Front Page Titles (by Subject) MATTHEW ARNOLD ON THE LONDON UNIVERSITY. ( Fortnightly Review, June, 1868.) - The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 7 (Economic Studies and Essays)
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MATTHEW ARNOLD ON THE LONDON UNIVERSITY. ( Fortnightly Review, June, 1868.) - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 7 (Economic Studies and Essays) 
The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, ed. Mrs. Russell Barrington. The Works in Nine Volumes. The Life in One Volume. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1915). Vol. 7.
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MATTHEW ARNOLD ON THE LONDON UNIVERSITY.
Mr. Arnold is not only a very interesting writer, but a very bold writer. He has the courage to despise points of form, and to disregard the unconscious expectations which the title of a book naturally begets. In an official Report, presented to the School Commissioners upon “Schools and Universities on the Continent,” no one would have expected to find an able criticism of the “London University”. But whether in strictness this criticism be quite in place or not, everyone attached to that University will be most glad to have it, as it is one of the acutest which has ever appeared, and the most favourable perhaps that an Oxford man, and attached to Oxford, has ever written. Oxford breeds people who hate her, and these have been favourable to London; but Mr. Arnold loves Oxford, and when he praises a University utterly unlike it, it is an effect of conviction, not a freak of ill-temper. Yet I cannot say that I think Mr. Arnold understands the conditions under which the University of London acts; as is natural, he knows simply nothing of her internal history; he is altogether blind to the latent causes which stop her action. If I were to write on Oxford I should doubtless use what the great Oxford teacher calls “unreal words”—words which would show I had not in my mind a vivid image of the facts; I should not like to say so much of Mr. Arnold—he has studied the University of London far too well; still there are shades and touches which he does not know.
Mr. Arnold is bolder, too, than a mere critic ever can be; he proposes or imagines, at least, a scheme of reform. He sketches a great future of what the University of London might be, and seems half to wonder that those who rule it do not at once create that future. I have but a few pages before me, but I should like shortly to bring out—what is the great truth which Mr. Arnold so finely inculcates, and, on the other hand, what are the impediments to instant action which those who know the ground and have tried to move where he directs feel at every step.
The charm of Mr. Arnold’s language is so exquisite that it is always painful to translate his meaning into other words, and happily the following passage puts his conception of the University and his plan for it very plainly. After speaking of the defects of Oxford and Cambridge, after calling them hauts lycées (“finishing schools for the upper classes,” as poor Clough used to put it), he then continues:—
“The University of London labours under a yet graver defect as an organ of scientific or superior instruction. It is a mere collegium, or board, of examiners. It gives no instruction at all, but it examines in the different lines of study, and gives degrees in them. It has real University examinations, which Oxford and Cambridge have not; and these examinations are conducted by an independent board, and not by college tutors. This is excellent; but nevertheless it falls immensely short of what is needed. The idea of a University is, as I have already said, that of an institution not only offering to young men facilities for graduating in that line of study to which their aptitudes direct them, but offering to them, also, facilities for following that line of study systematically, under first-rate instruction. This second function is of incalculable importance; of far greater importance, even, than the first. It is impossible to overvalue the importance to a young man of being brought in contact with a first-rate teacher of his matter of study, and of getting from him a clear notion of what the systematic study of it means. Such instruction is so far from being yet organised in this country, that it even requires a gifted student to feel the want of it; and such a student must go to Paris, or Heidelberg, or Berlin, because England cannot give him what he wants. Some do go; an admirable English mathematician who did not, told me that he should never recover the loss of the two years which after his degree he wasted without fit instruction at an English University, when he ought to have been under superior instruction, for which the present University course in England makes no provision. I dare say he will recover it, for a man of genius counts no worthy effort too hard; but who can estimate the loss to the mental training and intellectual habits of the country, from an absence—so complete that it needs genius to be sensible of it, and costs genius an effort to repair it—of all regular public provision for the scientific study and teaching of any branch of knowledge?”
And again, a little further on:—“The University of London should be re-cast and faculties formed in connection with it, in order to give some public voice and place to superior instruction in the richest capital of the world; and for this purpose the strangely devised and anomalous organisations of King’s College and University College should be turned to account, and co-ordered, as the French say, with the University of London. Contributions from Oxford and Cambridge, and new appointments, might supply what was wanting to fill the faculties, which in London, the capital of the country, should, as at Paris or Berlin, be very strong. London would then really have, what it has not at present, a University.” No one can deny that this is a noble conception; if half of it only could be once accomplished, the University of London would be not only one of the first, but by far the first University in Great Britain. By virtue of its position it could effect more, and secure that what it did should be seen better than any other. London, skilfully picked, would yield a set of professors that no English city would rival; and their teaching would fall on an audience that cannot be equalled in the whole world for number, variety, and, if I may so say, curiously-invested intelligence. But yet I could find plenty of men, and those the best friends of the London University, and those to whom she is indebted most, who would discard at once this plan of Mr. Arnold’s as Utopian, visionary, and absurd; who would say “the University of London is only an examining body, can be only an examining body, shall be only an examining body.”
