Front Page Titles (by Subject) 18.: The Universities  7 APRIL, 1826 - The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVI - Journals and Debating Speeches Part I
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18.: 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 on the Universities, spoken in 1826.” See No. 17 for the date and the likely relation between the two texts. As not published in Mill’s lifetime, not listed in his bibliography.
as i have not, like some of the gentlemen who preceded me, the advantage of a practical acquaintance with the system pursued at our Universities, I shall not enter into those minute details which I do not know, and which perhaps if known would conduce but little to a correct estimation of the general effect of the system. Happily this is not one of those questions of which no one but an eye-witness is qualified to be a judge. The system of our Universities must be very good indeed if we are obliged to look close in order to find the blemishes; and I will add, it must be very bad indeed if in defending it against attack its partisans can only say that certain of its minutiae are as good as could reasonably be expected.
In enquiring whether our Universities are or are not conducive to the ends of education we are trying them, I must observe, by a very hard test, and perhaps not altogether a fair one. It is fair to presume that the Universities are supported and eulogized, and that young men are sent there for some end, and it is possible that this end may be an extremely good one; and indeed I have no doubt of it as those institutions are the objects of such unceasing eulogy to loyal and pious persons, who to be sure can aim at no other than loyal and pious ends. But it is nevertheless possible that these ends may not be the ends of education after all, and that our Universities, though they may be something better than places of education, may not be places of education. But whether they are places of education or no, they are at any rate places where something is taught, or professed to be taught; and some, though I believe but a small proportion of the young men who are annually sent there, are sent in order that they may learn, or seem to learn. In common parlance, to have received a good education means to have been at one or other University. If to have been at the University be the end of education there is no doubt but that by going to the University that end may be most effectually attained. It is probable however that in the sense attached to the word education by the opener of this question,1 a young man would not be considered to have received a good education unless he had learned something though it were but to leap a five-barred gate. The question is, therefore, whether those who go to our Universities learn anything, and what they learn.
The only things which our Universities profess to teach are divinity, classics and mathematics. I lay this down broadly without fear of contradiction. The honourable opener has given us, it is true, a long list of lectures: he should rather have said lectureships. Lectureships there unquestionably are; lectures in many cases there are not: but suppose there were, what then, since nobody is obliged to attend them, obliged nor even encouraged, since if a man knew everything which these lectures or any other lectures in the world could teach him they would not give him so much as a Junior Optime2 nor even bring him the tenth part of a step nearer to the degree of Bachelor of Arts. The lectures then may be divided into two classes, lectures delivered and lectures not delivered. Those which are not delivered of course are not attended: those which are delivered anybody may attend if he choose, nobody unless he choose: that is to say, he can find instruction if he wants it, which is exactly what he could do anywhere else, with this difference, that in London or any other considerable place he would probably find much better lecturers and much better lectures.
Divinity, classics and mathematics may therefore be considered to be the substance of University education, as they are certainly the only studies that are either exacted or encouraged. Of these three I shall confine myself to the two last. The theological branch I do not propose to meddle with. It is sufficient for me that it has the approbation of the Church of England which is the only proper judge in these matters, and which must be presumed infallible, at least in its own sphere. The system moreover of theological instruction at our Universities is all bottomed upon the Thirty-nine Articles,3 a subject on which I should be extremely sorry to observe any scepticism, as I am informed that society would be in danger of dissolution if there were only thirty-eight, or if any one of the thirty-nine were altered from what it now is. Theology, however, is only for the clergy; at least it is only the clergy who are expected to study it. The remainder of the young men who receive what is called their education at Oxford or Cambridge, that is to say the future lawyers, physicians, surgeons, merchants, engineers, army and navy officers, and idlers, are fitted for their several occupations by the study of Greek, Latin and mathematics. It has been found out after some centuries that medicine, law, commerce, are not to be learned either in Euclid or Euripides, and that anybody who has anything to do, if he wants to learn how to do it, must begin his apprenticeship after he leaves college. There are therefore only two pleas set up for our University education; one is that however ill-calculated to be of use to those who have anything to do, it is extremely well-adapted to the wants of those who have not, and who are therefore called the higher classes. The other is that although it does not give to professional men the sort of knowledge which is peculiarly requisite for their several professions, it gives them a sort of knowledge which is of great use in forming their understandings, in purifying their taste and qualifying them to acquire any knowledge and pursue any studies with success.
