20 Years Ago

May 15, 2008

Hundreds of Cambridge academics and students crowded into Senate House this week to be given a broad sweep of Oxbridge history, the gospel according to Lord Jenkins of Hillhead, the first Oxford chancellor to deliver the university's annual Rede lecture. The coming of Erasmus in the 15th century had marked the ascendancy of Cambridge, Lord Jenkins declared, while Oxford continued its rough ride into the 16th century with the execution of five out of its nine chancellors. In the 17th century Oxford's reputation grew in proportion to its ability to flatter royal vanity. Both universities fell into the torpor of the 18th century and both gained pre-eminence in the 19th. Cambridge earned its reputation through mathematics, Oxford through religion. Oxford wandered in a "metaphysical, worldly and frivolous" direction, Cambridge became inquiring and austere. Oxford spawned politicians and fed the "chattering professions" - its graduates went on to become "conductors of television panels". In the 1920s and 30s the big scientific breakthroughs were made on the banks of the Cam rather than the Isis. After the Second World War, Oxford "grafted on to its humanistic core" success in the natural and applied sciences and overtook Cambridge in this respect, but became less dominant in political life. Now their historic rivalry had ended, not with a bang, but in the comfort of an old marriage.

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