An Academy for Non-academics


J.R. Lucas

One of the great virtues of Oxford is that most of its members are not academics, nor ever supposed that they sould be. They come to Oxford for three or four years and then go on their way to other occupations in "the service of God in Church and State". It is not that they were not good enough to become dons: it is simply that they had other fish to fry, and would rather be a barrister, a Member of Parliament, a schoolmaster or a clergyman, and would not be tempted from their chosen vocation by any offer of a Fellowship or a life of ease and scholarship. The benefits of this are great. To have left Oxford of one's own accord and not on account of having failed to get an award or a post is to part from a friend with no sense of having been rejected. The Civil Servant who goes down with a first in Greats has no sense that he did not make it at Oxford, no need to shake its dust off his shoes because Oxford did not offer him a job, and in consequence he can easily look back on four golden years of widening horizons, untarnished by some final disappointment. And in general our alumni can feel warmly to their alma mater, because their going was of their choosing, and not because they were rudely pushed out of the nest.

Many of those who go down are cleverer than those who stay on, and carry into a wider sphere of activity the values that Oxford stands for. Oxford makes, and always has made, a powerful contribution to the life of the nation because its graduates are secluded in anacademic ghetto, but penetrate many walks of national life. At a more mundane level, we have been benfitted greatly by the loyal and effective support of our senior members outside Oxford, and this support would have been much less effective if those senior members had not included the ablest of their generation. And sometimes it is a comfort to think that whatever one's own academic success or lack of it, at least through one's pupils one can hope to be doing a tangible good to mankind.

Other univerity ideals are insidiously attractive, but deleterious to both university and society in the long run. It is naturally tempting to think well of MY SUBJECT, and to think that it must be the supreme aim of everyone capable of pursuing it actually to do so. I readily take to the idea that the best thing I can do is to create replicas of me, who will do the same things as I do in the same way, and with grateful acknowledgement in the preface. So I think, until it is borne in on me that, the world being as it is, there is room in it for only one me. Worse, if I make out that the only proper object of ambition is to succeed in following in my steps, I condemn almost all my pupils to a gratuitous sense of failure. And I create a ghetto, in which all my thoughts and ideas are confined, with little chance of ever escaping into a wider world. It is possible that the reason why our culture has become less and less scientific in an age of great scientific discovery is that in the sciences the ambition held up to every budding scientist from his earliest schooldays is to become a Fellow of the Royal Society, and that to stop doing science at any earlier stage is to have flunked out. Greatsmen and historians abound in the corridors of power, but scientists are few, because we make it difficult for an undergraduate to read a science school without feeling that he has somehow failed if he does not then go on to do research.

If our aim in teaching is not to produce clones of ourselves, but to share with htose who are not going to be specialists the fruits of our speciality, considerable consequences follow both for our teaching and for our subjects. We need again and again and again to ask ourselves not what a person must know if he is to be as good as us, but how best to use the three or four years of another's life so that he shallhave acquired the habits of thought, the sensitivities and the skills on which we set the greatest store. Rather than force-feed the unsuspecting young with the very latest articles and the most fashionable attitudes, we should stand back, and consider which of the flood of publication will stand the test of time, and be remembered as having been really illuminating in thirty years time, when the old member reminisces at a Gaudy. We should concentrate on the general lines of the subject, and encourage people to obtain first-hand a feel for the subject, even if it means going light on the latest nostrums.

Many members of Congregation share these ideals, but their enthusiasm lacks the cutting edge to prune their colleagues' reading lists. I commend the ABC principle: to mark with an A those items which an undergraduate must read, a B those which he ought to read, and a C those which he might with progit read. The A list must be short, and should be enforced---if an undergraduate has not read those items, he should not be given a tutorial until he has. But we must be realistic about what we can insist upon. If an undergraduate has only a week to prepare an essay, it is idle to expect him to read three fat tomes; if we set him the Critique of Pure Reason during the Christmas Vac, he cannot master the Phenomenology of Mind too. Far too often we fail to provide the young with the service they are entitled to expect of age--- selectivity. We have spent time reading much that though not worthless was not so good as to deserve the precious hours of youth being spent on it too, and where we can save the time of others, we should. Every time we give a reading list, we ought to remind ourselves of the First Law of Bibliography, that the value of a reading list is inversely proportional to its length.

