The Schools at Oxford

IN our description of rowing as its characteristic sport, the training of Oxford was presented on its physical side ; we now turn to the intellectual curriculum, and particularly that part of it embraced by the classical school. It must not be supposed, because they are not dealt with here, that mathematics and all kinds of science, modern history, law, and theology are not included in our studies. The classical school is justly that of which Oxford is most proud, and at the same time serves admirably as a type of all the others.

A university career is generally understood to last four years, and the degree is obtained after two examinations. It is possible to obtain it by taking a pass in both, honors in either with a pass in the other, or honors in both. In by far the greater number of cases one honor school at least is attempted, and scholars and exhibitioners as a matter of course take honors in both examinations. Let us begin with the boy fresh from school, —the “Fresher,” —and follow him through his career. To gain admittance to the university, an examination of some sort, either the Oxford and Cambridge local, or the “ Smalls ” held at Oxford, must be passed. But the colleges and the university are distinct. Our schoolboy has still to justify his entrance to his particular college by satisfying its authorities in an examination held by them, or by showing some equivalent. Once past the gate of matriculation, he necessarily assumes the status of either scholar or commoner. The scholar and exhibitioner is assisted by his college generally to the amount of about sixty or eighty pounds a year. He has usually won his scholarship or exhibition in open or more or less limited competition, and he has several privileges not enjoyed by the commoner, from whom he is distinguished outwardly by a different cut of gown. The fellows and scholars form the real nucleus of a college, and, supported by its endowments, they feel themselves bound to maintain by serious study its character for learning. Commoners, though ordinarily more numerous, are practically a sort of appendage. They receive no monetary assistance, and as a rule they are inferior to the scholars in ability and attainments. The lives of the average commoner and scholar differ considerably. The wealthier commoner has for his first object the social and athletic advantages of the university, while the scholar makes these subservient to his endeavor to win intellectual distinction for himself and his college. How the careers diverge may best be seen by taking a typical day in both cases. The scholar rises at 7.30, and perhaps he commits something to memory before his breakfast at 8.30; after which he glances over his newspaper, and is ready for lectures at ten o’clock. His less strenuous friend rises later, and thinks he has done well if he gets to work at eleven, and attends one or sometimes two lectures, to the scholar’s three. Both may be found lunching at one, and spending the afternoon till five in athletic and other pursuits ; but here again the roads divide. After a cup of tea the scholar keeps his room from five till seven, and buries himself in “ his books and his devotion ; ” while society claims the commoner, and long talk and much smoke and many calls to be paid bring him to seven o’clock and dinner in college hall. It is one of the reading man’s sorest trials, amidst all the social attractions of university life, to regard the mean, as Aristotle advises, in the matter of friends. In his words, “ perhaps then it is well not to endeavor to have very many friends:” the student must be μητϵ πoλúξϵlvos μήť ἅξϵlvos, and must cultivate the Emersonian ideal of using his friends, like his books, only when he wants them. Again, after dinner, the conviviality of the commoner is apt to be more protracted, and his hour for retiring somewhat later, than suits the scholar, who wraps himself in studious silence from nine till eleven.

Thus the two lives are contrasted, each perhaps attaining a legitimate end. It might be supposed that the commoner element would do by far the most for their colleges and university in athletics ; but this is not the case. The scholar’s day is more methodically divided : it has its regular times for reading, physical exercise, and social intercourse, and so he is to the fore in exercises like rowing which admit of regularity. Only here again he must carefully observe the mean, if his evening’s reading is not to degenerate into a dull and lethargic performance. If it is the mind that makes a man, it is the scholar who makes his university, and consequently our remarks henceforth will have reference more particularly to the career of the scholar.

On arriving at the university in October the Fresher sets his thoughts five terms ahead on his first public examination, called " Moderations,” in short “ Mods.” He is in residence for three terms of eight weeks each in the year, and the remaining twenty-eight he is his own master. To a stranger the time actually spent in college appears far too small, but in practice this division of time is found to answer very well. In term-time as much guidance as possible is obtained from tutors and lecturers, while the lectures taken down are expanded and digested in the leisurely quiet of the vacations. The short term is such a busy time that it is nearly impossible to keep pace with lecturers and tutors: large masses of text can best be read at home, where athletics and male society make fewer demands upon one’s energies. Mods, is a continuation of school work, and provides an excellent foundation in the study of language and literature for “ Greats.” It is calculated at once to impart a wide and accurate knowledge of classical literature, and to stimulate “ pure scholarship ” by criticism of style and text. Free reading for the sake of both style and matter and a real grasp of the spirit are encouraged by the setting of the whole of Homer, Virgil, Demosthenes, and Cicero as compulsory subjects. Besides these a candidate will offer three plays of Sophocles, Euripides, or Æschylus, three books of Thucydides or some historian, and perhaps Lucretius or Propertius and Catullus, and of these he will have a detailed and accurate knowledge both as to text and literary matter. Composition papers in Latin and Greek, both in prose and verse, and passages for translation at sight, together with a general paper (largely grammatical), help further to test the real scholar, while the principles of literary criticism are instilled by a, study of the Poetics of Aristotle or some portion of Quintilian. As a preparation for the final school the elements of deductive and inductive logic are also required.

