[An article exploiting Dallas's personal experiences as a student of metaphysics at Edinburgh University in the later 1840s. - Graham Law]

Student Life in Scotland

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fear that this paper will sadly resemble the well-known chapter on the snakes of Iceland. There are no snakes in that ill-at-ease island, and there is little student life in Scotland. It may smack of the emerald phraseology of our Irish friends to say, that in a country abounding in students, and not backward in study, there is little of student life; but that is because, in common parlance, life is used to signify one of the forms of life - society. It shows clearly enough how thoughts run, when the name of student life is not given to the solitary turning of pages and wasting of midnight oil - to the mastering of Greek particles and the working of the differential calculus, but to the amusements of young men when they have thrown aside their books, to the alliances which they form, to the conversations they start, to their hunting, to their boating, to their fencing, to their drinking, to their love-making, - in a word, to their social ways. . . . [366]

To Englishmen these are truisms, but in Scotland they are scarcely recognized even as truths. A great deal of nonsense has been talked on both sides of the Tweed about the defects of the Scottish universities. It has been said that they do not turn out scholars. One might as well blame the University of Oxford for not turning out mathematicians. Prominence is given in every university to certain branches of learning; and in Scotland there has always been a greater admiration of thinkers than either of scholars or mathematicians. We all value most what we ourselves have learnt; but where no line of study is absolutely neglected, probably it does not much matter which one receives the most attention. We are apt to overrate the importance of the thing acquired, and to underrate the most important point of all - the mental discipline. The real defect of the Scottish universities is that they have no student life. They have an immense number of students, and nowhere is the higher sort of education more valued; but just in proportion as it has been valued and rendered accessible to all classes, no matter how poor, it has lost its finer qualities - it has lost - and especially in the greater universities - the student life. . . . [367] . . . The students attend lectures every day in a certain venerable building, but they live in their own homes; they live where they choose; it may be several miles away from the college. Nobody knows in what strange out-of-the-way places some of them build their nests. One poor fellow who makes a very decent appearance in the class lives in a garret raised thirteen stories over the Cowgate, while the man who sits next to him comes out clean cut, and beautifully polished every day from a palace in the West End. When the lecture is over all these students disperse, and they have no more cohesion than the congregation of a favourite preacher after the sermon is finished. They go off into back streets, and into queer alleys; they are lost round the corner; they go a little way into the country; they rush to the seaside; they burst into pieces like a shell. . . . [368]

In the educational system itself, however, there will be found compensations for the defects of the social system. Here I refer to the study of the human mind, which is pursued with great ardour in the Scottish universities. It is supposed in England, that Scotch students are fed on metaphysics, and the mistake receives a colour from the fact that there are so many professors of metaphysics. The title is a misnomer. The whole of Scotch philosophy is a protest against metaphysics as an impossible, or at least a useless study. What a professor, in the chair of metaphysics, teaches, is simply psychology - that is to say, the natural history of the human mind, the delineation of human character. All the processes of thought, all the motives to action are examined in turn. Ideas are traced to their origin, feelings are carefully scrutinized, words are weighed, character is dissected, and in its theory the whole of human life and of the human heart is laid bare to the student. Call this philosophy, if you please - just as a discussion on guano is called the philosophy of manure - but what is it in reality? It is generalized biography. It is a means of supplying in theory what the Scottish students have, at their time of life, few opportunities of acquiring in practice — a knowledge of men. Not enjoying the social advantages of English students, they have, as a compensation, educational advantages which are not to be found in the English universities. It is useless to inquire which is better - a knowledge of men obtained in the contact of society, or a knowledge of men obtained in the scientific analysis of the class-room. Neither the one nor the other is complete in itself; but the great advantage of studying character systematically in early life is this - that it is putting a key into a young man's hand by which afterwards, when he mixes with men, he will more easily understand them, and unlock the secrets of their hearts. . . . [376]

Yet another compensation for the defects of the social system will be found in the professorial method of teaching, when it is conducted with spirit. The common idea of a professor is, that of a man wearing a gown, and reading dull lectures every day for an hour to students, some of whom are taking notes, while the rest are dozing. Professor Blackie, Professor Aytoun, Professor Ferrier, and the late Sir William Hamilton would give to any one entering their class-rooms a very different idea of what a professor ought to be. Sir William Hamilton's class was perhaps the most marvellously conducted class in any university. About 150 students were ranged on seats before the professor, who lectured three days in the week, and on two days held a sort of open conference with his pupils, which was conducted in this wise: - Sir William dipped his hand into an urn and took out a letter of the alphabet - say M. Any student whose name began with M was then at liberty to stand up and comment on the professor's lectures - attack them - illustrate them - report them - say almost anything, however far-fetched, which had any relation to them. A couple of Macs get up at once. The first merely raises a laugh by topping one of Sir William's philosophical anecdotes with another which he fancies to be still better. The second gets up, and has a regular tussle with his master about the action of the mind in sleep, and in a state of semi-consciousness. It is all over in five minutes, the student at length sitting down in a state of profuse perspiration, highly complimented by Sir William for his ingenuity, and feeling that he has done a plucky thing which thoroughly deserves the cheers of 149 fellow-students. These exhibitions are quite voluntary, and it appears that among the M's there is no more heart to get up and speak. The letter C is therefore next taken out of the urn, but the C's give no response to the call. The next letter that turns up is R, and hereupon Mr. Rowan, who has been fidgeting from the commencement of the hour, rises up to give a quotation from Bishop Berkeley, illustrating a passage in one of Sir William's lectures. The sly fellow fancies that he has detected the professor in a plagiarism, but quotes the passage ostensibly as confirming the lecture. When he has sat down, Sir W. Hamilton, who sees distinctly through the youngster's game, directs his attention to a dozen passages in a dozen different authors, where he will find statements to the same effect, which he might equally have quoted. So the hour passes, each letter of the alphabet being presented in turn, and all the students who desire it, having a chance of speaking. Sometimes the exercise was varied by essays being read, or by Sir William Hamilton suddenly propounding a difficult question as to the use of a term - say the term dialectic, among the Platonists, - or as to some definition of Aristotle's in the Posterior Analytics, Anybody might answer that knew. No written account was taken of these answers and other displays, but gradually a public opinion was formed as to the best man in the class, and at the end of the sessions the honours went by vote, the professor voting in perfect equality with his students, and almost always finding that the general voice coincided with his own opinions as to the order in which the ten best men should stand. The system perfectly succeeded. Never was there a class in which so much enthusiasm manifested itself. An immense interest was excited in the lectures, but the chief thing to be observed here is, that by turning his class two days a week into a sort of authoritative debating club, he established a public life, which, if it is not society, is at least the scaffolding of society. So it is more or less in all the classes that are conducted with spirit. . . . [377-78]


[Dallas, Eneas Sweetland]. "Student Life in Scotland," Cornhill Magazine 1 (March 1860): 366-79.

Created 2 February 2024