Educational History: The Democratic Intellect; Scotland’s Pedagogical Tradition

Scotland’s history in education is much tied to it’s culture. The methodical and logical approach of Scotland’s Parliament House looked to Roman and Continental law which was out of line with the inherited English practice. Even more alien to England was an education system which combined the democracy of the Kirk elders with the intellectualism of the advocates. This made expertise in metaphysics a condition of the open door of social advancement.

Scotlands Flag

This distinctiveness of the Scots came from their carrying on into the modern world some of the mediaeval values which had lapsed in the elsewhere. This created an interesting mix that shaped society by balancing the tensions of Church and State, and of faith and reason.


In his book ‘The Democratic Intellect’ George Elder Davies [1] gives an account of the Humanist, educational component of Presbyterianism as mediated by the great Buchanan, and by Melville himself, and the interconnection of the Reformation with Scots and Continental law, as represented by the ‘ratiocinative ex-advocate’, the Rev. Robert Bruce, in his classic sermons.


In his book, subtitled ‘Scotland and Her Universities in the Nineteenth Century’ he describes the integrated and holistic nature of intellectual life in Scotland. He puts forward “The ‘scientific’ procedure of studying the religious sector in isolation from the legal and the educational spheres makes nonsense of the Scottish story by obscuring the sociological background to the prolonged spiritual resistance against being completely assimilated to the South.”


Correcting the sectarian misinterpretations of Scottish history, a more comprehensive point of view can be gained which gives the secular institutions of Scotland equal prominence with the sacred at this time. This is a perspective which sees the distinctive life of the country not in its religion alone but in the mutual interaction of religion, law and education.


Sectarianism involves exclusive concentration on one particular institution in artificial abstraction from institutions socially interlocked within it. The crucial fact is that, by about 1700, the continuing Scottish efforts to reorganise law and education on rational lines had achieved a considerable measure of success whereas the corresponding movement in England for a utilitarian reform of law and education had failed lamentably and was being forgotten.


For our impression of the state of law and of education in England, we are indebted to two essays by Professor Trevor-Roper– his Encounter article (February 1959) on ‘Three foreigners and the philosophy of the English Revolution’, and his Inaugural as Professor, History, Professional and Lay (Oxford 1959).


At the time of the Union of 1707, the Scots gave up their political and economic independence, however they retained the right to follow their culture in religion, law and education. In education, especially, the two countries continued to develop independently of one another. During the century following the Union, the educational system of Scotland become more and more unlike that of England, at the very time when, in other respects, the country was becoming increasingly anglicised.


The highly distinctive and semi-continental character of Scottish education was considered by many to be incompatible with the emerging pattern of a unified ‘British way of life’. Consequently, by 1830, a severe crisis had arisen in Scotland on the question of how far the Universities were to subordinate themselves to the Southern system, or were to retain their independent initiative and time-honoured ties with the Continent.


The Democratic Intellect

In the long run the Scots, as a result of social pressure, had little option but to admit the educational predominance of England in the United Kingdom. It was only very slowly and with their final surrender about 1890 it did much to induce the paralysis of intellectual life associated with Victorian Scotland.


Education became the chief forum of resistance to Southern encroachment, and provided a rallying point for national principle, which could still bring together the dissident religious factions. The established system of schooling was popularly cherished as the chief asset of a poor country whose wealth depended to an unusual extent on the export of educated people. There was fear that the project of bringing Scottish education into line with the English system might have the effect of abolishing the one great economic advantage of the smaller country.


In a more intellectual relation, the Scots had a profound attachment to their inherited ideal of a culture in which the general should take precedence over the particular and the whole over the parts.


Such policy, expressive as it was of the distinctive educational traditions of the country, aroused no sympathy in the growing and influential group of Scots who looked up to England as the model in most departments of life. They distrusted the idea of the University as a place for general education, and the idea of philosophy as an integral and chief part of general education.


Accordingly, their counter proposal was for raising the University entrance age to the English level of eighteen, by improving and extending the secondary schools; at the same time, they wanted the Scottish Universities to confine themselves wholly to the business of advanced and purely specialist education. To that end this abolished the last vestige of the old general degree, above all, the ‘peculiar institution’ of compulsory philosophy.


The Report of the first Universities Commission (1826 – 30), had almost the character of a surprise attack on the national academic tradition. It was delivered by a group of influential Scots who wanted to impose Southern standards. This ended in the Scottish Universities Act of 1858, with the anglicising factions feeling partly at odds with the outcome.


