Front Page Titles (by Subject) 17.: The Universities  7 APRIL, 1826 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVI - Journals and Debating Speeches Part I
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17.: The Universities  7 APRIL, 1826 - John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVI - Journals and Debating Speeches Part I 
The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVI - Journals and Debating Speeches Part I, ed. John M. Robson (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1988).
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The Universities 
Typescript, Fabian Society. Headed: “Speech, the latter part of which was spoken at the London Debating Society in the Spring of 1826.” The only relevant debate listed in the Laws and Transactions is the eighth, on 7 April, “That the System pursued at our Universities is adapted to the Ends of Education,” proposed and opened by Octavius Greene; Mill spoke fifth in the negative, which carried the debate 24 to 13. It seems likely that No. 18 replaced the early part of this speech, with the “latter part” of this speech (perhaps from 352.9) providing the conclusion. As not published in Mill’s lifetime, not listed in his bibliography.
the system of education at our Universities has been so ably criticised by former speakers that I should perhaps better consult my credit as well as my ease if I were to remain this evening a silent listener. Among the many topics, however, which the question embraces there is one which has not received in this debate that measure of attention which is its due. Although the deficiencies of the University scheme of education have been exposed with no unsparing hand, the examination has almost entirely confined itself to effects; it has not extended itself to causes. We have been left without any explanation of the extraordinary fact that while in other countries public education has generally been on a level with the actual state of the human mind, has grown with its growth and expanded with its expansion, in this country it has remained far behind, and instead of going hand in hand with civilisation has not even condescended to follow. It will perhaps be found that if our institutions of education have not answered the purposes of education it was because they never had those purposes in view, and that this great public trust has been ill-executed for the same reason for which public trusts in general are so ill-executed, because it has been confided to persons who have no interest in executing it well.
Our Universities may be regarded for all practical purposes as ecclesiastical establishments, and education in so far as it depends upon those institutions may be considered as being in the hands of the clergy. To this circumstance more than to any other I am inclined to attribute the defectiveness of our University education considered as a means to those ends which I have been accustomed to consider as the ends of education. Without professing (for I do not feel) any hostility to the established clergy, nor insinuating that their conduct is different from what that of any other men would be in their situation, it appears to me that there are circumstances in that situation which render them peculiarly unfit to have the direction of the national education in their hands.
The most important quality of the human intellect is its progressiveness, its tendency to improvement. That there is such a tendency in man is certain. It is this which constitutes his superiority among animated beings. If mankind were to be judged merely by what they are and not by what they are capable of becoming, we should not perhaps have so much reason to be proud of the comparison with a well-educated horse or dog as we are fond of imagining. It is evident then that one of the grand objects of a really good education would be to promote to the utmost this spirit of progression, to inspire an ardent desire of improvement, and that a mode of education which does not encourage this disposition is radically defective, much more if it does anything to check it. It is also evident that if there be a body of men who have made a solemn renunciation of the attribute of progressiveness for themselves they are not likely to exert themselves with much spirit for the promotion of that attribute in others. This, however, is what every clergyman does by entering into the established church. As far as regards religious opinions he engages to remain stationary, to preserve the purity of the established faith against any modification, whether for the better or for the worse, and experience has shown that he who has taken a resolution to remain inaccessible to conviction on this most important of all subjects generally becomes so on all others. Now a body of men who do not improve are necessarily the bitter enemies of all who do.
That my meaning may not be mistaken I will observe that the hostility to improvement which I have imputed to the clergy does not by any means belong to them as clergy; it arises merely from their incorporation. A clergyman, that is to say a teacher of religion, is not as such necessarily an enemy to improvement more than any other teacher, and it would be extremely unfair and unjust to bring such an accusation against him. But any teacher of any science would be an enemy to improvement if he had made a vow never to improve, if he had bound himself never to yield to conviction, never to adopt any new discoveries to which the progress of the human mind might give birth, but to continue always teaching the same doctrines to the end of his days. I only ask that what would be true of any other sort of teachers may be supposed true of the clergy. Their business, the business for which they are paid, is not to make the human mind advance but so far as religious opinions are concerned to keep it where it is.
If there were a corporate body of physicians, or a corporate body of engineers paid by the state, rewarded with honours and wealth, on this condition, that they should always teach a certain set of doctrines in physic or mechanics, it cannot be doubted that such a body would be interested in preventing improvement. Happily this is not the case. Neither the physician nor the engineer is bound down to a particular set of opinions in their respective sciences; the clergyman is. Wherever there is a hierarchy, wherever there is such a thing as church government, adherence to certain tenets is the condition on which he holds both his emoluments and his power. If there be not only a hierarchy but a hierarchy connected with the ruling powers in the state, it becomes the interest of its members to uphold certain political as well as religious opinions, and to uphold them whether they are right or wrong.
