Attractive and Nonsensical Classics:
Oxford, Cambridge and elsewhere

Christopher Stray

Oxford vs Cambridge: a topic so clichéd that one hesitates even to mention it. Yet beneath the froth of cliché there is a serious topic, and one to which a book could usefully be devoted. In such a book, the contrast between the ways in which classics has been studied in the two places would surely merit, if not a chapter, at least a section. Its epigraph would doubtless be taken from Housman's inaugural lecture as Professor of Latin at Cambridge in 1911. Referring to the second and third quarters of the previous century, Housman remarked that 'Cambridge scholarship simply meant scholarship with no nonsense about it; Oxford scholarship embodied one of those erroneous tendences against which I take up my parable today.' He went on to say that 'Scholarship ... is not literary criticism; and of the duties of a Latin Chair literary criticism forms no part'.[1] These were the words of a man familiar with the scholarly output of both universities, and who had had opportunity to observe both from a neutral standpoint since his election to the chair of Latin at UCL in 1892. Yet Housman was hardly neutral himself, having failed in Greats: he had followed a Cantabrigian furrow in a foreign field, and was ploughed for his pains.

Housman was neither the first nor the last to suffer in this way. Charles Badham, one of his scholarly heroes, had done only a little better, gaining a third in Greats and ending up in exile, first as a Birmingham headmaster, later as a professor of classics in Sydney. Well after Housman's time, public schoolboys went up to Oxford after a decade of immersion in Greek and Latin - reading, translating, repetition, composition - to find more of the same in Mods. But Greats plunged them into alien fields - notably, into the convoluted world of Oxford philosophy. Charles Stevens went up to New College in 1922, armed with a scholarship and a thorough grounding in classics at Winchester. He gained a first in Mods, but plunged to a third in Greats; a disaster which blighted the rest of his life. His philosophy tutor was H. W. B. Joseph, notorious for his long silences and for spending an hour dissecting the first sentence of an essay. The Oxford analytical style may well have destroyed Stevens' confidence in his own abilities; the scepticism it brought with it probably undercut the conventional Anglicanism he had learned in home and school. In later life, he turned to a kind of animistic pantheism.[2] Stevens' story cannot be taken as representative; I mention it because it is documented, and to make the point that styles of scholarship are not just patterns in glass bead game. Different styles of work make a difference both to scholarship and to those who practise it; conflicts and discontinuities, as in Stevens' case, can be disastrous.

Housman's pronouncement is interesting not just for what he said, but for the way in which he said it. The contrast he paints is not of two legitimate alternatives, but of sense and nonsense. The Cambridge scholarship exemplified in the writing of Kennedy, Munro and Mayor is presented as a kind of classics degree zero. Housman was of course speaking to a Cambridge audience on a heavily charged symbolic occasion, and speaking as a Cantabrigian soul redeemed from an earlier bondage amid alien corn. But what he said resonates, as he would have known, with a local tradition of self-description. Cambridge classical scholarship had been described by its practitioners as 'pure' or 'definite' scholarship; by sympathetic critics as 'masculine and narrow'. What this meant, roughly, was that it focused on the texts of ancient authors, studying them as linguistic, not literary corpuses. It sought an understanding of their different styles through intensive reading, translation and composition. These practices were thought to promote intellectual discipline, in a way which literary criticism or historical analysis could not. This definition residualised modern discussion in favour of the study of the imperishable ancients. Attempts in the 1850s to introduce recent works on Greek history into the syllabus were denounced in some local quarters as the pollution of a well of eternal value by transient opinions. The attitude of the conservatives is summed up in the title of a polemical pamphlet issued by Richard Shilleto in 1851 attacking the sixth volume of Grote's History of Greece.