One of the results of the settlement was to make it clear for the future that no Government, whether Conservative or Liberal, would have any sympathy with the idea of the development of the Scottish Universities on independent and Continental lines. It was made clear that until the Scots were prepared to allow the assimilation of their academic system to the more British model, they would not receive the financial support which English and Irish colleges were receiving.


This decisive check to traditionalist Scottish aspirations in education opened the way to a new attempt to implement the ideals of the 1830 Royal Commission, by raising the university entrance age in Scotland to the English level, and by replacing the old general degree by specialised courses. Accordingly, the third phase of the crisis of the Scottish democratic educational tradition came with the report of the 1878 Commissioners. Here the educational goal was laid down as the assimilation of the Scottish system to the English one, and in which proposals were made for reorganising the relations of school and University in Scotland according to the English plan.


In 1889, a new Universities commission devised an ingenious compromise, which gave the anglophile party most of what they had fought for since 1826, without at the same time being too offensive to Scottish traditions. The University entrance age was forced two years upwards by the institution of matriculation examinations. Alongside this it was now made possible for the better students to start on their specialist courses from the outset of their University career, without having to engage in philosophy and the general degree.


At the same time, there was a very considerable concession to Scottish traditions and feelings, in that the old general degree was not abolished, but was retained as an alternative to the specialised courses, and merely ceased to be the necessary preliminary to specialisation which it had been before.


They broke away from an educational system that had directly developed out of the mediaeval heritage, and which had a close historical relationship to Continental educational norms. It was a departure from an educational legacy which had long been world famous, in favour of a piece meal, opportunist policy, destined to placate the English rather than impress the world.


This rewriting of the intellectual culture of Scotland resulted in a scheme where the principal departments of the system were to become increasingly anglicised and only in subordinate sectors, and at lower levels, were vestiges of independence to be retained.


The idea of ‘National independence in Education’ is significant in meaning, echoing the notion of the democratic intellect. This how powerful implications in terms of pedagogy in general if we conceive of it as having relevance in the individuals’ landscape as well as the nations. It speaks of getting at the essence of learning and capability by demonstration of ability rather than conformity to a route of building these.


The generations of educated Scots, which have been produced since these reforms of the have begun to be indifferent to the complex cultural inheritance which formed the intellectual content of Scottish higher education. Increasingly, the only points of view about education or culture that formed the intellectual content of Scottish higher education, which are taken seriously are those which are reckoned respectable and fashionable over the border.


University of Glasgow

George Jardine was Professor of Logic in Glasgow and was important as a living embodiment of the Scottish academical inheritance. He was one of the chief formulators of its educational ideals. His book, ‘Outlines of a Philosophical Education’ (1818 and 1825), constituted an excellent attempt to explain the pedagogical potentialities of the old system.


Jardine was respected throughout Scotland as an influential link in a great chain of national educators. He was one of Adam Smith’s favourite pupils, and through Smith’s offices, had travelled to Paris with a set of instructions given to him by David Hume himself. He became the friend and close colleague of Thomas Reid and John Millar in Glasgow college and in his old age he had the satisfaction of seeing his pupils become some of the most famous writers and critics in the Scottish capital – men such as Francis Jeffrey, Sir William Hamilton, Christopher North, and J. G. Lockhart.


In his book (second edition 1825), Jardine contrasted the Scottish system with the English one, and pointed out the basic difference that, whereas, the former aimed at a general education, the latter was devoted chiefly to the cause of specialised education. That is to say, the basic course in Scotland involved classics plus philosophy plus the exact sciences, experimental and mathematical, whereas, in England, philosophy had been taken out of the college courses altogether, and the student had the choice of two highly specialised courses – one course which was predominantly classical at Oxford, and another which was very largely mathematical at Cambridge.


Jardine, moreover, was prepared to defend the Scottish standards against those in vogue both at Oxford and Cambridge. Jardine made the point that exclusive concentration on mathematics did not provide a satisfactory mental training (that is, does not turn a person into a good reasoner), because ordinary intelligence is chiefly occupied with contingent facts, expressed in ordinary language, whereas mathematical thinking is occupied with necessary facts expressed in symbols or technical terms which are themselves abstractions.


