History of education: classics vs science

Because my work on distance education in the 19th century is so closely connected to the History of Education, I’ve been working on understanding that sub-discipline a little better. I have also been thinking about whether working in the History of Education for the late 19th century overlaps with Victorian Studies (another discipline) in a meaningful way.

My research took me to Alice Jenkins – Mathematics and Liberal Education in Victorian Cambridge  (2009), a paper delivered at the CRASSH conference ‘Changing the Humanities/the Humanities Changing’ (July 2009).

Victorian Studies is considered an interdisciplinary field, and I’ll cover that in a later post. From this video, it’s clear that there are hazards to looking at Victorians themselves for examples of interdisciplinarity, because they excelled in a range of disciplines but didn’t use what we would call an interdisciplinary approach. 

The talk focuses on the argument about curricula in Victorian universities, which I’ve been studying for a paper I just submitted to a journal.  In that article, I briefly discussed what C.P. Snow later called the Two Cultures Debate between classical curriculum and the newer science/mathematical curriculum (see The Rede Lecture, 1959). Classics and mathematics were the original Cambridge Bachelors Degrees, and were seen as combined into a common culture that represented a foundation of knowledge. But rather than representing a common culture, these degrees may have represented Cambridge justifying its own creating, using a narrow method to discipline the mind for future duties. Was it really necessary for stuents studying classics to sit exams in maths, and vice versa?

Tripos exam 1842

Some people criticized the focus on Tripos maths as “partial and inadequate”, but Cambridge defended it as broad. Jenkins uses one controversy to illuminate the issue: the “Slaughter of 1841”, where 25 of 130 students failed the maths exams and had to leave without a degree. The Senate House crowd booed the examiners, and the controversy became public. Half the students had been forced to take the Maths Honours exam just so they could study Classics (a nod to educational reformers), and two examiners that year had decided to raise the Maths standard without notice. Colleges became angry because they lost good Classics students.  Only one letter in The Times supported the examiners’ efforts to keep standards high – newspapers in general deplored it, and questioned the condition to pass Maths in order to study Classics.

By April The Times had changed its view. Did it mean the end of a unified culture? There is no evidence that those passing both classics and maths were culturally rounded anyway: the exam results show students only took Firsts at one or the other, although some were bad at both, and one was exempted from the maths tests because he was a peer. Students from both curricula did mix, and benefited from knowing each other, which might have created a common literary or interdisciplinary culture regardless of the curriculum. Cambridge (Trinity especially) remained the defender of maths in a liberal education long after others had abandoned this idea. The conflict did force universities to defend their curricular objectives, and may have encouraged Parliamentary intervention. It certainly encouraged public debate. 

 Jenkins notes that the scholars involved did not acknowledge that the entire curriculum perpetuated class and gender distinctions. I am disturbed by this comment. It seems to be necessary to acknowledge the fuzzy thinking of people in the past when it comes to class and gender, as if these issues were ignored during the Victorian era. Just because we now frame everything through gender and class does not mean that others did — it’s a form of presentism I think is distracting to historical studies. Besides, Victorians not only questioned gender and class norms but often worked against them, even if particular individual Victorians did not. That’s the same situation we have today, so I’m not in favor of woke-shaming.

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