Every generation is unjust to the preceding generation; it respects its distant ancestors, but it thinks its fathers were “quite wrong”. And this revolt of nature is a principal propelling force, and a power in civilisation; for, without it, some set of strong men, consistently acting for a few generations, would soon stereotype the world. Yet this tendency is as unamiable as it is unfair, or even more unamiable. We enter into the fresh riches our fathers made for us, and at once we begin to say they are not the right sort; we enjoy and we grumble. We live in the house, and we say, “If I had been the builder, that corner would not have stood out; if I could have had my way, the stairs would have been of oak; and how very obstinate my father always was about the smoke in the kitchen!” But we forget very likely that we are of a weaker force and more inefficient mind, and that, if we had had to build, probably there would have been no house at all. Just so with the London University. We, who were educated at it, grumble at much of it. I at least have often done so, and have often heard others. But yet I know well how much the founders of the University have done; how difficult in their case was every sort of success; how easy every sort of failure. If some of us who criticise had had the founding of the University, I fear it would not have lasted till this time.
Thirty years ago it was a great step to establish an independent and examining University. That improvement was a purely English idea, but like so many English ideas, it existed only in solution; it was there, but it was hidden. Just as the English are the inventors of Cabinet government—of government by a committee of Parliament which can dissolve Parliament, and just as we have hidden away this masterpiece of polity under an historical growth of King, Lords, and Commons, and a pompous theory of three branches—just so we invented a testing University—a University distinct from the studies whose effects it verified. I fancy we came upon the idea by chance. The University of Oxford, for example, had ceased either to examine or instruct. Adam Smith, a Scotch Balliol scholar, tells us that when he was there the University had given up even “the pretence of teaching”. “The examination at Oxford,” said Lord Eldon, “was a farce in my time. I was only asked who founded University College, and I said—though, by the way, the fact is very doubtful—King Alfred.” Possibly the Tory Chancellor exaggerated a little, but still he is an excellent witness against Oxford. At the nadir of that University, it neither examined nor taught. Then some strong men revived the College teaching. When the Scotch reviewers attacked Oxford, Coppleston was able to show that Oriel College taught better than any school in Scotland. Then improvers tried to amend the University, but there was no longer any room for its tuition; there was better tuition already; so they revived the examining function, and suggested the new idea of a central verifying body surrounded and aided by many instructing bodies. Historical nations, I apprehend, mostly come upon their improvements in some such way as this. A miscellaneous débris of old things has come down to them, and, without much thinking, they pick out of the heap the particular bit that looks best for the particular matter in hand. The inestimable gain of historical nations is, that they inherit this mixed mass of materials; and their countervailing disadvantage is that the accumulation of old débris hides the shape of the work, and that they have no plain intelligible theory to bequeath to common nations which must build de novo.
At any rate, when the London University started, the notion of a University which did not teach those whom it tested, was very strange. Even when I was a Student, some years later, the outer world did not understand it; there are many to whom the knowledge has not penetrated yet. Even Mr. Arnold, though he recognises the full value of the idea—though he sees that the London University carries it into practice more thoroughly than Oxford or Cambridge, (where, though the colleges as such, do not regulate the examination, yet members of the colleges—college tutors—do regulate it, because they are the examiners);—even Mr. Arnold has a vestige of puzzle on the matter. He knows that the foreign Professors from whom he is fresh, do not understand a University without tuition, and he dares not tell them that a graduating machine, as Lord Brougham used to say, not preparing for degrees, and therefore conferring them without favour and without the suspicion of favour, is an English creation of the first magnitude.
I acknowledge that there is an excuse for him. He says that a University should “provide facilities for following that line of study systematically, and under first-rate instruction”. I should rather say a perfect University would possess an attendant apparatus for such instruction—would be surrounded by sufficient colleges. You cannot “have it both ways”; you cannot obtain an article without paying its price. If you want a University which is trusted without suspicion to decide on the results of tuition, because it has no share in tuition, you must not let it begin to interfere in tuition. But it might retain effectual satellites—those “anomalous bodies, University College and King’s College,” which give, and were affiliated because they give, appropriate instruction. Years ago many of us contended that no degree should be given by the University of London save to persons trained in, and so to say, vouched for by such colleges; and I still maintain that for “Plato’s Republic” such would be the ideal conception. There is no falser notion than Carlyle’s that the true University of the present day is a “great collection of books”. No University can be perfect which does not set a young man face to face with great teachers. Mathematics in part may teach themselves, may be learned at least by a person of great aptitude and at great cost of toil from written treatises; but true literature is still largely a tradition, it does not go straight on like mathematics, and if a learner is to find it for himself in a big library, he will be grey-headed before his work is nearly over. And besides “character forms itself in the stream of the world”—by the impact of mind on mind. There are few impacts so effectual as that of ardent student upon ardent student, or as that of mature teacher upon immature student. I concede to Mr. Arnold that a perfect University would be attended by appropriate colleges for teaching its students, and would grant its full degrees to no one not so educated. But in the London University we could not attain this, though we tried. Some of the very strongest among its founders thought the collegiate system an English superstition, and believed that examinations were enough alone. And also there was the great difficulty that good colleges cannot be found all over England; that it would have long retarded the work of the University to confine its examinations to the very few colleges that would be worthy the name; that almost at the outset many bodies that were only high schools had been affiliated—that many others quite equal were asking to be recognised, and could not be refused except by an invidious and unjust distinction. In the London University the collegiate system had not a chance, for there were far too few good colleges, much too many schools claiming to be colleges which were not, and a senate which did not believe in colleges.
