REFLECTIONS ON THE COLLEGE PASTCategory: Education
Few human institutions had a history so continuous, so personal, so day-to-day. The cathedral schools of Milan and the like have histories of a kind which takes one back to the Roman Empire; but they are not histories like the college’s, of which one could trace each step. [...]
It had begun as nothing very lofty. It had begun, in fact, as a kind of boarding-house. It was a boarding-house such as grew up round all the medieval universities; the universities drew students to the town, and there, as quite humble adjuncts, were houses for students to lodge — sometimes paid for by their clubbing together, sometimes maintained by an older man who paid the rent and then charged his lodgers.
The medieval universities came to full existence very quickly. They happened, it seems, because the closed, settled, stagnant world of the dark ages was at last breaking up; the towns, which had become small and insignificant in the seventh and eighth centuries, were growing again as — for some reason still not clear — trade began to flow once more over Europe, though still nothing like so freely as under the Antonines. By the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, the exchange of trade was becoming lively; and there was a need for an educated professional class to cope with affairs that were daily growing more complex. This seems to have been the reason why western Europe suddenly broke out in universities— Bologna, Salerno, Pisa, Paris. In England Oxford became in the thirteenth century a university of European reputation; Cambridge, which originated by the simple process of a few masters leaving Oxford, setting up in the little fen market-town, and starting to teach, was not a rival in the same class for a long time.
In these universities students attended to hear the teachers lecturing in the schools. The lectures began early in the morning, finished at dusk, in the cold, comfortless, straw-strewn rooms. The stuff of the lectures seems to us arid, valueless, just word- chopping; but out of it the students may have gained plenty of zest and facility in argument. The course was a very long one and many did not stay it. At the end there was a sort of examination; as with a modern Ph. D., everyone who stayed the course seems to have passed.
But this somewhat unattractive prospect did-not put students off. They scraped money to come to Cambridge, some of them lived in bitter poverty and half-starved. There was one main motive: if they could get their degree, jobs lay ahead. Jobs in the royal administration, the courts, the church; jobs teaching in the schools — the fees were not light, and the teachers made a good living. The training was in fact vocational, and jobs lay at the end.
And the students liked the life. It was wild, free, and entirely uncontrolled. Some came as men, some as boys of fifteen or sixteen, some as children of twelve. They looked after themselves, and did as they wanted. The university offered them nothing but lectures, to which they went if they pleased. They found their own lodging, often in the garrets of the little town. Their time was their own, to talk, gamble, drink, fornicate. They seem to have been unusually, active with their knives. They must have felt the wild hopes of youth, reeling hilariously through the squalid streets. Some of them wrote poems in silver Latin, full of ardour passion, humour and despair.
The students liked their life, but no one else did. Certainly not the townspeople; nor the students’ parents; nor the teachers; nor possibly the more bookish and domesticated of the students themselves. So, almost from the origin of the university, there were attempts to get them out of their lonely lodgings into boardinghouses. Boarding-houses were cheaper, they could live four or five to a room and have meals in common — the salt meat, salt fish, beer and bread of a medieval Cambridge winter. It was possible to get a university teacher to live in the same house and keep an eye on them.
These boarding-houses had nothing to do with teaching; the students just lodged there, and went off in the morning to the schools. They were simply a sensible means of keeping those youths from the wilder excesses. Some of them were given money, rules, and became known as colleges but their purpose remained the same.
They were a mixed crowd of people who endowed the first colleges — ecclesiastical politicians and administrators, country clergymen, noble ladies, local guilds, kings and lords. Behind the kings and noble ladies one can usually find the hand of some priestly adviser who had himself attended in the schools; those who knew the needs from direct experience set about getting money, and went as high as their influence could take them. And those who were persuaded, and provided a little money and the rents of a bit of land (for the gifts were small): what moved them? Possibly the sensible recognition of a need: not a specially important need, but one on which their confessor seemed to lay some stress. Possibly a spark of imagination. Certainly the desire to allay anxiety by having a few young clerks obliged to say each day in perpetuity a mass for the founder’s soul. Certainly the desire to have their names remembered on earth: no one likes to leave this mortal company without something to mark his place.
The endowments were small. [...] These glorified boardinghouses were not ambitious affairs. They were called colleges, for that was the jargon of the day for any collection of men — there were colleges of fishmongers, cardinals and undertakers. A large proportion of the endowments went into buildings, as is the usual wish of benefactors, since buildings are easy to see and give a satisfactory impression of permanence. They were good, stout, simple buildings, though not as a matter of fact as stout as they looked; for the money was never enough, there was a good deal of jerry-building, and the yard-thick walls of my rooms, for instance, contained two feet of rubble. In these buildings there were just the bare necessities of a medieval community: a kitchen; a large room to eat in; stark unheated rooms where the young men could live in twos and threes and fours; a set of rooms for the university teacher who was paid to look after the college and was called the Master (he was, of course, an unmarried priest till Elizabeth’s time, and the Master’s quarters in the early colleges were nothing like the great Lodges of later years). The only luxury was the chapel, which was larger than such a small community required; it was built unnecessarily large to the glory of God, and in it masses were celebrated for the founder’s soul.
