24 FEBRUARY 1950, Page 11


Crisis Comments

By JOHN DAVY (Trinity College, Cambridge) CRISES are all the rage just now ; and if we are to believe Sir Walter Moberly, there is one at the university today. We must take his word for it, because as undergraduates we are part of the crisis, and to attempt to see this situation with detachment only results in a sort of painful intellectual squint. We are told, however, that the ills of the university reflect those of society (or alternatively, that the disease is incubated at the univer- sities, and society is constantly being infected by waves of B.A.s who issue yearly from these academic plague-spots). So, whether society is the hen and the university the egg, or vice versa (perhaps both are eggs), if we study society we can hope to find symptoms with which to attempt a self-diagnosis.

The first thing we find is that the people who are not at the univer- sity are much more upset about the state it is in than the people who are in it. "The old school is going to the dogs" is the sort of attitude there seems to be. Everyone knows how all institutions, societies or organisations go rapidly downhill after one has left them. But how uncomfortable it would be for the freshman of 1950 to go up and find a life still going on that had been tailored to fit his father ; he is, after all, a different shape from his predecessors, and, anyway, what havoc the moths would have wrought in the meantime.

There is hardly anyone in the older universities, I should imagine, who would decry the value of tradition. But a tradition is not a memory in a glass case, but the root and trunk of an organic thing. It is nonsense to try to make a clear distinction between the past and the present ; if you sever the trunk, the leaves will fall off. The past is a very real presence in Cambridge, and among many links with bygone days some of the strangest are to be found in the college plumbing arrangements. No one can accuse the under- graduate of today of being effete and pale-blooded—our draughts are a challenge to be overcome, and no one has yet bowed his knees to the cold bath-water.

We envy our forbears some things—in particular, I think, their leisure. Life is crowded and hectic, and if our dreaming spires were to come down to ground level they would suffer a rude awakening. (Overwrought undergraduates would ask for nothing better than rooms in these spires, but unfortunately they are all already occupied by bells, belfries and dons.) However, there is a world shortage of leisure, as everyone is only too painfully aware ; the social engine suffers a rapidly increasing number of revolutions every year, and we have forgotten where to find the throttle. Perhaps it lies hidden in the university. If so the men who prepare the syllabuses and lecture lists are disciples of acceleration.

However, it may be that we lack leisure because we are a dull generation, requiring many more hours to accomplish and absorb the same amount as our more scintillating ancestors. On the other hand, there has never been such a diversity of undergraduate activity. It seems to be especially those societies with an emphasis on action rather than discussion which flourish. We may leave the university lacking in culture and conversation, but I think possibly we leave more accomplished. There are in Cambridge some half- dozen dramatic clubs, devoted almost entirely to producing plays (the discussion or analysis of drama seems to be confined almost entirely to the English faculty). A society with one of the largest memberships in the university is the Strathspey and Reel Club ; frivolous, perhaps, or escapist, but a large part of its attraction seems to lie in the mastering of a new, and often difficult technique. Gliding and sailing clubs flourish, music-makers almost outnumber music-listeners, and there is an immense amount of undergraduate writing ; some of it is good, though a lot is indifferent, but a very large number of people are doing it. In contrast, there are few dining-clubs, wining-clubs, or purely social clubs, and most old boy, regimental, and other Good Old Days institutions confine them- selves to a terminal dinner and a disproportionate subscription It is a very common criticism that too many present-day under- graduates regard their university career as a progress along • production-line, in the course of which they are assembled by more or less efficient technicians into nice shiny Bachelors of Arts. This is not an altogether fair criticism ; we are no longer an elite, either financially or socially, and a degree has become much more impor- tant. F.E.T. grants have taken the place of private means and, unlike the latter, come to an end after three years. The expenditure of these years, and of some thousands of pounds (usually of public money) justifies itself in the first (though perhaps not in the last) resort if we can thereby earn our living. The more subtle fruits of a university education are sour on an empty stomach. In any case, though no one would deny that there are undergraduates whose horizon is bounded by the prospect of Tripos week, they are fewer than is sometimes thought, and unobtrusive ; and in the end the lie is given to the accusation of book-worming by the vigour and variety of extra-curriculum activity.

However, if the book-worm has arrived in our midst, we have got rid of the Blood. The man who came up with the avowed intention of broadcasting wild oats until weeded out by his tutor at the end of the years has all but disappeared. (This cannot only be because wild oats come more expensive today ; one can raise hell on beer and South African sherry as effectively as on Moselle and '09 Port.) Though the bookmakers are broke, the bookshops are booming, and the tailors are stocking fewer tails and more corduroys.

Another common criticism is that modern undergraduates make more friends but fewer intimates. But I think this applies as much to society in general. Intimacy is a sensitive plant, and can only be cultivated at leisure. In Cambridge its growth is easily stunted in the hurly-burly of bicycle bells and nine o'clock lectures. This is no doubt deplorable, but it seems unfair to ascribe the blame for it entirely to a failure in the individual undergraduate.

A botanical analogy always seems to me a very sound one in understanding institutions. Our modern technocracy has brought in a lamentable mechanical terminology in this connection. We hear of the "party machine," "blue-print for democracy," "legal machinery "—a daily newspaper will furnish a hundred such meta- phors. But though a machine can be changed or redesigned, it cannot grow, and in this sense, a university is a plant, progressing by growth rather than re-design. No plant will respond kindly to engineering techniques ; if the itching fingers of the planner are let loose on the universities, a real crisis will arise.

To the modern architect the house is a "machine for living in." We can only hope that for the educationist the universities will not become "machines for learning in." The case of the university should be entrusted to a gardener, and not to an engineer, and it must be cultivated with a pruning-hook and not a mechanical excavator ; so let those who are unhappy about the stati of the universities forget their engineering, burn their blue prints, and learn some horticulture instead.