But though Mr. Arnold would do harm if he persuaded the University of London to descend into the arena and become one of the trainers of the students it examines, though he could not find suitable colleges scattered over England to give effectual instruction, yet I think he has hold of a great idea, which ought to be separated from the less valuable elements with which he has mixed it. I believe that it is a misconception to regard a University as having but two possible duties—that of examining students, and that of instructing those students; I believe it has a third duty—a duty to the world. Mr. Arnold gives some outline of the history of the French Universities; he goes back to times when France was the metropolis of European learning in the same sense that Germany has been lately; he tells us of the great times of the University of Paris. “Hither,” he says, “repaired the students of other countries and other universities, as to the main centre of mediæval science, and the most authoritative school of mediæval teaching. It received names expressing the most enthusiastic devotion; the fountain of knowledge, the tree of life, the candlestick of the house of the Lord. ‘The most famous University of Paris, the place at this time and long before whither the English, and mostly the Oxonians, resorted,’ says Wood. Tandem fiat hic velut Parisiis . . . . . ad instar Parisiensis studii . . . . . quemadmodum in Parisiensi studio . . . . . says the rules of the University of Vienna, founded in 1365. Here came Roger Bacon, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and Dante; here studied the founder of the first university of the Empire, Charles IV., Emperor of Germany and King of Bohemia, founder of the University of Prague; here Henry II. in the twelfth century proposed to refer his dispute with Backet; here, in the fourteenth, the schism in the papacy and the claims of the rival Popes were brought for judgment.” And this account implies what everything confirms, that Universities in their first age not only taught and examined young students, but influenced society at large, gave lectures which broke up adult thought, diffused ideas which interfered with fixed creeds, and which were felt as powers even by those who disagreed with them. The Universities in that age had a social function as well as a national function; they influenced the whole grown-up society besides teaching particular young students.
This is what I understand certain reformers to mean when they ask that the University of London should be made a seat of learning. Professor Seeley, one of the most skilful of living writers, says:—“With our present habits of thought, it is not very easy for us to conceive a real University. We understand competition; that means fighting. We understand trying for fellowships; that means money-making. But the University proper has no connection with either of these intelligible things; it is neither an almshouse of pensioners, nor a cockpit of competition, but a seat of learning.” If I interpret aright, Mr. Seeley means that a University ought to have about it a set of men who live in the still air of science and learning, who are to influence their age, who are to make, if they can, some kind of impression, not upon “the masses,” for that would be absurd, but the augmenting number of cultivated and half-cultivated people.
I believe that there never was a time in English history when there was such an appetite for knowledge. The visible success of physical science has awakened a sort of craving to know about nature which nothing before ever resembled. That sort of knowledge has been tested by “results,” and no one can impugn the answer which they give. Railways, telegraphs, steamships, are so many “marks,” which count for much in the perpetual examination of knowledge by the world. Years ago, when Lord Bacon wrote the Advancement of Learning, it was not very easy to find a sharp conclusive proof that any difficult knowledge was good. The obvious pursuits, as contemporary languages, reading, writing, speak for themselves, and want no advocate. But when the claim of any hard, settled study came to be set forth, the case was laboured, and the effect of its exposition, though conclusive to the best minds, was very dubious upon all others. But now there is, at least, one kind of very hard knowledge which works its own way, needs no pushing, makes every one admit that some one ought to know it, and makes most people wish that they themselves knew it. And the definite fame of this so to say advertised knowledge extends into other and distant regions. All other modern sciences, such as geology or ethnology, which have no plain influence on visible machines, nor palpable effect on indisputable results, share the repute of the more effectual sciences. The method is the same; the evidence, to those who know it, of like character. And to the world at large “science” is one entity; it is the force which sends quick messages, which makes fast trains, which helps ships to sail safely. All the world wants to know about science; there is an irritable accumulated curiosity in us and about us, such as history never saw equalled.
