‘Public or Private? Arts or Applied Sciences? Early Modern Debates on University Funding and Curricula’

One of the most pressing issues facing the future university in Britain is funding. British governments are finding the public funding of universities to be increasingly problematic in an unprecedented economic downturn and, without a transformation of financial priorities, almost certainly unsustainable at current levels. This has raised a series of questions. What is a public university for? Should students pay for themselves or be funded? Should universities be allowed to turn into private, independent institutions? Closely linked to the issue of funding is that of the curriculum, with the current government making clear its preference for applied science, which it believes can directly pay its own way by benefitting the economy. Arts and humanities funding is already suffering and looks likely to suffer further.

At an even more critical moment earlier in British history, the English Civil Wars and Interregnum of the mid-seventeenth century, these issues of funding and curricula were also up for debate at a time when centuries of traditional authority in church and state had dissolved. With the collapse of the court and the clerical hierarchy of the Church of England, the universities, which had functioned for so long as a training-ground for the cleric and a finishing-school for the aristocrat, faced vigorous calls for reform of their nature and function. The 1640s and 1650s saw a flurry of pamphlets and proposals regarding what we would describe as ‘higher education’, including Cromwellian plans for new institutions such as a university at Durham. Many of these proposals sought to replace an emphasis on an aristocratic tradition of letters with more applied and allegedly economically beneficial forms of learning and research.

All this is well known enough to historians, and the debates are often linked with the so-called ‘scientific revolution’ of the later seventeenth century. Over the last twenty years scholars have been at pains to correct the anachronisms of a previous generation of scholarship by complicating any historiographical model which simplistically reads these debates in terms of an opposition between ‘science’ and humanism. Yet it is also the case that we can distinguish divisions between those who would preserve a traditional humanist curriculum, heavily based in rhetoric and philology, and those who petitioned Parliament and the Cromwellian governments for fundamental reform of the university system and for public funding of applied and practical sciences.

In my 2008 book on cultural and social networks in Civil War London, I spend one section of a chapter exploring an instance of such divisions, showing how one well-connected figure in 1640s Cambridge and London, the republican-leaning poet John Hall, sought to secure support and patronage for ‘reformed’ public institutions of learning from his friends in aristocratic literary circles. In response Hall’s patron Thomas Stanley advanced, however, plans for private aristocratic academies focused on rhetoric and poetics. John Milton’s ‘Of Education’ (1644) sits uneasily between these positions. During my term at CRASSH, using resources unavailable to me in Exeter such as the Hartlib Papers CD-ROM, I would develop this initial work into a more sustained account of a case-study in the complicated mid-seventeenth-century debates over the funding and curricula of the future university.


Dr Nicholas McDowell (English, University of Exeter) is a Visiting Fellow at CRASSH, Lent 2011.


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