Shilleto's pamphlet, Thucydides or Grote?, was motivated by more than scholarly concern. As he admitted in his opening remarks, he spoke as an avowed conservative, in opposition to one who was happy to declare his republican sympathies. Grote's attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of Cleon was thus doubly repulsive to Shilleto: it questioned the impartiality of Thucydides, and looked favourably on a demagogue. I choose 'repulsive' deliberately: Shilleto's reaction carried a strong emotional charge. Similarly, 'pure scholarship' not only denoted an identifiable, linguistically-focused style of work; it also connoted an essence to which scholars might cling and from which they gained a sense of exemplary value. Parallels are not hard to find. The association of language with romantic nationalism has imbued the study of modern vernaculars with powerful emotional overtones. A more fruitful parallel, perhaps, lies in the conservative defences of grammatical learning within natural language areas. Here too, as Deborah Cameron has documented in her book Verbal Hygiene [3], notions of identity and selfhood are at stake. The erosion of grammatical knowledge symbolises the pollution of a constitutive cultural resource.

The Cambridge style I have described was not peculiar to classics. We gain a glimpse of it in action in an account written in 1847 by William Johnson (later Cory), then teaching at Eton, of a visit from his undergraduate contemporary Henry Maine. Johnson and Maine had become friends after the latter went up to Cambridge five years earlier. Johnson wrote that during Maine's three-day visit, 'We talked for some twenty-four hours nett ... He and I went through several hard subjects in the old Cambridge way, in that method of minute comparison of opinions, without argument which I believe to be peculiar to the small intellectual aristocracy of Cambridge'.[4] Maine and Johnson had been undergraduates in the 1840s, when the Classical Tripos was open only to those who had passed the final mathematical examinations at a high level. Success in the Mathematical Tripos was the pinnacle of academic achievement in Cambridge, a university as much dominated by mathematics as Oxford was by classics. As Johnson's remarks suggest, the mindset induced by the Mathematical Tripos's demand for hardnosed, fast problem-solving had become generalised, to become the 'Cambridge way' to which he referred. He called it the old way not because he was looking back to his student days, which were only recently past, but because the domination of Cambridge student life by mathematical study and thinking had been established for over a century. Soon after he wrote, however, the situation began to change. In the early 1850s the Classical Tripos was set free from the maths requirement (the 'Classical Emancipation', as J.B. Mayor of St Johns put it),and new subjects were introduced. Mathematics itself changed, becoming more professionalised; in an expanding world of specialisms, no one subject had the critical mass to generate a mindset across the whole curriculum.

The content of classics itself changed rather little in the 1840s and '50s. In 1849 a solitary paper in ancient history was added to the Tripos examination, but it seems not to have taken very seriously. In the '60s a debate on the curriculum was initiated by two Trinity fellows, William Clark and Robert Burn, and this led to the insertion of questions on philosophy and philology. Some of their colleagues, however were unhappy with what they saw as the dilution of the grand old Cambridge curriculum. To them, any broadening of range pointed toward the Oxford model of classics. This had, for them, two especially noticeable features. First, it was 'philosophical' rather than 'philological'. Second, to the extent that ancient literary texts were studied, they were taken as set books, rather than as part of an overall linguistic corpus. Set books could be learned off by heart, whereas unseen translation challenged the learner's mastery of a wide variety of styles and vocabulary.

How much did such arguments owe to information, and how much to mutual stereotyping? There were certainly plenty of ways in which information could be exchanged. In some cases, brothers went one to one place, another to the other,and then compared notes. This is the case, for example, with Charles and Christopher Wordsworth, nephews of the poet, in the 1820s; Arthur and Henry Sidgwick in the 1850s; Cecil and James Headlam in the 1880s. Then there were the joint dining clubs like the Ad Eundem and the Arcades, set up to link members of the two universities. Finally, some men moved from one place to the other, like the archaeologist Percy Gardner, who went from a Cambridge to an Oxford chair. All these mechanisms facilitated mutual learning - as did the railway line. Henry Jackson, who succeeded Richard Jebb as professor of Greek at Cambridge in 1906, belonged to the Ad Eundem club. In 1913 he responded to a comment from a friend that Gilbert Murray was a 'very attractive person' by saying that 'Oxford is very successful in breeding "attractive" scholars: more so than Cambridge. And this is not surprising. For we dare not talk our shop in a mixed company, and even in a scholars' party we are very conscious of our limitations as specialists'.[5]

