Godley A. D. Alfred Denis
Aspects of Modern Oxford, by a Mere Don
I-OF DONS AND COLLEGES
'We ain't no thin red heroes, nor we ain't no blackguards too,
But single men in barracks, most remarkable like you.'
Fellows of Colleges who travel on the continent of Europe have, from time to time, experienced the almost insuperable difficulty of explaining to the more or less intelligent foreigner their own reason of existence, and that of the establishment to which they are privileged to belong. It is all the worse if your neighbour at the table d'hôte is acquainted with the Universities of his own country, for these offer no parallel at all, and to attempt to illustrate by means of them is not only futile but misleading. Define any college according to the general scheme indicated by its founder; when you have made the situation as intelligible as a limited knowledge of French or German will allow, the inquirer will conclude that 'also it is a monastic institution,' and that you are wearing a hair shirt under your tourist tweeds. Try to disabuse him of this impression by pointing out that colleges do not compel to celibacy, and are intended mainly for the instruction of youth, and your Continental will go away with the conviction that an English University is composed of a conglomeration of public schools. If he tries to get further information from the conversation of a casual undergraduate, it will appear that aRuderverein on the Danube offers most points of comparison.
Fellows themselves fare no better, and are left in an-if possible-darker obscurity. That they are in some way connected with education is tolerably obvious, but the particular nature of the connexion is unexplained. Having thoroughly confused the subject by showing inconclusively that you are neither a monk, nor a schoolmaster, nor a Privat Docent, you probably acquiesce from sheer weariness in the title of Professor, which, perhaps, is as convenient as any other; and, after all, Professoren are very different from Professors. But all this does nothing to elucidate the nature of a College. To do this abroad is nearly as hard as to define the function of a University in England.
For even at home the general uneducated public, taking but a passing interest in educational details, is apt to be hopelessly at sea as to the mutual relation of Colleges and Universities. In the public mind the College probably represents the University: an Oxonian will be sometimes spoken of as 'at College;' University officials are confused with heads of houses, and Collections with University examinations. That foundation which is consecrated to the education of Welsh Oxonians is generally referred to in the remote fastnesses of the Cymru as Oxford College. As usual, a concrete material object, palpable and visible, is preferred before a cold abstraction like the University. Explain to the lay mind that a University is an aggregate of Colleges: it is not, of course, but the definition will serve sometimes. Then how about the London University, which is an examining body? And how does it happen that there is a University College in Oxford, not to mention another in Gower Street? and that Trinity College across the water is often called Dublin University? All these problems are calculated to leave the inquirer very much where he was at first, and in him who tries to explain them to shake the firm foundations of Reason.
It may be a truism, but it is nevertheless true-according to a phrase which has done duty in the Schools ere now-that the history of the University is, and has been for the last five hundred years, the history of its Colleges; and it is also true that the interweaving of Collegiate with University life has very much complicated the question of the student's reason of existence. We do not, of course, know what may have been the various motives which prompted the bold baron, or squire, or yeoman of the twelfth or thirteenth century to send the most clerkly or least muscular of his sons to herd with his fellows in the crowded streets or the mean hostelries of pre-collegiate Oxford; nor have we very definite data as to the kind of life which the scholar of the family lived when he got there. Perhaps he resided in a 'hall;' according to some authorities there were as many as three hundred halls in the days of Edward I.; perhaps he was master of his own destinies, like the free and independent unattached student of modern days-minus a Censor to watch over the use of his liberties. But what is tolerably certain is that he did not then come to Oxford so much with the intention of 'having a good time' as with the desire of improving his mind, or, at least, in some way or other taking part in the intellectual life of the period, which then centred in the University. It might be that among the throngs of boys and young men who crowded the straitened limits of mediaeval Oxford, there were many who supported the obscure tenets of their particular Doctor Perspicuus against their opponents' Doctor Inexplicabilis rather with bills and bows than with disputations in the Schools; but every Oxonian was in some way vowed to the advancement of learning-at least, it is hard to see what other inducement there was to face what must have been, even with all due allowance made, the exceptional hardships of a student's life. Then came the Colleges-University dating from unknown antiquity, although the legend which connects its foundation with Alfred has now shared the fate of most legends; Balliol and Merton, at the end of the thirteenth century; and the succeeding centuries were fruitful in the establishment of many other now venerable foundations, taking example and encouragement from the success and reputation of their earlier compeers. In their original form colleges were probably intended to be places of quiet retirement and study, where the earnest scholar might peacefully pursue his researches without fear of disturbance by the wilder spirits who roamed the streets and carried on the traditional feuds of Town and Gown or of North and South.
