had to be eased in 1865 and 1871 by making optional the taking of a second Final School, first for Honours men and then for Pass candidates. But one key change, which would transform the undergraduate intake, had yet to be accepted: a matriculation examination, taken prior to admission. . . . . And the question of broadening, or reviving, the range of subjects studied had scarcely begun to be tackled. [209]

Related Material


Crook, Joseph Mordaunt. Brasenose: The Biography of an Oxford College. Oxford University Press, 2008. [review by George P. Landow]

Last modified 3 October 2012