It would be good, also, if sometimes we reminded ourselves explicitly and publicly of the educational purposes of our Final Honour Schools. Perhaps once every five or ten years the General Board might ask each Faculty Board to formulate a statement, suitable for incoproration in the Prospectus, but subject to searching scrutiny by the General Board, of the ways an undergraduate could benefit by reading that School, and how these were achieved. It has long been the boast of Literae Humaniores that it teaches people to read andwrite, to find out the relevant facts, and to think things through to a coherent and well-balanced conclusion; and it does this by studying a civilisation which is different enough from ours to make us rub our eyes, but not so alien that we cannot enter deeply into its thoughts and concerns. The purpose of PPE, at least as propounded by me in my first-year lectures this term, is to enable people to think out the philosophy of public life, so that when later, as civil servants, journalists, Members of Parliament, or leaders in the local community, they have to make up their minds on some contentious issue, they will be able to grapple with it effectively, and not be hamstrung by unfamiliarity with economic jargon, ignorance of the ways of politics, or inability to grasp difficult ideas of moralty and politics.

The other two Schools I am most concerned with are both intended to bridge Snow's Two Cultures, and to enable those who read it to become both numerate and capable of handling conceptual issues. The mutual relevance of mathematics and philosophy have become much more obvious with the advent of computers, but much more generally, if mathematics is becoming in our age what Latin was in the Middle Ages, it is pre-eminently importan that there should be some mathematicians who can think, and who through the discipline of writng essays on questions that do not admit of clear-cut proofs, develop judgement in balancing one shade of grey against another and skill in expressing their conclusion in words. At a deeper level the constellation of incompleteness results that circle around Gödel's Theorem have the most profound bearing on our notions of truth and rationality. To be in on these issues is to be where the action is in the shaping of the intellectual geography of future thought, and to give them the entre'e to these debates is to confer the greatest privilege we can bestow on the young.

The mutual relevance of physics and philosphy has not been sufficiently recognised in Oxford. But the enormous interest in Stephen Hawkins' The Natural History of Time is evidence of the wide interest there is in the implications of modern physics for our understanding of reality and our place within it. It is natural to wonder about the nature of time and the origin of the universe, and to think about such thingseffectively one needs to know both what the physicists can tell us and how to philosophize onself. In a very different way an understanding of quantum mechanics, if ever we could achieve it, would lead to a new perspective on causality and reality. These are questions that have engaged men's minds in time past, and can grab them still. They are worthy of study here, quite apart from their obvious advantage in enabling those who study them to move at ease in both the world of science and that of human affairs.

There are costs if we lay more explicit emphasis on educational values. We shall put ourselves under pressure not to be completely specialised, and to rethink both what shall be taught and how it may be best taught. Although tutors will of course continue to have their own speciality, it will seem less and less acceptable for a tutor to try and confine his tuoring to his own area of expertise. We may revert to the rule that any tutor, unless very new to his job, should reckon to tutor throughout his subject, not claiming to know it but realising that his ignorance could none the less be helpful to someone making his first steps in unfamiliar territory. Or we may be under pressure to organize our lectures better, or to establish seminars, or to take cognizance of what other tutors in other subjects are doing. But we shall benefit too. There is always a danger of a subject going dead. Many have done so, and many more could. By being regularly required to explain ourselves to young minds who are not committed to an academic career, and not minded to be as deferential as graduate students too often are, we are forcibly rejuvenated. We are compelled to think how our subject relates to the concerns of others, and to take stock of new, and often unwelcome questions. But it is better to be disconcerted than dead.

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