The contrast is very clear, between a high-profile scholarship integrated in general culture and social performance, and a more retiring and specialised mode of work. But it also reminds us that comparison is complicated by interaction between different institutions. This is just as true when we look beyond Oxbridge to the other universities. The Scottish universities had their own separate tradition, in which students entered earlier and studied widely in philosophy in their first year. The civic universities might be seen as linkd to Oxbridge by their reaction to it, especially in their concern for industrial technology. But in fact their civic pride was also entangled with cultural deference. Some took their first principals from Oxbridge, and these in turn activated the old-boy network to fill chairs in the humanities. A university, a proper university, had to have a classics department. This rule applied still in the 1950s, when Keele was founded, largely under Oxonian influence. Only with the plate-glass wave of the 1960s was it challenged. Kent, a self-consciously Oxford-style institution, had a department; York looked instead to the Leavisite tradition and made English the linch-pin of its humanities curriculum.

This process of colonisation had of course operated more widely. The founding professors of the new Australian universities of the 1850s came from the British Isles, but the exemplars chosen varied. If Sydney opted to follow the Oxbridge model, Melbourne was influenced by Belfast, where classics had an established but not dominant place. In Melbourne the development of the classical teaching was affected by a running battle between the professoriate, who saw classics as one subject among many, and the local magnates who dominated the university council. For them, classics symbolised cultural and social status: it showed the world that their rough young society belonged to the sphere of European civilisation.

Three English examples not so far mentioned make a striking contrast with one another. The new University of London, founded by Broughan and his allies in 1826, was planned as something very different from Oxford and Cambridge. Its models lay north, in Scotland, and west, in Jefferson's new University of Virginia. It was a secular university with a wide range of subjects. The secondary school founded within it in 1830 had a rickety start, but two years later was taken over, as joint headmasters, by the professors of Latin and Greek, Thomas Key and Henry Malden. The school was a reversed image of the conventional public school: there were no compulsory subjects, no corporal punishment, no chapel and no playing field. In the classical teaching, though the rules of metre were taught, there was no verse composition;and this feature obtained also in the degree courses. In the late 1830s Alexander Gooden, who went from UCL to Cambridge, complained in his letters home at the heavy emphasis placed on compositional skill. (He managed to overcome his disadvantage,and ended up as Senior Classic in 1840.) King's College was founded as an Anglican counterblast to the 'godless college' in 1828; its curriculum emphasised literature, where language was central at its rival. Several of the professors at UCL (as the university became in 1836) were Cambridge men, and one might describe the foundation of Kings as an Oxonian response to Cantabrigian liberalism. The University of Durham was formed in much the same mould as King's, though it was like Oxbridge a collegiate institution. King's was a metropolitan college, and like UCL appealed the the urban middle classes. It seems to have aimed at the social stratum below that which predominated at Oxbridge, and this may have had something to do with its development of English literature as an important element in the humanities curriculum. The linkage between class and curriculum became evident in the 1840s, when the King's model was described as 'an English, or middle-class education'.

The overall picture of university classical curricula in the 19th century is thus one of a cultural market in which a number of different pressures operated. Local or regional pride might encourage curricular distinctness (as with Scottish resistance to 'Anglicisation');[6] more often, one sees a deferential imitation of the Oxbridge model. Chairs of Latin and Greek went with the classical orders of the new town hall as symbolic identifiers of membership in the world of culture. The Oxbridge model was not however monolithic. If Greats provided the dominant exemplar of what classics might be, the lower-profile, narrower rigour of the Cambridge Tripos constituted a powerful alternative. It also enshrined, especially after its reorganisation at the end of the 1870s, the principle of advanced specialisation. This became embedded in the curricula of the civic universities: Latin and Greek, rather than Classics.

