Published online by Cambridge University Press: 11 September 2020
Oxford and Cambridge have been homes of learning, frequently of the highest learning, for seven hundred years, yet much of the best and most creative work even in the region of English learning has been done outside their walls or the walls of any university.Sir Maurice Powicke
Conceptual leaps have a cultural value that is worthwhile in itself.Martin Rees
INSPIRED by Wilhelm von Humboldt in the fever of the revolutionary period, the spirit of research first appeared in Prussia. The combined inspiration of Wissenschaft and Bildung, technical and detailed studies and the quest for self-fulfilment, spurred and drove what has been called the ‘research imperative.’ Research thrived in the German states for much of the nineteenth century, encouraged but also shackled by state control until, undermined by the poison of nationalism and militarism, its mandarins committed their own treason of the clerks. If Oxford and Cambridge were not shackled by the state, they were shackled by the successes of what has been famously called ‘the revolution of the dons’ whereby college fellows and lecturers snatched back undergraduate teaching from coaches in the towns. Highly successful in educating young men for positions in the Church, the state and the professions, the Tripos at Cambridge and the Honours Schools at Oxford were delinquent in educating them for research.
The Royal Commissions on the universities in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did much good by provoking reforms in university and college governance, in the increasing and broadening subjects of study and in attention to university finance, but their attention to the question of research and the actual advancement of learning was only minor. The Asquith Commission urged Oxford to become a greater centre for research and postgraduate education but gave few suggestions as to the way these objectives might be achieved. The great change was the result of the admission of graduates to the university. Not buildings and financial resources alone, or even new approaches, research was propelled and ‘marked more by the change in men.’ At Cambridge, for example, the change in university statutes in 1895 allowed the admission of graduates from other universities with their different outlooks, knowledge and techniques.