Now I might say that it would be a considerable stretch of arrogance in mankind to suppose that they had already reached the pinnacle of knowledge either in religion or politics; that it is highly probable that there is still room for improvement in both, and that if our old opinions on these subjects were thoroughly investigated the investigation might not terminate favourably to them all. If this be the case it is easy to see how strong would be the interest of the established clergy in resisting improvement, since the effect of improvement would be to leave them behind and deprive them of a part of their consideration. I shall not however choose to rest my case upon any argument which implies that it is possible for an established opinion to be wrong. I will suppose that every teacher of the established religion, and every political doctrine which the church, as connected with the government, is interested in inculcating will stand the test of the most rigorous examination. It is not the less true that in the progress of human improvement every one of these opinions comes to be questioned. The good of mankind requires that it should be so. The very idea of progressiveness implies the questioning of all established opinions. The human intellect is only in its right state when everything that is believed is believed on evidence. This supposes enquiry. The interest of the established clergy requires that the established opinions should be believed, but it does not require that they should be believed upon evidence. Now our experience of human nature justifies us in affirming that whatever is done by a body of men is done in the way which promises to give least trouble. The least troublesome way of making people believe is to make them believe upon trust, and not upon evidence. If the minds of men could be brought into such a state that they would believe all established opinions merely because they were established, the end would be attained in the easiest possible way. That love of ease therefore which is the characteristic of an established clergy is of itself sufficient to make them enemies to all enquiry, to improvement, to progression.
It is now evident what are the habits of mind which if an established clergy are entrusted with the business of education they are sure to inculcate. The grand desideratum is to produce a confirmed habit of taking opinions upon trust; in other words, of believing without evidence, of blindly acquiescing in all reigning opinions and regarding it as impious to call for the proof of them. For this purpose it is necessary to divert the attention of the pupils from all studies calculated to strengthen their intellects or render them capable of thinking for themselves. It will therefore be a grand object to provide them with other occupation, occupation of such a kind that while they are doing nothing useful they may flatter themselves that they are doing something. The exercises upon which they will be put will not be such as shall accustom the mind to weigh evidence, or shall infuse any originality or vigour of thought, or soundness of judgment. They will either be mere exercises of memory or will be directed towards the acquiring of a sort of acuteness and dexterity about trifles, that the most active minds may still find something to engage them which shall neither shake their faith in any established opinion nor turn their attention to any one subject which is of importance to mankind.
That the whole scope of the Cambridge and Oxford education conforms as nearly to these ends as the occasional infirmity of human purposes will allow remains to be shown. It will not be a difficult task.
The only things which are taught at our Universities, except divinity, are classics and mathematics. At Oxford indeed ethics and rhetoric are studied in Aristotle,1 with a very little of the school logic, which by the way they learn in Aldrich,2 one of the worst books of logic extant. In classics, besides the technicalities of the language, all that they do is to get up certain authors, that is, to learn very accurately what these authors have said so as to be able to answer any questions. They are never once called upon to exercise their judgment either upon the matter or manner of a work; they are merely taught to say it as they would say their catechism. And this is the way in which Aristotle’s Ethics and Rhetoric are learned. As for mathematics, it is a great mistake to suppose that it is learned at Cambridge. If a man chooses to learn it, Cambridge will reward him. But the quantity of mathematics which it is necessary to know in order to obtain a degree is no more than what a boy of fourteen of ordinary capacity may easily learn in six months. And even the mathematical attainments to which the honours of that University, from the senior wranglership downwards, are appropriated are very little more than exercises of memory. One man laboriously crams his head with the demonstrations and calculations which another has invented, and when he has done this his attainments stop. His greatest stretch of intellect is to be dexterous in the application of certain technical rules. He can repeat the same process over and over with fresh materials; so can a journeyman carpenter; and in going over the same series of operations in problem after problem he need know no more of the general principles of his science than the journeyman carpenter need know of his. As for discoveries, everybody knows whether or not it is from the senior wranglers that they come. I believe in point of fact there is scarcely an instance of a senior wrangler who has contributed anything worth speaking of to the improvement of his own science. The men who during the last century have improved the science of mathematics have been the Eulers, the Lagranges and the Laplaces. From the time of Newton downwards our mathematical reputation has been declining, and the few men who have prevented it from sinking into utter contempt have almost without exception been educated in Scotland.3
It may however be thought that in studying the classics even as they are studied at our Universities, it is difficult not to imbibe some liberality of sentiment and some valuable information. So one would think, and if our Universities had not existed it would probably to this day have remained a problem whether it was possible for great bodies of young men to study the classics in such a manner as not to derive one particle of advantage from them. Our Universities however have so nearly succeeded in this attempt that the possibility of the thing is now placed beyond the reach of doubt. So far indeed as regards Aristotle’s Rhetoric and Ethics it must be confessed that although nobody is required, or even encouraged, to read them with any profit, there is nothing to hinder him from doing so if he be so disposed; and so far as this goes Oxford is one degree above the zero of Cambridge. Of Plato there are, I suspect, very few persons at either place who have ever heard: certain it is that he is never read, which as he is a highly instructive author is not at all surprising. As for the orators, I believe there have been a few instances of late years at Oxford in which an undergraduate has chosen to be examined in Demosthenes. Whether or not Cicero is read I am not informed. Remain the poets and the historians. Of these the poets, being the least useful, are the most cultivated, and as the dramatists are hardly of any use at all it may easily be conceived with what ardour they are studied. The historical works, particularly those of the Greek historians, possessing in themselves some natural aptitude for being useful, the end would not have been attained if pains had not been taken to neutralise whatever useful impressions those writings might, if left to themselves, have been calculated to produce. For this end a happy resource presented itself. An English antidote to the Greek poison—Mitford’s History of Greece4 —a work in which, together with everything that is slavish in principle, everything that is false in fact with regard to the history of Greece, is unremittingly inculcated; a work the reputation of which is a national disgrace, a standing proof of our utter ignorance of Greek literature, since we have given credit for accuracy and research to a man whose research has never extended beyond the common circle of authors, and who if making any assertion that suits his purpose were accuracy, would possess that attribute in an unrivalled degree. I am informed that this work is one of those which are most frequently put into the hands of the younger members of the University by the older as a corrective to the mistakes into which they would be liable to fall if left to interpret the Greek historians by the mere light of unassisted human reason.