The subsequent history of this field has been influenced by a variety of factors. Declining and changing demand has prompted strategic repackaging. The merger of Latin and Greek chairs into a chair of Classics, which at one time might be seen to reflect the victory of the Oxford model, is more likely to stem from a peceived need to make cuts. At one time some municipal universities had reliable local student intakes which may have encouraged curriculum variation. Now the national market, modularisation and the apparently irresistible rise of the audit culture encourage homogeneity. Oxford and Cambridge, once the twin peaks of conventional dominance, take on a tinge of deviance - wild cards in an increasingly standardised pack.

Which brings us back to Housman's contrast. If he was right, why was it that the two universities' styles of classical scholarship had converged by the end of the third quarter of the 19th century? Some tentative answers can be offered. The first is that both were subject to the influence of German scholarship. Yet each place responded actively, and in different ways. While Cambridge absorbed the research ideal, it was defended in Oxford by a vocal minority against the continuing power of the collegiate tradition. Secondly, the broadening of the Cambridge curriculum between 1850 and 1870, which I mentioned above, can be seen as a shift toward the Oxford pattern. Yet the specialised Part II courses set up in the late '70s had no parallel with what went on in Greats. The literature section (compulsory until 1895) stood in striking contrast with the Oxonian exclusion of literature in favour of history and philosophy. Similarly, the new archaeology section, taught by the young Charles Waldstein, was unlike anything in the other university. The philosophy section's teaching was dominated by the Trinity dons Henry Jackson and Richard Archer-Hind. Jackson's work on Plato stood in an embedded Trinity tradition which began with Julius Hare and continued with his own teacher W.H. Thompson; the next generation was to be represented by F.M. Cornford. But this was a very different style from that of Jowett and Green: there was no Hegelianism and no agenda of social reform. Thirdly, by the time he wrote his inaugural in 1911, a series of scholarly journals had been established: the Proceedings (1872) of the Cambridge Philological Society (1868); JHS (1880); CR (1887), CQ (1907) and JRS (1911). Between them they helped to establish classics as an academic field which transcended specific institutional styles. (A parallel case is perhaps Gildersleeve's American Journal of Philology (1880), which, like other journals founded in that period at Johns Hopkins, was explicitly aimed at servicing a national population of scholars, rather than being confined to its own parent institution.)[7]

It could be argued that the present century has seen a further covergence. The importation of Oxford scholars in the 1950s, notably Denys Page, led to the introduction of set books into the Cambridge Tripos. Greats has been more resistant to change: it took the radical shakeup of the 1960s to bring literature into the syllabus. Both Gilbert Murray and Eric Dodds, successive Regius Professors of Greek, tried in vain to effect changes. It was hardly surprising that Kenneth Dover, who also had a reform programme, refused the chair when offered it. In that case, alma mater did not receive back her own. More often, the two ancient universities have recruited from their own alumni; and this has presumably been a powerful pressure for the reproduction of the kind of institutional styles I have been discussing. We are now witnessing the impact of a whole range of new factors - extensive state intervention, changing job markets outside Britain, the decline of the subject in schools, the expansion of Web-based resources. These are likely to lead to new ways for institutions both to reconstruct their identities and to learn from, and about, one another.

Christopher Stray
University of Wales Swansea.


[1] A. E Housman, The Confines of Criticism. The Cambridge Inaugural, 1911, CUP 1969, 25-6.

[2] For Stevens' schooling and career, see C. G. Stevens, Winchester Notions: the English Dialect of Winchester College, Athlone Press 1998.

[3] Routledge, 1995.

[4] Extracts from the Letters and Journals of W. Cory, selected by F. W. Cornish, privately printed 1897, 46.

[5] Jackson to J. A. Platt, 15 August 1913. R. St. J. Parry, Henry Jackson OM, CUP 1926, 184-5.

[6] A stirring account is given by George Davie in his The Democratic Intellect. Scotland and her Universities in the Nineteenth Century, Edinburgh UP, 1961.

[7] Some of the above points are covered in more detail in the contributions to C. A Stray (ed), Classics in Cambridge, Supplementary Volume to Proceedings of the Cambridge Philological Society, 1998.

CUCD Bulletin 27 (1998)
© Christopher Stray 1998

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