By a curious reverse of circumstances the collegian and the 'scholaris nulli collegio vel aulae ascriptus' of modern days seem to have changed characters. For I have heard it said by those who have to do with college discipline that their alumni are no longer invariably distinguished by 'a gentle nature and studious habits'-qualities for which, as the Warden of Merton says, colleges were originally intended to provide a welcome haven of rest, and which are now the especial and gratifying characteristics of that whilom roisterer and boon companion, the Unattached Student.
We have it on the authority of historians that the original collegiate design was, properly speaking, a kind of model lodging-house; an improved, enlarged, and strictly supervised edition of the many hostels where the primitive undergraduate did mostly congregate. Fellows and scholars alike were to be studious and discreet persons; the seniors were to devote themselves to research, and to stand in a quasi-parental or elder-brotherly relation to the juniors who had not yet attained to the grade of a Baccalaureus. Very strict rules-probably based on those of monastic institutions-governed the whole body: rules, however, which are not unnecessarily severe when we consider the fashion of the age and the comparative youth of both fellows and scholars. Many scholars must have been little more than children, and the junior don of the fifteenth century may often have been young enough to receive that corporal punishment which our rude forefathers inflicted even on the gentler sex.
'Solomon said, in accents mild,
Spare the rod and spoil the child;
Be they man or be they maid,
Whip 'em and wallop 'em, Solomon said'
-and the sage's advice was certainly followed in the case of scholars, who were birched for offences which in these latter days would call down a 'gate,' a fine, or an imposition. Authorities tell us that the early fellow might even in certain cases be mulcted of his dress, a penalty which is now reserved for Irish patriots in gaol; and it would seem that his consumption of beer was limited by regulations which would now be intolerable to his scout. Some of the details respecting crime and punishment, which have been preserved in ancient records, are of the most remarkable description. A former Fellow of Corpus (so we are informed by Dr. Fowler's History of that College) who had been proved guilty of an over-susceptibility to the charms of beauty, was condemned as a penance to preach eight sermons in the Church of St. Peter-in-the-East. Such was the inscrutable wisdom of a bygone age.
Details have altered since then, but the general scheme of college discipline remains much the same. Even in the days when practice was slackest, theory retained its ancient stringency. When Mr. Gibbon of Magdalen absented himself from his lectures, his excuses were received 'with an indulgent smile;' when he desired to leave Oxford for a few days, he appears to have done so without let or hindrance; but both residence and attendance at lectures were theoretically necessary. The compromise was hardly satisfactory, but as the scholars' age increased and the disciplinary rule meant for fourteen had to be applied to eighteen, what was to be done? So, too, we are informed that in the days of our fathers undergraduates endured a Procrustean tyranny. So many chapel services you must attend; so many lectures you must hear, connected or not with your particular studies; and there was no relaxation of the rule; no excuse even of 'urgent business' would serve the pale student who wanted to follow the hounds or play in a cricket match. Things, in fact, would have been at a deadlock had not the authorities recognised the superiority of expediency to mere morality, and invariably accepted without question the plea of ill-health. To 'put on an aeger' when in the enjoyment of robust health was after all as justifiable a fiction as the 'not at home' of ordinary society. You announced yourself as too ill to go to a lecture, and then rode with the Bicester or played cricket to your heart's content. This remarkable system is now practically obsolete; perhaps we are more moral.
