University follies of 1969
TABLE TALK DENIS BROGAN
One beneficial result of the intrusion of the ?IB into the groves of Academe has been the opening up of many questions about the present and future of our universities, which were regarded with; possibly, too much com- placency _by the Robbins, Crowther, and Franks reports. I should like to see this ques- tioning go much further and a great many questions asked which would put in jeopardy a great deal of the present university structure. The investigations and expressions of criticism might end up in restoring completely the tradi- tional organisation (traditional since the nine- teenth century) of the English university system, but it might not. It might lead to a consideration of whether, in fact, the organi- sation of the great American universities, like Yale and Princeton, is not better suited to our age than our much-vaunted honours system.
I have been reading Mr Michael Beloff's extremely interesting, vivacious and intern- gently critical book on The Plateglass Univer- sities, and one of the questions it has made me put to myself is whether the limited success of new curricula in places like Sussex or Keefe is not due to the excess of specialisation in the schools, to the domination of the schools by that unique and, to me, far from neces- sarily admirable institutioq, the sixth form. For if the • students going ;up to one of the new reforming universities are insufficiently numerate, may this not be due to excess of specialisation at an early age?
The lack of numeracy, on which Lord Crowther has commented, is continually being displayed in rather primitive forms. Thus, in last Saturday's Guardian, we are told that one of the new gas plants we were supposed to be proud of has now had to be abandoned, since it is already obsolete, being undercut, for example, by North Sea natural gas which is `300 to 400 per cent cheaper.' This is an enter- taining piece of arithmetic in a discussion of a technological problem! But to make it easy to run bridge courses or bridge subjects, to make it possible to get undergraduates at least to know of the Second Law of Thermo- dynamics when they come up, might force a very thorough revision of the schools system and an attack on the absurd overspecialisation in English schools which is, as far as I know, unknown in any other country.
One result of this overspecialisation is that in the two universities I know best, Oxford and Cambridge, an undergraduate who has specialised successfully in one field is often reluctant to change to another, even if he dis- covers, as is quite natural when he comes to the university (I will not use the new ex- pression `up to university'!), that his interests are different or wider. A young man coming up from a good 'prep school' in America to Yale or Princeton has not committed himself to one narrow field so completely as is done in the best English schools, and he can shop around, and does shop around, often with ex- tremely interesting results.
There are, of course, cases in England like that of of the late Sir Cyril Hinshelwood, Pas, ota, Nobel Prize, etc, who turned from classics to chemistry, • but they are not sufficiently numerous. There was the case of
J. B. S. Haldane, who decided when be went up to Oxford to do Greats and became an .eminent scientist without any formal university training in science (he, of course, had training .at home). As long as we are tied to the honours system, imitated in all the redbrick univer- sities, and imitated, though not completely, in the old Scottish universities, we shall have complaints from students that the curriculum is boring, out of date, irrelevant and anti-social. None of these complaints is necessarily true, and none probably is true of any university with a wide field at any one time, but they are not totally implausible and certainly there is plenty of discontent among young men (I don't know about the young women) at the existing table d'hôte offerings.
One aspect of this problem seems to me urgent at the moment. There is a danger that student discontent with the present examination structure will lead to some very foolish pro- posals and, alas, there is no guarantee today that foolish proposals will not be reverently accepted by foolish elders. One of the foolish "proposals is making all forms of teaching (apart from the natural sciences, and perhaps in the natural sciences) topical. Thus, people should not be studying English mediaeval his- tory or Greek history, but the history of Viet- nam. The students should be hastily indoc- trinated with the latest fashionable prophets, e.g. Marcuse and Mao, and not waste their time on Aristotle, Hobbes, or even Marx.
There are a good many dangers in this. It is not very easy to get hold of all the relevant information about Vietnam or, indeed, about other parts of the world. Some of the informa- tion, if acquired, will be disconcerting to the zealous young. I am strongly opposed to American policy in Vietnam; but the question is not nearly so simple as regards Ho Chi Minh as is usually thought among the demon- strators. There is one very obvious danger in making the current menu relevant to what the students think is urgent at any given moment. The students may not only be bad judges of what are the most important issues of the moment, but they may be very bad prophets. I can give an instance from my own recent _ex- perience at Princeton where, dealing with a highly selected group of post-graduate students, I found I could not get recruits for one of the two seminars I offered, that on the history since the Revolution of French reactionary thought: it was irrelevant. By May of 1968, it had ceased to be irrelevant; it had become very relevant. Indeed, the understanding and assessment of the student revolt in Paris would have been far more intelligent and far less con- ducive to alarm and despair when the student revolt collapsed iJ people had known a little history beyond the immediate headlines in the papers. After all, much of M Raymond Aron's criticism of the prophets of Paris in May 1968 consisted in pointing out how like they were to the prophets of 1848, and that Tocqueville had a great deal to say that was far more relevant to 1968 than had a great many of the enthusiastic and hysterical commenta- tors on the great student revolt of that year.
It is true, of course, that a great deal of academic teaching is in a sense irrelevant to our modern problems because our modern problems are new, important and pressing. They have always been new and pressing, but I think it is not mere vanity or pessimism for the present day to say they are especially new and pressing in an age when men have been going round the moon.
But there has been and is in the curriculum of the ancient universities, imitated by most of the newer universities, a relic of the old principle of education expounded by Mr Dooley's parish priest: 'it doesn't matter what you teach a boy as long as he doesn't like it.' Now, there is a rough and brutal wisdom in this pedagogic principle, although I do not accept it. One of the things that the new quick solutions for the world do not teach the young is humility before complicated situations. The young always know more, and should know more, than the elders, but, as I think I have quoted, here before, the great Master Thomp- son of Trinity College, Cambridge, a century ago, was right when he rebuked a young fellow of Trinity with the famous words, 'We are none of us infallible, not even the youngeit of us.' Of course, the young like sudden and dramatic changes and think, quite rightly, that they will have to live in a world which their teachers will have quitted quite soon. It is a long time since I told my father that all men over forty ought to be shot. He pointed out, correctly, that I would change my mind when I was over forty.
The habit of hesitating before making dramatic judgments, the habit of acquiring due information, not in headlines from either the Sunday Express or the Economist, is a useful one for almost all of life. Above all, the habit of industry, of keeping away from the easy and facile sides of undergraduate life for, at any rate, part of the time, is something that is extremely useful, and the absence of which is a teaching problem which very few dons today seem to be willing to mention. The old-fashioned don called it idleness. It is not so much idleness as not concentrating on a boring if important activity. The old Cam- bridge teacher who said that the three most time-wasting activities of an undergraduate were music, theatricals and a virtuous attach- ment had too narrow a view of a university's functions, which are educational in a much wider sense than the acquisition of book learn- ing. But nowadays there is a. danger that music, theatricals and attachments; virtuous or other- wise, will replace that concentration on master- ing a narrow field which- was the ideal, some- 4 times attained, of the honours system.