The community was usually a very small one. This college of ours was founded, by taking over a simple boarding-house, towards the end of the fourteenth century. It was given rents of a few manors in order to maintain a Master (usually a youngish teacher, a master of arts who lectured in the schools), eight fellow-scholars, who had passed their first degree and were staying for higher ones (they were normally youths of about twenty) and thirty-six scholars, who were boys coming up for the courses in the schools.
This was the college when it began. It was poor, unpretentious, attempted little save to keep its scholars out of mischief, counted for very little. It had the same first court as now, a Master, some of the same titles. In everything else it was unrecognizably different.
Then three things happened, as in all Oxford and Cambridge colleges at the time. Two were obvious and in the nature of things. The third, and the most important, is mysterious to this day. The first thing was that the Master and the young fellow scholars took to looking over the young boys1 studies. They hear their exercises, heard them speak Latin, coached them in disputing. Instead of staying a simple boarding-house, the college became a coaching establishment also. Before long, the college teaching was as important as the lectures in the schools. The university still consisted of those who lectured in the schools, conducted examinations, gave degrees; but, apart, from the formal examinations, the colleges took over much that the university used to do.
That was bound to happen. It happened in much the same fashion in the great mother university of Paris, the university of the Archpoet, Garson, William of Ackham, and Villon, and in Bologna, Siena, Orleans, the universities all over Europe.
It was also natural that the colleges should begin to admit not only scholars to whom grants were paid, but also boys and young men who paid their own way — the “pensioners”. These young men were allowed into the colleges on sufferance, but soon swamped the rest in numbers. They added to the power and influence of the colleges, and considerably to their income — though the endowments were always enough for the fellows to survive without any undergraduates at all.
That raises the question of the third process which gave Oxford and Cambridge their strange character and which is, as I said, still unexplained. For some reason or by some chance, the colleges flourished from the beginning. They attracted considerable benefactions in their first hundred years. [...] The colleges became well-to-do as early as the Elizabethan period; old members gave their farms and manors, complete outsiders threw in a lease of land or a piece of plate. Astonishingly quickly for such a process, the colleges became wealthy, comfortable, in effect autonomous, far more important than the university. And the process once properly started, it went on like the growth of a snowball; the colleges would attract the university teachers to be Masters or fellows, because they could pay them more. The university was poor; no one left it money, it was too impersonal for that, men kept their affection and loyalty and nostalgia for the house where they had lived in their young manhood; the university had just enough to pay its few professorships, to keep up the buildings of the schools, where the relics of the lectures still went on; the university still had the right to examine and confer degrees. Everything else had passed to the colleges. Quite early, before the end of the sixteenth century, they did all the serious teaching; they had the popular teachers, the power, the prestige, the glamour, and the riches. As the years passed, they got steadily richer.
And so there developed the peculiar dualism of Oxford and Cambridge. Nowhere else was there this odd relation between the university and the colleges — a relation so odd and intricate, so knotted with historical accidents, that it has always seemed incomprehensible to anyone outside.
It remains a mystery, why this relation only grew up in England. Why was it only at the two English universities — quite independently — that the colleges became rich, powerful, self-sufficient, indestructible? At Paris, Bologna and all the medieval universities, boarding-houses were transformed into colleges, just as in England; at Paris, for example, they were endowed, given much the same start in property, and almost exactly the same statutes and constitution. Yet by 1550, when the Cambridge colleges were already dwarfing the university those in Paris were dead.
At any rate, I thought, this college was, except in detail, typical of all the middle-sized English ones, and had gone through all their changes. By the sixteenth century it had long ceased to be a boarding-house, and become instead a cross between a public school and a small self-contained university. The boys up to seventeen and eighteen were birched in the college hall (which would’ have been unthinkable in less organized, less prosperous, freer days). The young men went out, some to country livings, some to the new service of administrative jobs required by Tudor England. The Masters were usually married even now, the Lodge was enlarged, the great bedroom came into use; the fellows were predominantly, as they remained till 1880, unmarried young clerics, who took livings as their turn came round. Their interests were, however, very close to the social conflicts of the day: the active and unre- bellious were drawn into the Elizabethan bureaucracy! The discussions at high table, though put into religious words, must often have been on topics we should call “political”, and many of the idealistic young threw themselves into Calvinism, were deprived of their fellowships by the government, and in exile led their congregation to wander about the wilderness across the Atlantic sea.
