At Oxford and Cambridge (I repeat) we find in their early days no trace of any examination at all. To be sure—and as perhaps you know—the first archives of this University were burned in the ‘Town and Gown’ riots of 1381 by the Townsmen, whose descendants Erasmus describes genially as ’combining the utmost rusticity with the utmost malevolence.’ But no student will doubt that Cambridge used pretty much the same system as Oxford, and the system was this:—When a candidate presented himself before the Chancellor for a License in Arts, he had to swear that he had heard certain books, and nine Regent Masters (besides his own Master, who presented him) were required to depose to their knowledge (de scientia) of his sufficiency: and five others to their credence (de credulitate), says the Statute. Only in the School of Theology was no room allowed to credulity: there all the Masters had to depose ‘of their knowledge,’ and one black ball excluded.
Well, you may urge that this method has a good deal to be said for it. I will go some way to meet you too: but first you must pay me the compliment of supposing me a just man. Being a just man, and there also being presumed in me some acquaintance with English Literature—not indeed much—not necessarily much—but enough to distinguish good writing from bad or, at any rate, real writing from sham, and at least to have an inkling of what these poets and prose-writers were trying to do—why then I declare to you that, after two years’ reading with a man and talk with him about literature, I should have a far better sense of his industry, of his capacity, of his performance and (better) of his promise, than any examination is likely to yield me. In short I could sign him up for a first, second or third class, or as refutabilis, with more accuracy and confidence than I could derive from taking him as a stranger and pondering his three or four days’ performance in a Tripos. For some of the best men mature slowly: and some, if not most, of the best writers write slowly because they have a conscience; and the most original minds are just those for whom, in a literary examination, it is hardest to set a paper.
But the process (you will admit) might be invidious, might lend itself to misunderstanding, might conceivably even lead to re-imposition of an oath forbidding the use of a knife or other sharp implement. And among Colleges rivalry is not altogether unknown; and dons, if unlike other men in outward aspect, sometimes resemble them in frailty; and in short I am afraid we shall have to stick to the old system for a while longer. I am sorry, Gentlemen: but you see how it works.