It will thus be seen that, however well a boy may have been trained at school, his time may be amply occupied in preparing for Mods. during his first year and a half of residence at Oxford. The help he receives in this preparation is, briefly, as follows : A fellow of his college is assigned to each man personally, to supervise his work, control his reading, and advise him generally. This tutor will perhaps take his pupil in composition and allow him one hour a week, — as a rule not more, for tutors at Oxford are busy men. For his logic and the necessary help with his texts the scholar is probably sent to public lectures on stated subjects, and a list is drawn up at the beginning of each term and posted in public places, with lectures arranged to suit the candidates for the various schools. Each college contributes a number of lecturers. The choice of those to be attended devolves upon the tutor; and this is a matter of no small importance, for when time is short and the amount of work to be done large, a good lecturer can give much help, and a bad one do much harm. It is difficult to guide without actually doing the work, to stimulate without falling into one of the extremes of cramming or overburdening the pupil with irrelevant matter. The merits of the lecturing system seem to be little called in question. In fact, the mornings in term are spent in taking down at a good speed, almost verbatim, all the lecturer says. In a few cases the notes are copied out afresh the same day, so that the general drift can be caught and emphatic points duly noted ; but it is found to be hard to get through other work set for the week if this plan is pursued, and in the majority of cases the notes are left in the rough, and perhaps not consulted for two or three or even four terms after they are taken.

The feeling at the end of one’s career often is that, were the time given him again, he would go to far fewer lectures, keep up to date with those he did take, and try to arrange his matter more for himself.

Besides these lectures there are others of a more public character given by the various university professors. It has been the complaint that, do what they will to popularize their necessarily special subjects, the professors constantly get small audiences and receive little encouragement. But the reason is partly that their lectures are as a rule placed in the afternoons, the recognized time for gymnastic rather than mental work, and partly that the raison d’être of professors is not so much lecturing to others as themselves doing original work and representing the university before the world. Moreover, the proportion of undergraduate specialists is infinitesimal.

Wherever intellectual work is going on examinations are not far off, and from time to time the different colleges, with a view to making a respectable display in the class lists, stimulate their men with examinations and even donatives of books. The examination is held in the large public schools, each man at his own little table, with examiners watching closely. This process lasts about eight days, during which time candidates wear white ties, which effectively elicit the sympathies of all non-combatants. The Mods. list as a rule contains some forty names in the first class, about sixty in the second, and the same number in the third. Below this is a division called the “ gulf.” and still lower, like the frozen lake in Dante’s Inferno, is the region of “ ploughs : ” dejecti fundo volvuntur in imo.

The scholar, having obtained his first, and received our congratulations, sets to work with good heart for the second and more serious portion of his course, but with a dash of sour competitive feeling when he considers that out of the forty firsts in Mods. about twenty will fall into the second in Greats. However, the examination is yet far off, and the first year’s reading for Greats is very invigorating, for he finds himself able to give his time to subject matter, exercising his own judgment and intelligence without being arrested at every step by nice points of grammatical or textual criticism: largior hic œther. What is more calculated to excite curiosity and imagination than the first reading of Herodotus ? Reading, analyzing, and essay-writing are now the Scholar’s whole employment; the pen is seldom out of his hand. The spirit of research and systematization gradually grows upon him, and he is constantly coming upon vistas of possible specialization. But he must resist their Circean fascinations, and, like Æneas in Hades, toil up the hill to get a broad comparative view of all the great dead who have been pioneers in thought.

“Unde omnes longo ordine possit Adversos legere. ”

History, Greek and Roman, moral and mental philosophy, logic and the main outlines of its development from ancient to modern times, political philosophy and scholarship, — all these give a splendid comprehensive training. Memory, method, diligence, and enthusiasm must all be brought to the task, or the student would better not start at all on his seven-term undertaking. Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, and Plutarch in the original are a centre for the reading of Greek history, and from this radiate studies in Grote, Curtius, Schömann, and others. In Roman history, Plutarch, Sallust, Cicero’s letters, Suetonius, and the Annals of Tacitus form the ground ; Mommsen, Ihne, Boissier, and Merivale the superstructure. In moral philosophy, a thorough study of Plato’s Republic and Aristotle’s Ethics is the pivot on which his learning in the systems of Hobbes, Butler, Hume, Kant, Bentham, Mill, and Spencer is to turn.

