“The University of Oxford was not created; it emerged.” Thus begins OUP’s eight volume The History of the University of Oxford, conjuring up images of some pre-historic giant shaking off the ocean and lumbering up the beach.
It is, surely, nonsense. Universities do not emerge, any more than alumni magazines or lunch; there is always some agency busily at work behind the scenes, making it all look effortless. However, there is a truth at the heart of this statement, offering great insight into the essential nature of Oxford University which, despite the ravages of time and politics, remains the same institution that was formed, not by a central controlling authority, but by a gradual coalescing of groups of learned men intent on a common purpose.
The University was simultaneously unplanned and meticulously planned, growing piecemeal upwards and downwards through the efforts of numerous individuals, who — occasionally — cooperated. Broad consensuses about what should be taught led to the eventual acceptance of a curriculum, whose core components can still be seen in the stone legends around the Old Schools Quadrangle of the Bodleian Library.
The Trivium (Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic) was the basic armoury of those going into the priesthood; they could read the Bible in Latin, speak persuasively to their flock and make it sound like it made sense. Further study involved the Quadrivium (Astronomy, Music, Geometry and Arithmetic); the biblical languages, Hebrew and Greek; Philosophy; and the ‘higher faculties’ of Divinity, Law and Medicine (once considered an art).
Science, lurking since earliest times, burst out of the shadows in the 17th century, its light subsequently dimming until the latter half of the 19th century, when it powered up to become the luminous success story of today.
Periodically, the University would assert some authority over the colleges and its independent-minded members, drawing up codes of practice and behaviour, most notable amongst them the 17th century Laudian Code. The ensuing periodic petrification would be undone by such as the 19th Century Royal Commission on Education, this last ensuring that Oxford was not left behind in an industrializing Britain in need of more immediately practical knowledge than the peerless composition of Latin verse. But the organism lived and grew despite the depredations of both revolution and entropy.
In the 21st century, Oxford University remains as delightfully untameable as ever, having successfully resisted all attempts to cage it or preserve it in aspic. Today there seems to be general agreement that the constituent colleges of the University number 38. But good luck finding a complete list of the University’s schools, centres and institutes: none exists.
Indeed, they hold out against all efforts at definition, there being no agreed naming convention or hierarchy. So, Humpty Dumpty style, an institute can mean whatever it’s chosen to mean, from a website to a building housing several dozen researchers. A telephone call to the Oxford Martin School in an effort to make a quick count elicited the response that “we’ve at least 35 now and we’re calling some of them programmes”.
Indeed, The Oxford Martin School and Keble College are at the forefront of the new vogue for high-level interdisciplinary networking, already champing at the bit to action the Oxford University Draft Strategic Plan for 2013-18. It proclaimed that the University’s “fourth challenge is to establish more collaboration… and effective structures for interdisciplinary collaboration across departments and the wider collegiate University.”
Keble College’s £65m Advanced Studies Centre will certainly rise to the fourth challenge, aiming to take advantage of the geographical proximity of world class scholars in a variety of disciplines. Planned to occupy the old Acland Hospital site, in a suitably symbolic nodal position between the Humanities Building and the Science Area, it has already set up five inter-disciplinary research clusters in imaging, networks, complexity, creativity and medieval and renaissance studies — and benefited from an ERC Synergy Grant of 10.5m Euros.
“Out of little conversations, great things can grow,” explains Professor Tom Higham, the Centre’s Director. “The college environment is very magical and gives opportunities for happenstance.” He already knows that it works: he hails from the Research Laboratory for Archaeology, an institution dreamt up over a Christ Church dinner by a scientist, Professor Lindemann, and an archaeologist, Professor Hawkes, who were discussing recent developments in carbon dating. Almost 60 years later, it employs over 60 people and is world-renowned.
At Keble, there are now zoologists and physicists examining the meltdown of the banking system and mathematicians modelling the behaviour of Tsunamis. But taking the long view, this was always how Oxford University worked. Amongst the earliest scholars, Roger Bacon never limited himself by discipline, contributing works on all sorts of subjects including philosophy, optics and grammar. In the 17th century, Wadham College became the hub of a cluster of men whose diverse interests and attempts to solve problems together eventually led to the founding of the Royal Society.
Key to the University’s success is surely its unmanageable complexity, making for a place where thousands of individual minds can creatively do their own thing in flexible groups without the deadening hand of central control or the need to submit to the whim of any single person or group. Oxford University’s emergence is ongoing.