While classics and the exact sciences were taught in addition to philosophy, the standard attained in the philosophical side of the course was considerably higher than in the other two parts of it. This was the result of an arrangement whereby the student regularly got a double dose of the central problems of the Theory of Knowledge, each from a different point of view, such as Perception, Universals and Causality. The student was first taken through this very difficult subject by the Professor of Logic, and then again the following year by the Professor of Moral Philosophy. This arrangement was felt to be an innovation, and one of the main objectives of Jardine was to explain the nature of the new system in his book.


This deliberate policy of an overlap between Logic and Moral Philosophy was generally accepted in Scotland. Francis Jeffrey, in his evidence before the Commission, approved of this habitual arrangement, and thought himself to be expressing the orthodox opinion about it. “With regard to the Ethics and Logic class,” he said, “I do not see that there is any harm in having a good deal of undivided territory common to both, and which, from its barren nature, requires more cultivation than a single master can give it.”


Philosophy in this way acquired a commanding position in the higher educational system, and the other academic subjects responded to this unique situation, not by envying philosophy, but by themselves becoming more philosophical. The Professors of Mathematics found, for example, that the best way to render their task of imparting the elements of geometry, algebra and arithmetic inspiring was to concentrate on the philosophy and the history of the branches of mathematics in question. They were to treat the mathematics class as a cultural course and concerned themselves with the relations of the subject to social life and to the ordinary person.


Something similar happened in relation to Greek and Latin, and in the process of teaching the emphasis was much more on the aesthetic value of the poetry than on its grammatical peculiarities. Professors preferred rather to give some understanding of ancient civilisation than to insist on the business of textual revision. It was just this predominance of philosophy over the other subjects which made the educational system in Scotland so different from that found in England.


Davies suggests that where one could perhaps show that the good student in England was far ahead of their opposite number in Scotland as regards detailed knowledge of classics or of mathematics, the conscientious student in Scotland had a certain compensating advantage over the young English student in having had already some familiarity with the problems of the principles of taste or grammar as applied to the classics or with the problem of the foundation of mathematics and of the relation of science to life and society.


One of its distinguishing features of the Scottish system of education was the peculiar pedagogical arrangement whereby the Professor themselves (even if world-famous) would spend a considerable proportion of their time giving schoolmasterly tutorial instruction to the class on the lectures they had delivered to them.


The practice was to supplement the lecture hours, in which the Professor had the class at his mercy, with examination hours in which, without detriment to his authority, they met the students more on a level, and, in the course of questioning them round the class on the subjects of the lecture, might themselves become involved in argument.


It was a further characteristic of these meetings “In Committee”, as one great Professor called them, that the emphasis was less of questions on detail than on topics connected with what one might call the common sense of subjects, and with their relation to life in general. It was established in these tutorial meetings that the vote of the class, or the public opinion of the class, had an authority as real as the merit of doctrines, equal, or perhaps superior even, to that of the Professor. The influence of what Saunders calls ‘Scottish Democracy’ apparently made itself felt in this unusual system of reckoning merit.


In the competition for prizes (which were monetary, and sometimes relatively valuable), decisions as to the order of rank in class often lay not with the Professor but with the vote of the class. Apparently the students were accustomed, to take an intense interest in ‘intellectual form’, and enjoyed assessing the competence of their fellows in standing up to the Professors’ questions. Thus the final judgements of the class were concerned with the rival merits of the oral attempts of students to elucidate the Professor, and to make sense of their remarks on the text, be it Horace or Euclid or Berkeley.


Its critics said that North Britain was always forward in explaining the metamathematics of mathematical subjects it was little versed in, and was always ready to produce literary and aesthetical criticisms of classical authors it could translate only haltingly and with a crib.


It is suggested that the examination hours or meetings in committee, which constituted such an impressive part of the old system, constituted a bridge between the formal work of the university and the informal work of the students societies. The importance of this the late Professor Saunders noted. These examination meetings were not open forums of discussion, but were conducted under the Professor’s guidance, one of their great interests lay in the clashes of point of view which developed between students, and – more exciting still – it was sometimes possible for a student to criticise (respectfully and with circumspection) the official doctrine of the Professorial lectures.


This examination-cum-tutorial hour system was peculiarly adapted to foster a bent for metaphysics, and its development was due especially to the Philosophy Professors, and above all to Jardine. Jardine insisted that the teacher, in devising questions for the examination hours, must keep in view the ideal of a well-educated person, an individual capable of intelligibly explaining to the world their special or professional interests in the light of first and common principles.