The seventeenth century saw, really for the first time, some fellows busy with scholarship and research. The times were restless and dangerous: trade was on the move, organized science took its place in the world. A few gifted men stayed all their lives in the college, and did solid work in botany and chemistry.
The country quitened into the eighteenth century peace, there was a lull before the technological revolution. For the first time since its foundation, the college, like all others, declined. [...] No one seemed very much to mind. The dividends stayed unaffected (about 100 a year for the ordinary fellow), the college livings did pretty well out of their tithes: it just remained for one of them to come along. The college had for the time being contrived to get cut off from the world: from the intellectual world of the London coffee-houses, from the rough-and-ready experiments of the agricultural revolution, from any part in politics except to beg patronage from the great oligarchs. The college had stopped being a boardinghouse, a school; had almost stopped being in any sense a place of education; it became instead a sort of club. Most people think affectionately now of an eighteenth century Cambridge college; it was a very unexacting place. Most people have a picture of it — of middle-aged-or elderly men, trained exclusively in the classics, stupefying themselves on port. The picture is only wrong in that the men in fact were not middle-aged or elderly, but very young: they were trained first and foremost, not in classics, but in mathematics; and they drank no more than most of their successors. But they had the custom of drinking their port twice a day — once after dinner, which began about two o’clock and again after supper at seven. They must have been sleepy and bored, sitting for a couple of hours on a damp, hot Cambridge afternoon, drinking their wine very slowly, making bets on how soon a living would fall vacant, and how long before the last lucky man to take a living got married or had a child.
By the eighteenth century, the deep revolution was visible everywhere. There had never been such a change so quickly as between the England of 1770 and the England of 1850: and the college felt it too. Something was happening: men wanted to know more. The country needed scientists. It needed every kind of expert knowledge. It needed somewhere to educate the commercial and industrial middle class that had suddenly grown up. Between 1830 and 1880 the college, like all Cambridge, modernized itself as fast as Japan later in the century. In 1830 the young clergymen still sat over their port each afternoon; in the ’80s the coollege had taken on its present shape.
The university courses were revolutionized. The old rigid training, which made each honour student begin with a degree in mathematics, was thrown away. It became possible for a man, if he were so adventurous, to start his course in classics. In 1860 it even became possible to study natural science; and the Cavendish, the most famous of scientific laboratories, was built in 1874. Experimental science was taught; and the new university laboratories drew students as the old schools had drawn them in the Middle Ages; here no college could compete, and university teaching, after hundreds of years, was coming back to pre-eminence again.
The college kept up with the transformation. It made some changes itself, in others had to follow the Royal Commissions. Fellows need not be in orders; were allowed to marry; were no longer elected for life. At a step the college became a secular, adult, settled society. For five hundred years it had been a place which fellows went from when they could: at a stroke, it became a place they stayed in. By 1890 the combination room was inhabited by bearded fathers of families. The average age of the fellows mounted. Their subjects were diverse: there were scientists, oriental linguists, historians. The scholarly work of the college became greater out of all knowledge.
The college suddenly became a place of mature men. They were as frail as other men, but they won respect because of their job and they had great self-respect. From those days to now, the college had been truly the same place.
Organized games, bumping races, matches with Oxford, college clubs, May week, competitive scholarships, club blazers and ties, the Council of the Senate, most Cambridge slang, were all nineteenth century inventions.
There was one irony about it all. Just as the college reached its full mature prosperity, it seemed that the causes which brought it there would in the end change it again, and this time diminish it. For the nineteenth century revolution caused both the teaching of experimental science and the college as we knew it, rich, proud, full of successful middle-aged men, so comfortably off that the Master no longer lived in a separate society. The teaching of experimental science had meant the revival of the powers and influence of the university; for no college, however rich, not even Trinity, could finance physics and engineering laboratories on a modern scale. To cope witfi this need, the university had to receive contributions from the colleges and also a grant from the State. This meant as profound a change as that by which the colleges cut out the university as the prime source of teaching. It meant inevitably that the reverse must now happen. The university’s income began to climb into £1,000,000 a year; it needed that to provide for twentieth century teaching and research: no college’s endowment brought in more than a tenth the sum. By the 1920s the university was in charge of all laboratories, and all formal teaching; it was only left to colleges to supplement this by coaching, as they had done in their less exalted days. [...] It sometimes seemed that the time must come when they became boarding-houses again, though most superior ones.
However, that change was in the future.
(From The Masters by C. P. Snow)