All branches of knowledge share in this curiosity more or less. There is a sort of feeling that we do not know where we stand in things, and that we ought to know; that the “modern spirit” rules or questions most things without knowing how far it denies them and how far it confirms them—at least without knowing it broadly. Modern science is indisputably developing a new temper of mind; something which as a diffused mental habit the ancients had not, the Middle Ages had not, till now modern times had not. An instinct of revision is felt to be abroad in human opinion, of which thinking men want to know the direction, and wish, if they could, to see the end. There is a dissatisfaction with old beliefs, a difficulty in finding satisfying new beliefs, which engenders a passion for true teaching.
There is another co-operating force. Now-a-days mankind are thrown into big cities where they have little to do; where they are loosely connected with, and see very little of each other; where they want something on which to employ their minds. Formerly people lived in country towns, where there was a sort of impact of mind on mind—a perpetual contention and reaction—a formative process, though often a violent and barbarous one. In a small town with a few streets and a common life, every one knew every one, and every one acted upon every one. But among the ninety families who live in the ninety similar houses in New Street, Hyde Park, not five know one another. And most of them know no one else well; a certain dull distance pervades everything; occupied men know that they have a “visiting list,” but they would come to grief if Mr. Lowe examined them on its contents. A new vacancy of mind is created by new habits which seeks for occupation, and would be very grateful for good occupation. The sort of success which such lectures as those of the Royal Institution at present have show the wonderful appetite there is for such teaching. If the London University could give anything like it, it would give it with greater prestige, greater authority, and, I think, greater attractiveness. People would be attracted by the very authority; they would come there because they knew that the teaching in its kind was first-rate, (whatever, which might often be arguable, was the intrinsic and ineradicable defect of that kind). And a University would be free from the sort of taint which every other lecturing body must have. It would have no wish, it need be thought to have no wish, to be overpopular; it would choose really learned professors, really sound professors, and would wish them to teach thorough thought.
I suppose the Oxford professoriat has now something like the function I mean. Its functions are not to the students before examination, but to grown-up men after examination. I apprehend that Mr. Arnold’s lectures on poetry had no part or share in the studies of Oxford undergraduates; they prepared men for no examinations; they competed with no college which did prepare them. They were careful “studies” addressed to thoughtful men already educated; they would have been fit for no other audience. I could not find an instance to describe my notion more exactly. I wish to see at the London University many accomplished men addressing high-class lectures to high-class hearers.
But though I have exceeded my limits, I must point out (or I should be unfair) two practical difficulties which Mr. Arnold cannot be expected to divine, but which those nearer well know. Several “movements” have in truth been made in this direction, though no substantial result has been attained—no actual lecture has ever been given; but by means of this experience the dangers in the path are known.
First. There is a great dread of losing the place which the University has gained. It is now admitted to be an impartial judge of teaching, because it does not itself teach,—but if it began to teach, even though the teaching were of a different species, and were addressed to the “after-degree” world, the University might begin to be suspected. On paper this danger may not seem so extreme as it is; but in practice the difficulty of distinguishing the teachings is great, and those who created the University dislike, as by an apprehensive instinct, everything which might undo their work or impair it. I doubt if the present Senate would be willing administrators of a professorial plan, and the conception is so delicate that it would fail if those who were entrusted with it did not believe in it.
Secondly. There is the most dangerous of all difficulties—a religious difficulty. The University of London is now supported by all religious bodies—by orthodox Dissenters, by Unitarians, by Roman Catholics, by English Churchmen. The dryness and limitation of its work is a great help in gaining that support; it lessens the number of disputable decisions—it precludes a theatrical prominence in any decision. But yet this combined support by antagonistic bodies has not been gained easily. Years of cautious and conscientious management have been necessary to gain it—so delicate is education, and so scrupulous men’s temper. But if impressive lectures were delivered at the University by conspicuous lecturers, the difficulty would be enhanced tenfold. There might be much in many lectures which many would object to; very often there would be something which some would object to. Gradually it might, and no doubt would, come to be comprehended that the contents of these lectures were not certified to be true by the University; that the University only put forward the lecturer as a man of eminence in science or learning who was worth attention. And in time it would be seen, too, that these superior lectures had nothing to do with the common University work; that the examination system went on apart from and independently of them; that all persons might derive exactly all the advantages they now derive from the examinations, after these lectures were established, and though they might disapprove of some of the lectures. But the task would be nice, success hard, failure easy, and infinite caution would be wanted in the beginning.
These brief remarks on a great subject will explain, I think, why I cannot accept for the London University Mr. Arnold’s plan exactly as he puts it and conceives it, but why, also, I believe there is an analogous work which some one must soon undertake in London, which ought at once to be undertaken, and which the University would have singular, and perhaps unequalled, advantages for doing well.