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The Ninnyversity?

Scholars and Gentlemen: Universities and Society in Pre-Industrial Britain, 1500-1700

by H.F. Kearney
Cornell, 214 pp., $6.75

The Puritan Revolution and Educational Thought

by R.L. Greaves
Rutgers, 188 pp., $7.50

Education and Jobs: The Great Training Robbery

by Ivan Berg
Praeger, 222 pp., $7.50

La Reproduction: Eléments pour une Théorie du Système d’Enseignement

by P. Bourdieu, by J.C. Passeron
Editions de Minuit (Paris), 279 pp., 20F


Like education itself, the history of education is in a bad way today, having been left far too long in the hands of professional educators. Too many educational historians write either stupefyingly boring books about educational theory, or else pious hagiographies of individual schools or universities, without reference to the larger society or even the educational system of which they are a part, and with a careful glossing over of discreditable events and persons. There is therefore every reason to welcome a book by a professional historian of established reputation, which deals with the relationship of universities to society in the English-speaking world over 200 years from 1500 to 1700, with a postscript on the nineteenth century.

Professor Kearney examines the social and political role of the universities, the intellectual content of the curriculum, and the relationship of the one to the other. He ties up all the social and intellectual threads, and provides an explanation of how the university fitted into contemporary society and contemporary culture and how it acted and reacted upon them. This is therefore an important book which is likely to be widely read and to serve as a model for fresh work in the rapidly expanding field of educational history. Apart from Professor Bernard Bailyn’s brilliant essay on American education,1 it is the only work I know which tries so comprehensively to link what went on in the university to the society in which it was embedded. It is essential, therefore, to find out what the book says, and whether or not its premises, methods, and conclusions provide a sound basis upon which to build in the future.

What was the purpose of the English university in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries? Its medieval function had been to serve as a professional training school. Its alumni moved on to the civil and common law, and into the higher ranks of the clergy, for which a degree in canon law was becoming increasingly desirable for those aspiring for promotion. Of those who left the university without a degree, many became parish priests. Since the curriculum was exclusively scholastic and legal, the upper-class elite tended to steer clear of the universities, which had little or nothing to offer them unless they were seeking a career in the Church. The students therefore came from fairly humble homes. Some of them were cooped up in colleges for secular or monastic clergy, but the majority lived free and unregulated lives as members of loose-knit communities known as Halls.

During the Reformation this medieval university disappeared with startling suddenness. The monastic colleges were suppressed when the monasteries were dissolved, and the Halls also mostly disappeared. A considerable number of new colleges were founded, of which the two novel features were that the students now included a large number of gentry pursuing a secular career and that a strict discipline was imposed upon them, enforced by high walls, a hierarchical constitution, and severe penalties for disobedience, even including—mirabile dictu—corporal punishment. The old freewheeling life of the medieval student came to an end.

The last stage of this institutional tightening up was to come in the 1570s at Cambridge and the 1630s at Oxford, when new university statutes radically changed the distribution of political power: the final voice in decision-making was removed from the old participatory democracy of the junior faculty and given to a narrow oligarchy of heads of colleges. The growth of order and hierarchy in Tudor society and politics generally was thus closely paralleled by the growth of order and hierarchy in the universities.

As the Reformation crisis deepened, the state decided that what went on in the universities was too important to be left to the academics, and it began to interfere directly and vigorously. Since the stock-in-trade of intellectuals is ideas, they inevitably find themselves subjected to severe pressure from all sides at times of political and religious crisis, whereas in quieter times, when economic interests tend to dominate, they are left more or less in peace. The faculty of a university is always largely composed of conservative and unimaginative men, only too anxious to steer their course according to the established rules, but it usually also contains a sprinkling of people whose product is intellectual innovation. At times like the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries such men are closely watched to make sure that the ideas they produce are congenial to the authority of the day.

Furthermore, faculty members were important in another way, since they had charge both of the future opinion-makers and propagandists—the clergy—and also of the secular power elite in what is supposed to be their most impressionable years. And so the dons of the sixteenth century were subjected to considerable pressure from the state to ensure their religious and political conformity. Through the powerful influence of the chancellor of the university, who was always a leading political figure, and through the expanding patronage system of the Court, the English government increasingly interfered in the election of Headships of Houses, Fellowships, and Scholarships by letters of recommendation, lobbying, and even threats.

Two huge and wealthy royal establishments, Trinity at Cambridge and Christ Church at Oxford, gave the Crown a powerful patronage lever within the universities, which was further aided by the creation of Regius Professorships in subjects which the Crown was anxious to foster. This multiple invasion of the university by the state during the late sixteenth century was even more far-reaching in its consequences than the second invasion, in order to promote science and scientists, in the late twentieth century.