George Jardine Outlines of a Philosophical Education

In practice the great object of education for Jardine was to train the student to produce essays and articles which treated of particular interests in a general way. The aim of the exercises in the philosophy class was to familiarise the student with the fundamental distinctions which are always in question when an appeal is made to first principles – distinctions, for example, such as those between fact and theory, or between the particular and the general, etc.


Jardine outlined in a fairly full way the graded series of short exercises whereby he was able to introduce the students to these distinctions, one at a time, in an interesting manner, and to prepare them gradually for doing several full scale essays towards the end of the year.


The close connection, indicated by Jardine, between the class essays and these examination hours was apparently a leading feature of the teaching in the Arts subjects. The essay was, so far as we can gather, the chief means of testing the students’ power in all subjects. We even hear of them as being set in the mathematical classes, and in the class of physics.


The task of assessing the essays was done in public, being one of the principal occupations of these examination hours, and sometimes involved a co-operation between students and Professor. The author would be asked to read aloud a portion of their essay, or else the Professor would do it for them. If the impression it made was good, a large part, perhaps the whole, of the essay was read out, but, in the case of an essay of average merit, five minutes or so would be given to the reading of it and then it would be discontinued by common consent.


The humanistic bias in the Scottish pedagogical tradition, with its tripartite alliance between philosophy, language and science, is plainly evident in the sort of essays set in Jardine’s Logic class. The themes set are often concerned less with pure philosophy than with the problem of applying first or philosophical principles to literary, historical, linguistic and economic subjects.


For example, in dealing with the question of how the Empire started at Rome, it would be necessary to refer back to some general theory of the conditions (economic, sociological, etc) in which authoritarianism succeeds constitutionalism, e.g. to consider critically the sort of general theory of history promulgated by Jardine’s former colleague, John Millar.


This sort of thing did not begin in Scotland but was already found in the classes of Professor Stevenson, who taught Logic at Edinburgh from 1730 to 1772, and who received from pupils like Dugald Stewart and William Robertson, the respect equal to that which Jardine received from Jeffrey.


In this century, little memory survives of this regular strenuous Socratic questioning by the Professor, or of the public verdicts given by the class on the reading of these essay extracts. In view of this latter day oblivion, it must be pointed out that until almost 1890, the ‘catechetical’ hours were felt to be at least as vital and as vigorous a part of the heritage as the set lectures.


As time went on, this side of the work tended to be done ever more elaborately and thoroughly, and there was at times a tendency to play down its importance. This Edinburgh innovation was not looked upon favourably by Scottish education generally. In some ways the social interrelationship in learning was diminished by these criticisms, and that of the pedagog.


The brilliant lecturer Thomas Brown had said ‘if a teacher arouses interest and excites attention by an able and eloquent exposition of his subject, he has done his part, and the rest may be done, and best done, with private study’. The time following Brown’s death saw the ancient catechetical system restored in Edinburgh, and gaining ground throughout Scotland.


Jardine’s book on philosophical education was published around this time as a protest against the Edinburgh concentration on lectures. It made a memorable impression, and his methods were a frequent subject of favourable comment in the evidence at the Royal Commission. Brown’s successor Christopher North, probably on the advice of Jardine, reintroduced this kind of tutorial work on a larger scale than had been customary at Edinburgh.



Jardine found imitators everywhere. His successor at Glasgow continued the practice of holding a daily examination hour in addition to the daily lectures, even when the class was nearly 200 strong. In Edinburgh, North went over students’ essays at a public discussion session on Saturdays which sometimes lasted from 12 noon until after 3pm, and his colleague, Sir William Hamilton, set aside two out of his five hours of teaching for this kind of work.


In St Andrews, the Professor of Logic, Spalding, gained fame as a second Jardine for his ability to work the students hard, and to inspire them with a serious interest in writing essays on cultural subjects. In Aberdeen’s philosophy classes attempts were at the time being made to work a system of this kind. It is clear that this is a history of an evolving pedagogical tradition, full of energy and vitality, and not with any dreary ossified routine.


The prize essays were voluntary, about five having to be done in a year if an individual was to be eligible for a prize. In both Edinburgh and Glasgow, about 40 students in each class, each year, would stay the course, writing all five essays. As about 300 to 400 essays (on average 8 to 10 foolscap pages, but sometimes 40 to 100 pages long) were submitted annually in both Universities in the corresponding classes, it can be supposed that, in addition to the 40 who wrote all the essays set, the remainder of the class each did one of them so as to earn their class ticket.


Until well into the nineteenth century Scotland held a position of the belief in general education through philosophy. The Scots equally had an appreciation of professional accomplishment admiring it greatly and were eager for the introduction into their educational system of training centres for higher research and specialisation in the new subjects.