In this last proposition I so far agree as to think that a certain knowledge of the Greek and Latin languages and of mathematics forms an important part of a liberal education, but not, in my opinion, the most important part; and I also maintain that the culture of these branches of knowledge, if exclusive and if carried to the length to which they are carried at our Universities, has a tendency much rather to pervert the understanding than to improve it.
I will begin with mathematics, and allowing that Euclid’s Elements, with something of algebra and enough of the properties of curve lines to understand the more common of their practical applications, should form part of every good education. I think it will be allowed that here is no more than may be acquired by any boy of ordinary capacity by the age of fourteen. If we suppose, as we reasonably may, that his time has been profitably spent up to that age, the question is whether a young man who is to pursue any profession, or even a young man of no profession who does not mean to devote his life to the cultivation of the mathematical sciences, can derive any advantage from pushing these studies farther commensurate to the labour that it will cost. Practical utility the higher branches of mathematics have none, unless in so far as they may lead to new discoveries in physical science, and these are made by the philosopher who devotes his life to such pursuits, not by the man who learns mathematics as a branch of general education.
We are told, indeed very frequently, that mathematics teach men to reason; and truly they do, but it is to reason on mathematics and nothing more. The truth is that mathematical evidence and moral evidence are so entirely distinct from one another that they are to be judged of by rules altogether different, and the man who is most familiar with the one may be a mere child in the other. Nor is this less the case with physical science. Both in the moral sciences and in the physical errors arise from two causes, incorrect observation and ambiguities of language. To neither of these errors is the mathematician less liable than the common man. He has not learned to observe, for his science is not a science of observation. He has not acquired the faculty of detecting ambiguities of language since all his terms being exactly defined that faculty has never been called into exercise. It is not however his only disadvantage that his mathematics have not been to him a logic, that sort of logic which is of use in common affairs. He is not simply on a level with the ordinary man, he is below him. When he might have been acquiring the knowledge that he needs he has been acquiring that which he needs not. That time and labour which might have made him a reasoner have been spent in making him a mathematician, and while he has been studying x’s and y’s, others have been studying names and things; they have been learning to observe by observing and to reason well by examining bad reasons as well as good. When it is said, however, that the young men either at Cambridge or elsewhere learn to reason by learning mathematics we are to understand, I suppose, that this is when mathematics are so learned as to bring the reasoning faculty into play. Now this is certainly not the case at Cambridge. It is universally known that the mathematical attainments to which the honours of that University, from the senior wranglership downwards, are directed, are very little more than exercises of memory. One man laboriously gets up 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 do the same process over and over with fresh materials; so can a journeyman carpenter; and in repeating in problem after problem the same series of operations he need know no more of the general principles of his science than the journeyman carpenter need know of his. A man utterly ignorant of mathematics would be as likely to make a new discovery in that science as a senior wrangler who is but a senior wrangler: and 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 mathematics have been the Euler’s, the Lagrange’s and the Laplace’s. In our own country the few men who have raised us to the little position of mathematical fame which we enjoy have, since the time of Newton, almost without exception been educated in Scotland.4
But after all, if the utility of the higher branches of mathematics as a branch of education, and the excellence of the mode in which they are taught at Cambridge were ever so unquestionable, how much of mathematics is really learned at that University, learned I do not mean by the few who take honours, but by the many who take their degree of B.A. and their degree of A.M. and go forth to the world stamped with the mark of Alma Mater’s approbation as men who have learned all which she thinks it necessary that a well-educated man should know? I put the question plainly; do the majority of these men know anything of mathematics beyond what they can cram in the last month or six weeks of the three and a quarter years which they have passed in making believe to learn mathematics at Cambridge? Let any advocate of the University of Cambridge as an institution of education answer this question if he can, and let him not cavil at a quadratic equation more or less, but let him at once answer whether a boy at ten would not richly deserve the birch if after six months real, not sham, teaching, he did not know more of mathematics than an average bachelor of arts.
[1 ]Octavius Greene, not otherwise identified, though possibly the author of The Pass of Bonholme and Other Verses (London: printed Cox, 1831).
[2 ]The third degree of honour in the Mathematical Tripos at Cambridge, after the Wranglers and Senior Optimes.
[3 ]The articles of faith of the Church of England, found in the Book of Common Prayer.
[4 ]See No. 17, n3.