Generational Conflict and University Reform

Oxford in the Age of Revolution


This book offers a fresh interpretation of a series of ground-breaking reforms introduced at the University of Oxford in the first half of the nineteenth century. Innovations such as competitive examination, a uniform syllabus and a broad range of degree subjects are often seen as products of the reforming zeal of early nineteenth-century Britain. By contrast, this book argues that many such developments are more accurately understood as attempts by senior university members and government officials to respond to the challenge posed by a new generation of confident, politically-aware students influenced by the ideas of the American and French Revolutions. As such it highlights the importance of generational conflict as a factor influencing the nature and course of university reform.

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Heather Ellis completed her DPhil in History at the University of Oxford (2009) and is currently Lecturer in British History at the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. She has published widely on the history of higher education and masculinity in nineteenth-century Britain.
This book was awarded the Kevin Brehony Prize for the best first book in History of Education by the History of Education Society UK (2014).

"This is an original, well researched and cogently argued book which throws new light on an old topic. Anyone interested in nineteenth-century universities, or in the politics of curriculum change more generally, would profit from reading it." - Dr. Christopher Stray, Swansea University
"The movement to reform the curriculum and examination system of Oxford University in the sixty years following the French Revolution has traditionally been seen as a radical and liberalising endeavour to bring a medieval institution into the modern era and one that was staunchly opposed by die-hard conservatives. Ellis’s revisionist account turns this traditional view on its head. In a compelling and a highly original analysis based on much new material, she paints the radicals as the real conservatives, moved to reform primarily by a growing generational conflict within the university that pitted juniors against seniors and threatened to subvert Oxford’s establishment mission to inculcate its charges in the right principles of church and state. In this new reading, Tractarianism becomes the powerful culmination of an evolving youthful rebellion, and the calls from the 1830s to make Oxford more like the Humboldtian German universities a conservative device by nervous dons to regain control who demonised Newman and his friends as a threat to masculinity. A contribution to the history of youth and gender as much as the history of higher education, this is a book that anybody interested in nineteenth-century Britain and the so-called Age of Reform will want to read." - Professor Laurence Brockliss, Magdalen College, Oxford
"The histories of Oxford and Cambridge are extremely important, not only as histories of scholarship, although those histories could be written as well, but also because they, along with the public schools, as Heather Ellis points out in her introduction to this stimulating book, played an “important role in shaping the attitudes and outlook of the British elite”. Changes within the ancient universities have been often considered as the result of liberalizing spirits, moved by the impulses of the French Revolution, to bring these institutions into the modern world. Ellis offers quite a different view. The cohesiveness of the British elite has been exaggerated too often, and Ellis attends to conflict between generations as the dynamic that drove reform as senior members of the university sought to restrict and restrain the unsettled spirits of junior members: “The growing tension between undergraduates and their tutors deserves to be taken seriously as a factor influencing the nature and timing of reform at Oxford”." - William C. Lubenow, Stockton College of New Jersey
"[...] the book is original and ground-breaking [...] Rather than simply relying on the prevailing, determinist account, Ellis offers an attractive and largely convincing alternative: 'generational conflict' between the senior and junior members of the university [...] In developing this account of reform at Oxford, Ellis has made a useful contribution to our knowledge and understanding of the history of education. Her book also provides an insight into the attitudes to gender and masculinity in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century oxford. It also further erodes the idea that there were easily defined ‘unreformed’ and ‘reformed’ periods in British society in this period. " - William Gibson, Oxford Brookes University, in: English Historical Review
Introduction: Generational Conflict and University Reform

1. Riot, Revolution and ‘Reform’ in the Colleges, 1714-1789
The ‘New Independent Student’ and Meritocratic Reform at Cambridge
Riots at Oxford and the Threat of a Royal Visitation
Reaction at Oxford and ‘Reform’ of the Syllabus
Religious Dissent and the Impact of the American Revolution

2. ‘Adapted to the Present Times’? The New Examination Statute of 1800
The Impact of the French Revolution
The New Examination System: The Statutes of 1800, 1807 and 1808
The Reception of the New System
The Spectre of Junior Rebellion
The University’s Response to its Critics

3. The Emergence of a Junior Reform Programme, 1807-1823
Growing Undergraduate Resentment, 1807-1816
The Beginnings of Junior Participation in the Reform Debate, 1817-1818
After the “Oxford Spy”: Student Journalism and Generational Revolt

4. Noetics, Tractarians and the Peak of Junior Influence, 1824-1836
The Statute of 1824: The Beginnings of a Conservative Consensus
The Emergence of A Noetic Reform Programme
Back to School: The Failure of Noetic Reform and the Rise of Tractarianism

5. Defensive Modernization: The Tractarian Threat and the Royal Commission of 1850
“A Dangerous and Successful Conspiracy”
Reform within Oxford
The Royal Commission of 1850
Reactions to the Commissioners’ Report

Works cited
All those interested in intellectual history, the history of higher education and the history of science as well as social and cultural historians of Britain and historians of revolution.
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