But still we return to understanding the distinctive mark of their thinking about these matters and of the organised projects it inspired was that they wanted to retain philosophy as a compulsory part of what we would now call secondary education (fifteen to nineteen); and that admission to the specialist schools – though it was to be granted early – nevertheless would require, as a preliminary, philosophical education in the old style. This attitude of indebtedness to their early metaphysical training is felicitously suggested in a sentence of Saunders, about the spirit of Scottish learning in the 1815-40 period, when the scientific subjects – chemistry, geology, physiology, etc – were beginning to develop:


“The critical approach was indeed marked in the Scottish intellectual inheritance from the eighteenth century enlightenment, and the philosophical tradition was now spreading out into exposition and research in the physical and natural sciences. It would seem that this widespread interest in the philosophical side of science was encouraged by the adoption in certain famous science classes of the scheme of supplementing lectures with ‘examination hours'”


From what Lyon Playfair tells us in his 1858 Inaugural Lecture as Chemistry Professor at Edinburgh, the application to science of this pedagogical system had its origins in the same remarkable Glasgow circle to which Jardine himself belonged, and which for nearly a hundred years thereafter continued to be of some influence in the Scottish Universities. Playfair talks about this:


“The success of our teaching in Scotland has depended upon the combination of the tutorial with the professorial system. Cullen was the great pioneer of this tutorial method in science teaching. His clearness of exposition alone (as a lecturer) entitled Cullen to the admiration which he received from his students. But this was not the only ground of attachment to him. He saw that a science like Chemistry was not to be taught by mere lectures, but that there must be a free and unreserved communication between the teacher and the taught. He cultivated the personal acquaintance of his pupils, and zealously aided them to overcome those difficulties which we all experience in ascending the first steps of the ladder of knowledge. He taught Professors of Chemistry to act as tutors as well as prelectors.”


Lyon Playfair

Lyon Playfair continues: “Each Professor must, like Cullen, understand his office as a tutor, to afford the full benefit of his instructions… I wish strongly to express my desire to act as your tutor as well as your Professor. The barriers of the lecture table will fall the moment the lecture is concluded; and the more fully each student gives me an opportunity of becoming individually acquainted with him, and of understanding his difficulties in acquiring a knowledge of the science, the more pleasure will he give to myself. With this view, I propose that our examinations should be very frequent, or rather – instead of such a formidable word as examinations – our oral conversations.”


On the side of science concerned with laboratory experiment, and with practical classes, the Scottish arrangements, Playfair pointed out, were inferior to the system followed in England. Thus the strong point of the Scottish teaching of science was to be found in this tradition of class discussion in which the chief concern was with theory rather than practice, and in which the interest was broadly speaking, philosophical.


When Clerk Maxwell was endorsing the value of philosophy for the scientist, his opposite number in the legal world, John Inglis, was working out a scheme of law education for Scotland which would consolidate and regularise these traditional philosophical influences. Interestingly enough, it would seem that in law, as in science, this concern with the theoretical issues was related to the same pedagogical system of discussion meetings in which the students were tested as to their comprehension of the lectures. These methods were first introduced into the law classes by the brilliant Glasgow group.


It was in no small degree owing to his practice of examining (i.e. of asking questions around the class), and of prescribing essays on subjects previously discussed in his lectures, that he acquired that high reputation as a Professor of Law. Every morning, before he began his address from the chair, he put a number of questions to his pupils to ascertain whether they had been able to follow his reasoning the day before.


It was his custom, when the lecture was over, to remain some time in his lecture room to converse with those students who were desirous of further information on the subject. By engaging with them in an easy dialogue, he worked to remove obscurities, and to correct any errors in their thinking. This meeting was familiarly called ‘The Committee’ among the students, many of which acknowledged that they managed to draw more benefit from that time than from the lecture itself.


The striking thing about Scottish social culture up until about 1850 was the combination of a scholastic intellectualism, as it was exemplified both in the predominant position of philosophy in regard to other subjects, and in the system of examinations and tuition by public debate in class about first principles. This educational history now helps inform the Ragged University project as it develops.


This is a potted history of The Democratic Intellect, a reference to Scotland’s intellectual and pedagogical traditions.  This digest has been drawn from ‘The Democratic Intellect: Scotland And Her Universities In The Nineteenth Century’ by George Elder Davies, ISBN: 0748612742


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