In transcribing the following chapter from the Internet Archive online version, I have s=corrected scanning errors, added images and inks, and divided paragraphs for easier reading — George P. Landow .

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he last chapter of University history covers a period within living memory, and practically coextensive with Reign of Queen Victoria. Its main interest Victoria cousists in the rapid succession of theological controversies which have agitated the academical mind, and in the series of internal reforms dating from 1850. Both of these subjects have been separately considered, but it still remains to review briefly the strange transformation wrought in the various aspects of University life within the lifetime of the present generation, not so much by external interference as by the natural growth of new social conditions.

On the accession of Queen Victoria the college-system was already established on its present basis, and state of the effective University examinations had put an on the end to the licensed idleness of the eighteenth ceutury. But the University and the colleges were still governed respectively by antiquated codes of statutes, which it would have been no less disastrous than impossible to enforce strictly, but from which, as we have seen, it required the intervention of the Legislature to release them. Though a considerable number of able students destined for the Bar were attracted by scholarships and the prospect of fellowships, Oxford was still mainly a clerical and aristocratic seminary, exercising a very slight influence on the scientific or commercial world, and little affected by their fashions. Until it was connected with the metropolis by railway, it retained the distinctive character of a provincial town, and many eccentric recluses of a type now obsolete were still to be found in college rooms, who had never entered a London club or drawing-room. The whole authority of the University was, in fact, exerted to keep the railway at a distance, and the Oxford branch was not opened before June 12, 1844.

Though Oxford was much frequented by visitors in the summer term, not without injury to continuity of study, its atmosphere was still essentially academical, if not scholastic, and the conversation as wxll as the social tone of its residents, both graduates and undergraduates, differed sensibly from those of their contemporaries in the metropolis and elsewhere. Oxford Dons had not altogether lost the traditional characteristics of their class; the model Oxford first-class man, assuming to have mastered classical literature, Greek philosophy, and ancient history, which he regarded as the staple of human knowledge, was accused of exhibiting the pride of intellect in its purest form; young priests of the new 'Oxford School' assuredly carried sacerdotal presumption to its logical extreme; and the chartered libertinism of 'fast men' in one or two Oxford colleges sometimes brought scandal on the whole University. No doubt the habits of Oxford 'collegians fifty years ago would have compared favourably with those of their grandfathers, still more with those of the squalid but industrious students who begged their way to the University in the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, hard drinking and its concomitant vices were by no means obsolete, even in common-rooms, and though undergraduates cultivated the manners of young gentlemen, their ordinary moral code was probably but little above that which then prevailed in the army and the navy.

Side by side, however, with the self-indulgent circles of undergraduate society, there was a limited set deeply impressed by the ascetic teaching of the Neo-Catholic school, whose practical influence on its disciples resembled in many respects that of the Evangelical school at Cambridge, however different in its theological basis. The prevailing narrowness and intensity of theological opinion was perhaps favoured by the narrowness of the University curriculum. Classics and mathematics re- tained a monopoly of studies; few wasted time on modern languages, history, or natural science ; while music and art in all its aspects were regarded by most as feminine accomlishments.

Since professors were very scarce, and tutors (being fellows) were unable to marry, family life and social intercourse with ladies had no place in an University career. The members of each college associated comparatively little with 'out-college men,' in the absence of clubs, debating societies, and other bonds of non-collegiate union. Rowing and cricket were vigorously cultivated by young men from the great public schools, and hunting was carried on, especially by noblemen and gentlemen-commoners, with a lordly disregard of economy; but for the mass of students there was no great choice of games and recreations, at least in the winter. Those who did not aspire to Honours, being the great majority, had no occasion to read hard, and often lived for amusement only, since there was an interval of full two years between Responsions and 'the Schools,' unbroken by any examination. Those who read for Honours generally read with a steadiness and singleness of purpose incompatible with much attention to any other pursuit. Various as these elements were, they were readily assimilated by the University, which seldom failed to leave a distinctive stamp upon one who had passed through it, and Oxford culture retained a peculiar flavour of its own.

In the course of the last fifty years, a profound though almost unseen change has gradually passed over Influence of the face of the old University. The introduction of representative government into the academical constitution has not only cleared away many abuses, but has at once popularised and centralised University administration. The recognition of Unattached Students has broken down the monopoly of colleges. the abolition of close fellowships has infused new blood and new ideas into the more backward collegiate bodies; the spontaneous development of numerous clubs and associations— athletic, literary, or political— has created many new ties among under- graduates, and weakened the old exclusive spirit of college partisansliip. The 'Combined Lecture System,' under which the inmates of one college may receive instruction in another, has also favoured a division of labour among tutors which is directly conducive to specialism in teaching.

The great extension of the professoriate, including the new order of University Readers, and still more the liberal encouragement of new studies, has infinitely expanded the intellectual interests both of teachers and of students; the admission of Nonconformists and the progress of free thought have powerfully modified theological bigotry; the multiplication of feminine influences has undermined the ideal of semi-monastic seclusion, and greatly increased the innocent aesthetic distractions which are the most formidable rivals of the austerer Muses.

The gulf between Oxford society and the great world outside, never very impassable, has been effectually bridged over in every direction. A very large proportion of professors and college tutors have travelled widely; many are well known in London as contributors to scientific and literary periodicals or otherwise; while Oxford itself is constantly thronged with visitors from the metropolis. In ceasing to be clerical and aristocratic, the University has become far more cosmopolitan; all religions are there mingled harmoniously, nor is it uncommon to meet in the streets young men of Oriental race and complexion wearing academical costume.

In the meantime, a marked and widespread reformation has been wrought in the morals of the University, Present and notwithstanding the influx of a large plebeian element, the manners of undergraduates have become gentler as their tastes have become more refined. The ostentation of wealth has been visibly diminished, and, notwithstanding the increase of amusements, there is probably more of plain living and high thinking in modern Oxford than in the Oxford of Charles II. or Elizabeth. The University, it is true, has yet to harmonise many conflicting elements, which mar the symmetry of its constitution; but it is becoming more and more identified with the highest intellectual aspirations of the nation as a whole In ceasing to be the intellectual stronghold of the mediaeval Church, or the instrument of Tudor statecraft, or the chosen training-school for the Anglican clergy, it may have lost something of its ancient supremacy, but it has asserted its national character; and it has perhaps never exercised a more widespread control over the national mind than it possesses in these latter years of the nineteenth century. [205-22]

Links to Related Material


Brodrick, George C. A History of the University of Oxford. New York, A. D. F. Randolph & company, 1887. Internet Archive online version of a copy in the University of California Library. Web. 10 December 2022.

Last modified 10 December 2022