Modern collegiate discipline is a parlous matter. There are still the old problems to be faced-the difficulty of adapting old rules to new conditions-the danger on the one hand of treating boys too much like men, and on the other of treating men too much like boys. Hence college authorities generally fall back on some system of more or less ingenious compromise-a course which is no doubt prudent in the long run, and shows a laudable desire for the attainment of the Aristotelian 'mean,' but which, like most compromises, manages to secure the disapproval alike of all shades of outside opinion. We live with the fear of the evening papers before our eyes, and an erring undergraduate who has been sent down may quite possibly be avenged by a newspaper column reflecting on college discipline in general, and the dons who sent him down in particular. Every day martinets tell us that the University is going to the dogs from excess of leniency; while critics of the 'Boys-will-be-boys' school point out the extreme danger of sitting permanently on the safety valve, and dancing on the edge of an active volcano.
In recent years most of the 'Halls' have been practically extinguished, and thereby certain eccentricities of administration removed from our midst. It was perhaps as well; some of these ancient and honourable establishments having during the present century rather fallen from their former reputation, from their readiness to receive into the fold incapables or minor criminals to whom the moral or intellectual atmosphere of a college was uncongenial. This was a very convenient system for colleges, who could thus get rid of an idle or stupid man without the responsibility of blighting his University career and his prospects in general; but the Halls, which were thus turned into a kind of sink, became rather curious and undesirable abiding-places in consequence. They were inhabited by grave and reverend seniors who couldn't, and by distinguished athletes who wouldn't, pass Smalls, much less Mods. At one time 'Charsley's' was said to be able to play the 'Varsity Eleven. These mixed multitudes appear to have been governed on very various and remarkable principles. At one establishment it was considered a breach of courtesy if you did not, when going to London, give the authorities some idea of the probable length of your absence. 'The way to govern a college,' the venerated head of this institution is reported to have said, 'is this-to keep one eye shut,' presumably the optic on the side of the offender. Yet it is curious that while most of the Halls appear to have been ruled rather by the gant de velours than the main de fer, one of them is currently reported to have been the scene of an attempt to inflict corporal punishment. This heroic endeavour to restore the customs of the ancients was not crowned with immediate success, and he who should have been beaten with stripes fled for justice to the Vice-Chancellor's Court.
Casual visitors to Oxford who are acquainted with the statutes of the University will no doubt have observed that it has been found unnecessary to insist on exact obedience to all the rules which were framed for the student of four hundred years ago. For instance, boots are generally worn; undergraduates are not prohibited from riding horses, nor even from carrying lethal weapons; the herba nicotiana sive Tobacco is in common use; and, especially in summer, garments are not so 'subfusc' as the strict letter of the law requires. Perhaps, too, the wearing of the academic cap and gown is not so universally necessary as it was heretofore. All these are matters for the jurisdiction of the Proctors, who rightly lay more stress on the real order and good behaviour of their realm. And whatever evils civilisation may bring in the train, there can be no doubt that the task of these officials is far less dangerous than of old, as their subjects are less turbulent. They have no longer to interfere in the faction fights of Northern and Southern students. It is unusual for a Proctor to carry a pole-axe, even when he is 'drawing' the most dangerous of billiard-rooms. The Town and Gown rows which used to provide so attractive a picture for the novelist-where the hero used to stand pale and determined, defying a crowd of infuriated bargemen-are extinct and forgotten these last ten years. Altogether the streets are quieter; models, in fact, of peace and good order: when the anarchical element is loose it seems to prefer the interior of Colleges. Various reasons might be assigned for this: sometimes the presence of too easily defied authority gives a piquancy to crime; or it is the place itself which is the incentive. The open space of a quadrangle is found to be a convenient stage for the performance of the midnight reveller. He is watched from the windows by a ring of admiring friends, and the surrounding walls are a kind of sounding-board which enhances the natural beauty of 'Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay' (with an accompaniment of tea-tray and pokerobbligato). Every one has his own ideal of an enjoyable evening.