It is true that at Oxford an undergraduate may choose the authors in whose works he will stand an examination. True, but by the time he thinks of taking his degree he has breathed the University air long enough to know what sort of attainments are there prized. He knows that at Oxford a scholar means a man who is familiar with Aeschylus and Euripedes,5 and that even a little of these authors will bring him nearer to a degree than a great deal of many more instructive writers. Meanwhile he is told, and perhaps believes as a speculative truth, that he is at liberty to choose his authors, while he looks round and sees that those above him who have gone through the University with most éclat have been chiefly eminent for their proficiency in choruses, and that the crack men who are quoted as the great ornaments of the University in this line are the men who have put their names in the title page of a Greek play. It is indeed a remarkable fact, and strikingly illustrative of the nature of what our Universities cultivate and call Greek literature, that those who have amended the text or furnished critical annotations on the philosophers, the orators, and even the historians, or who have done anything towards helping us to understand them, have almost every man of them been Germans. But then we have the Hecuba and the Agamemnon, and the Prometheus Vinctus,6 and we fancy that we have found out the metre of some of the Choruses in Sophocles,7 and for this we are indebted to our Universities. We are unrivalled in these attainments, and so jealous am I of our national fame that I sincerely hope we may ever continue so.
Such is the mode of education at our Universities. Whether it is well adapted to the ends of education it is for the Society to judge. History presents us with one other example of an ecclesistical corporation which has had the education of a great nation in its hands: I mean the Jesuits. The mode of education under the Jesuits very much resembled that of our Universities. They taught a little mathematics, a little of the school logic, a little of belles lettres, and some Greek and Latin: the poetry of these languages was what they chiefly cultivated, and the reason is given in an admirable passage of a celebrated work, the Lettres Juives.8 They knew that a man might read the ancient poets all his life and not have one idea the more, nor the capacity of acquiring one; but the minds which had been strengthened by the study of the orators and philosophers were likely to push their enquiries into subjects with which it suited the Jesuits much better that they should not meddle.
[1 ]The Nicomachean Ethics and The “Art” of Rhetoric, studied in Greek.
[2 ]See No. 6, n17.
[3 ]Mill presumably has in mind John Playfair (1748-1819), who was educated at St. Andrews and lectured at Edinburgh; Robert Simson (1687-1768), who was educated and lectured at Glasgow; Matthew Stewart (1717-85), who was educated at Glasgow and Edinburgh and lectured at the latter; and John West, who was educated and lectured at St. Andrews. Mill had studied works by them in his early years, indeed when he was “a boy of fourteen.”
[4 ]William Mitford (1744-1827), The History of Greece (1784-1818), 10 vols. (London: Cadell and Davies, 1818-20).
[5 ]The Greek playwright (ca. 485-407 ).
[6 ]Euripides’ Hecuba had been edited by Richard Porson (London: Wilkie, 1802); Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and Prometheus Vinctus had both been edited by Charles James Blomfield (Cambridge: Typis Academicis, 1818 and 1810, respectively).
[7 ]The third of the great Greek tragedians (ca. 496-406 ). Mill may be referring to Edward Burton (1794-1836), An Introduction to the Metres of the Greek Tragedians (Oxford: Pearson, 1821), which reached a 3rd ed. in 1826.
[8 ]Jean Baptiste de Boyer, marquis d’Argens (1704-71), Lettres juives, ou Correspondance philosophique historique et critique, entre un juif voyageur à Paris et ses correspondans en divers endroits (1736-37), new ed., 8 vols. (The Hague: Paupie, 1754), Vol. VII, pp. 181-2 (lettre cxciii).