Into this new institutional structure there poured a rising flood of students drawn from two social groups. The first was a lower-middle-class element, sons of traders, shopkeepers, yeomen, husbandmen, and superior artisans, who were often financed by scholarships or by menial service around the college. We assume—though it has yet to be proved—that many, if not most, of these men were aiming at a degree and a career as a clergyman in the new Anglican Church. Now that the laity were making wholly unprecedented demands for an educated and responsible clergy, a university degree was becoming more and more desirable, even for a parish priest. Another occupation open to a low-born graduate was as schoolmaster to teach literacy and Latin grammar to the growing number of children whose parents were willing to pay for such things.

The second major and rapidly increasing element in the student body was the sons of the lay elite from nobles to gentry, who now for the first time in history sent their sons to the university for two or three years, although mostly with no intention of taking a degree. What these men hoped to get out of their stay at the university is not entirely clear, but it certainly included a sound grounding in rhetoric, the Latin classics, and the Bible. From the university they would move on to the Inns of Court to pick up some common law, and perhaps later still to the Grand Tour in order to acquire social polish, languages, and an experience of the world.

As a result of this huge influx of gentry, the universities found themselves playing a dual role: training about half the student body toward an examination and a degree with a view to a professional career, and giving to the other half what they thought they needed before assuming their hereditary places among the ruling elite. This dual function should be familiar enough to us today since it has been normal for Oxbridge and the Ivy League between the middle of the nineteenth century and the middle of the twentieth.

These organizational and social changes in the university are adumbrated by Professor Kearney, but not worked out with any great clarity or detail. What interests him most is the hitherto unsolved problem of what it was the students studied. The education of the clergy remained a prime function of the university, but just what they and the newly arrived gentry were to be taught was a matter upon which the dons received a good deal of contradictory advice: from the secular Humanists to teach the classics, especially Cicero; from the Christian Humanists to combine the classics with biblical studies and ethics; from the Puritans to teach the Bible and Calvinist biblical commentaries; from the academic conservatives to stick to scholasticism and Aristotle; from the scientific innovators to teach Baconian pragmatism; and from the social reformers to give the upper classes a “useful” education in modern European languages, literature, politics, and history.

The most important change that can be clearly documented was that the teaching of canon law was positively forbidden by the state soon after the Reformation, thus abolishing at a stroke one of the main functions of the universities in the Middle Ages, the training of canon lawyers. The accidental result was to give the Inns of Court in London a clear monopoly of all legal education in the country. To find out what actually happened apart from this, we have to seek such enlightenment as we can get from the few surviving guides to students and the many student notebooks which Professor Kearney is the first scholar to have unearthed.

According to him, the mid-sixteenth century sees a clash of two Humanisms. The first, which he labels “Court Humanism,” demanded a close study of the classics in order to strengthen the gentry’s loyalty to the state and to the established doctrines. This flourished in the 1530s to the 1550s, to be replaced by “Country Humanism,” which stressed godliness and virtue over learning and which laid greater stress on biblical studies and history. The Elizabethan period saw the introduction into Cambridge, although hardly at all into Oxford, of Ramism, a sort of plain man’s logic with which to assail both the linguistic and grammatical obsessions of the Humanists and the slavish pedantry of the Aristotelians.

Ramism stressed content rather than form, but it became associated with religious radicalism—quite how is not clear—and was therefore effectively suppressed, both in England and in Scotland, around the turn of the century. In the 1590s there developed a strong reaction back to medieval scholasticism, which Professor Kearney sees as part of a general conservative trend in the early seventeenth century.

Professor Kearney admits that in the revolutionary decades of the 1640s and 1650s Baconianism had a brief vogue among a minority of dons, but he argues that in educational practice nothing much changed at the universities. Even the scientific leaders themselves believed that science had no place in an undergraduate curriculum. Seth Ward, the future historian of the Royal Society, asked bluntly, “Which of the Nobility and Gentry desire when they send their sons hither that they should be set to Chymistry or Agriculture or Mechanicks?”

Which indeed! In any case, the ruling class was hastily falling back by then on traditional scholasticism as a bulwark against the socially subversive ideas of the extremist sectaries. On both sides of the Atlantic universities were coming under attack from the sects, which denounced the “Ninnyversity” as the spawning ground of a tight professional class of ministers, lawyers, and doctors who were incapable of speaking plainly and clearly to the people, and who used their learning to protect and further their own selfish interests. But the dons and the members of the professions fought off this assault with the aid of the lay power—John Winthrop in Massachusetts and Oliver Cromwell in England—and the old curriculum survived virtually intact.

  1. 1

    B. Bailyn, Education in the Forming of American Society, Williamsburg, 1960.

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