The student follows the stream of logic through Aristotle, Bacon, Kant, and Mill, and of metaphysical speculation through Aristotle, Descartes, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, and Kant down to James and John Stuart Mill, Huxley, and Spencer. Lastly he sits at the feet of Aristotle for political philosophy, and imbibes the wisdom of Maine and Mill, Bagehot and Bryce, Austin and Walker. It needs no competition here to make a man feel that it would be sin to waste a single hour : the held is vast, the subjects are absorbing, and, in whatever class a man’s name finally appears, he recognizes that he has acquired a system and a method of thinking which are the most valuable equipment for life. How much in earnest undergraduates are may be seen from the fact that, apart from their ordinary formal work, they expend immense labor and research upon essays on philosophical, literary, and economic subjects which they read before their own literary societies. These societies consist chiefly of undergraduates, but tutors and fellows freely attend, either as members or guests, at the fortnightly or weekly meetings. A paper is read, a long debate follows, and in some cases it is made compulsory to speak at not less than half the meetings in each term. These institutions tend to make the intercourse between seniors and juniors free ; and though there exists no formal school of English and general literature, private and individual effort produces as much good work in that field as would result from any system of examinations. A cry has recently been raised that such a school should be instituted, but it is to be hoped that we shall not hand over to authority what can be more satisfactorily done by private enterprise.

Greats is held at the end of the summer term, early in June, beginning on Monday and ending on Saturday ; but though in point of time a shorter examination, owing to the nature of the subjects, it is a severer strain than Mods., and the paper work is not the end. Each candidate in turn is subjected to a thorough viva voce examination, so that if his written work has left the examiners in doubt as to his class he may turn the scale to his own advantage or disadvantage. Thus perhaps the scholar is kept in suspense till the end of July; then, summoned to Oxford, he undergoes the final ordeal, and in a few days is delighted to find his name placed in the first class of the final school of Literte Humaniores. At some convenient opportunity he pays his fees, takes his degree of B. A. before the vice-chancellor, and brings his undergraduate days to a close. To what " fresh woods and pastures new ” he now betakes himself concerns us not. He may stay at Oxford, as a fellow of his college and lecturer in his university ; he may go to teach in a public school, or to rise at the bar, in politics, or in the church. But, in whatever sphere, he carries with him through life the indelible stamp of his undergraduate days at Oxford. So short his four years seemed that he would be little inclined to sympathize with any such attempt to shorten the honors course as was made during the past year, in regard to which a few paragraphs here will not be out of place.

The advisability of granting the degree after three years was based on two main grounds : the demand for a fourth year devoted to special work, and a democratic desire to lessen the cost of university education. Under the first head it was urged that specialization inevitably increases, and that special knowledge and research have real claims upon us, though “ the Englishman is not by nature a researcher ; ” that therefore, in view of the facts of the time, it would be in the interest of Greats itself to make this concession of one year to specialization, and thereby divert attack from the characteristic Oxford school. Besides, there is an increasing desire to use the fourth year in preparing for a man’s particular career, as in the fierce struggle of professional life he can ill afford to waste a year. Compared with Cambridge, where the degree is taken in three years, after one examination, Oxford is at a disadvantage in the competition for Indian civil service appointments: it sends in its men fagged and jaded by Greats and with no particular preparation. The second head — the popularization of the education — speaks for itself. But it rested with those who wished to curtail the course to suggest some manner in which it could be done without lowering the present standard. Two methods were possible: one to retain the two examinations as at present, making the first earlier; the other, to return to the old system of one examination, to be held after three years instead of four. It was thought possible to shorten the time of preparation for Mods., because many said that the year and a half was generally spent in idleness or a mere repetition of work done at school; and, by means of the improved teaching of public schools and the increase of appliances, Literas Humaniores could be read in three years without the sacrifice of its generality or any of its valuable elements. If, it was said, there is to be an intermediate school, let it be more directly introductory to Greats. The Moderations school of scholarship is unnecessary. A university certificate of a working knowledge of Greek and Latin sufficient to teach a form in a school could be given in the first term. Of first classes in Mods., only the brilliant men are fit to be specialists ; all others would do well to drop their linguistic studies. The interest of the teacher, which is ultimately also that of the candidate, is adverse to Mods., because in lecturing he is constantly compelled to confine himself to the requirements of a school more elementary than the final One. The tendency is therefore to prevent him from being a genuine student.

The conservative answers to these proposals were that there is no demand on the part of undergraduates for a shortened course ; that the vast majority do not want, and are not fit, to specialize ; and that specialists are a small proportion among honor men. A shorter time before Mods. would deprive able but ill-trained men of any chance of competing with those who had been fortunate enough to get better school training. Idling might be prevented by reducing the number of set books, and making the amount of sight work larger. If the student were to read in masses, as at Cambridge, he would find the freedom stimulating and delightful, and for such a feasting in classical literature five terms would scarcely be found too long. The one-examination system is conducive to idleness and to the breaking up of the school of Literal Humaniores.

For, with the abolition of Mods., either scholarship must be provided for in the final school, to the detriment of ancient history and philosophy, or three coördinate schools must ultimately be established, and the student take his degree as a specialist in one. There would be few genuine students in the fourth year, as is proved by the fact that at Cambridge the average number of candidates during the last eight years for the second part of the tripos is eighteen, for the first part one hundred.

The conservative opinion seems to have prevailed ; at any rate, the curriculum for the present remains unchanged, and the tendency to specialism has not yet seriously begun to encroach upon an educational system which Plato and Comte would be at one in commending for its abstraction and generality.

S. E. Winbolt.