Superphysics Superphysics
Chapter 3

At Oxford

by Rae
6 minutes  • 1142 words

Smith left Scotland for Oxford in June 1740, riding the whole way on horseback. He told Samuel Rogers many years afterwards that, from the moment he crossed the Border he was much struck with:

  • the richness of the country he was entering, and
  • the great superiority of its agriculture over that of his own country.

Scotch agriculture was not born in 1740, even in the Lothians. The country everywhere was very bare and waste. He was reminded on the day of his arrival at Oxford, that even its cattle were still lean and poor, compared with England’s fat oxen.

The Monthly Review has a story of his absence of mind. A writer once said that Smith has been fond of relating himself whenever a particular joint appeared on his own table. The first day he dined in the hall at Balliol, he fell into a reverie at table. For a time, he forgot his meal.

The servitor:

  • roused him to attention and
  • told him he had better fall to, because he had never seen such a piece of beef in Scotland as the joint then before him.

Smith’s nationality caused him worse trouble at Oxford than this good-natured gibe.

He matriculated at the University on July 7.

Professor Thorold Rogers has collected the few particulars about Smith’s residence at Oxford from official records.

  • He gives us the matriculation entry: “Adamus Smith e Coll. Ball., Gen. Fil. Jul. 7mo 1740,"[10]
  • He mentions that it is written in a round school-boy hand.
  • It is a style of hand which Smith retained to the end.

Smith himself said that literary composition never grew easier to him with experience. Apparently, neither did handwriting. His letters are all written in the same big round characters, connected together manifestly by a slow, difficult, deliberate process.

He remained at Oxford until August 15, 1746.

After that day, his name no longer appears in the Buttery Books of the College.

But up until that day, he resided at Oxford continuously from the time of his matriculation.

He did not leave between terms. He was thus six years on end away from home.

A journey to Scotland was in those days a serious and expensive undertaking. It would have taken more than half Smith’s exhibition of £40 to alone pay for a trip to Kirkcaldy and back.

When Professor Rouet of Glasgow was sent up to London a few years later to push on the tedious 20 years’ lawsuit between Glasgow College and Balliol about the Snell exhibitions, the single journey cost him £11= 15s. It excluded his personal expenses of 6s. 8d. a day.[11]

Out of his £40 a year, Smith had to pay about £30 for his food. Mr. Rogers mentions that his first quarter’s maintenance came to £7= 5s. It was about the usual cost of living at Oxford then. Then the tutors seem to have ceased to do any tutoring.

They still took their fees of 20s. a quarter all the same Smith’s remaining £5 would be little enough to meet other items of necessary expenditure. Salmon’s Present State of the Universities was published in 1744.

It shows that:

  • an Oxford education during Smith’s residence at Oxford cost £32 a year minimum.
  • no commoner in the University spent less than £60.

Smith’s name does not appear in Bliss’s list of Oxford graduates.

Although in Mr. Foster’s recent Alumni Oxonienses other particulars are given about him, his graduation is not mentioned.

Professor Rogers has discovered evidence in the Buttery Books of Balliol. It seems to prove that Smith actually took the degree of B.A., whatever was the explanation of the apparent omission of his name from the official graduation records. In those Buttery Books, he is always styled Dominus from and after the week ending April 13, 1744. Dominus was the usual designation of a B.A.

In April 1744, Smith would have kept the 16 terms that were then the only qualification practically necessary for that degree.

He had possibly omitted some step needed for the formal completion of the graduation.

Smith’s residence at Oxford fell in a time when learning lay there under a long and almost total eclipse. This dark time seems to have lasted most of that century. Crousaz visited Oxford around the beginning of the century. He found the dons as ignorant of the new philosophy as the savages of the South Sea. Bishop Butler came there as a student 20 years later. He could get nothing to satisfy his young thirst for knowledge except “frivolous lectures” and “unintelligible disputations.” A generation later, he could not even have got that. For Smith tells us in the Wealth of Nations that the lecturers had then given up all pretence of lecturing.

A foreign traveller described a public disputation he attended at Oxford in 1788.

  • He said the Præses Respondent and three Opponents all sat consuming the statutory time in profound silence, absorbed in the novel of the hour.

Gibbon resided there not long after Smith.

He tells that:

  • his tutor neither gave nor sought to give him more than one lesson
  • the common-room’s conversation, which he heard as a gentleman commoner, never touched any point of literature or scholarship.

Instead it “stagnated in a round of:

  • College business,
  • Tory politics,
  • personal anecdotes, and
  • private scandal.”

A few years after Gibbon, Bentham has the same tale to tell.

It was absolutely impossible to learn anything at Oxford.

The years he spent there were the most barren and unprofitable of his life.

Smith’s own account of the English universities in the Wealth of Nations, though only published in 1776, was substantially true of Oxford during his residence there 30 years before. Every word of it is endorsed by Gibbon as the word of “a moral and political sage who had himself resided at Oxford.”

Thus nobody:

  • was then taught, or
  • could find “the proper means of being taught the sciences which those incorporated bodies are supposed to teach.”

The lecturers had ceased lecturing.

“the tutors contented themselves with teaching a few unconnected shreds and parcels” of the old unimproved traditional course “they commonly taught even these very negligently and superficially”

They were:

  • paid independently of their personal industry
  • responsible only to one another

“every man consented that his neighbour might neglect his duty provided he himself were allowed to neglect his own”

the general consequence was:

  • a culpable dislike to improvement and
  • indifference to all new ideas

These a rich and well-endowed university the “sanctuary where exploded systems and obsolete prejudices find shelter after they have been hunted out of the world.”

Smith came from a small university in the North.

It was cultivating letters with such remarkable spirit on its little oatmeal wisely dispensed. He concluded that the stagnation of learning in England’s wealthy universities was due to their wealth being distributed on a bad system.

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