Flag Ships

 

 

Since the Second World War undergraduates have been increasingly fed on crumbs from the dons' academic table. They have been reasonably nutritious crumbs, and have nourished many who go on to become themselves academics, and have enabled others to transfer the intellectual skills they had acquired to other uses. This has been paid for by the State, with the cost of teaching being cross-subsidised by moneys channelled to research. But that system is ending. Whatever the future arrangements, our research budget will not be able to subsidise our teaching. We shall have to charge realistic fees, fees comparable to those charged by leading American universities and English public schools---while at the same time re-establishing entrance scholarships for the really outstanding. There will be many advantages in having many different pay-masters instead of only one, but there will be the concomitant obligation to provide the best possible value for rather a lot of money. We need Flag Ships, Final Honour Schools intended primarily for undergraduates who are for the most part going to make their careers outside the university world. Instead of crumbs off our table, we must offer a balanced and nutritious meal.

Mods and Greats once did this. In spite of manifest defects, they equipped their pupils with formidable skills. Mods taught them to read and write; Ancient History to ferret out facts and extract the maximum information from scanty sources; Philosophy to think through problems and come to their own conclusions. Graduates gravitated to top jobs on account of their ability to acquaint themselves with all the relevant information, analyse the problem, pull together disparate considerations, and come up with a solution expressed incisively in intelligible English. Greats was good not only for high fliers. Not all our pupils are going to get top jobs, and we have a duty to them, too, to do what we can for them within the limits of their abilities. A succession of largeish undergraduates come to mind, worthy citizens, often having been head-boy at school, staunch members of the JCR Committee and the College Eight, great eaters of beef, struggling with Thucydides and Aristotle's Ethics. Week by week they got better, and by the time they took schools, Nature's Thirds were getting well-deserved Seconds. In an age much given to mouthing mission statements about centres of excellence, Oxford also owes it to the also-rans to help them run a little faster.

It was a pertinent criticism of Literae Humaniores that classical literature was studied without any literary criticism, Greek thought without any reference to Greek mathematics, and Roman history without Roman Law. The only counter to that, and to the complaint that many thinkers and many periods in the ancient world were left unstudied, was that what was studied was manageable by a hard-working undergraduate in four years. Syllabuses should not include all the many topics those teaching it have thought about, but the few those studying it must master. Set books are for that reason good for undergraduates. They give realistic targets. Moreover, they encourage deep reading rather than speed reading. It is a good exercise to have to worry at a text and ponder the implications of a particular sentence. And, most importantly and most unwelcomely, set books give pupils the chance of outwitting their tutors. No undergraduate can have read as much as his tutor, and on an open field a tutor can always flannel, citing books and articles the undergraduate has not even heard of. But a text sets strict limits to what can be relevantly brought into the debate, and, having been recently studied by the undergraduate, gives him a chance of catching his tutor out, and actually winning the argument---a defining moment in his intellectual maturation from being indubitably under- to being a fully fledged graduate, able to reach and defend his own conclusions on a par with any other graduate.

It was hoped that PPE, Modern Greats as it was once called, would provide a surrogate course for those denied a classical education, and the failure of PPE carries lessons for us now. It failed the beef-eater test. Its Third Class (as the II2 used to be called) was much larger, because natural thirds sank down to their natural level, not having some central mind-improving topic on which to concentrate their efforts. The different components of the school were disparate: Eighteenth Century philosophy, Nineteenth Century Political History and Twentieth Century Economics---each good in its own way, but you had to be rather a clever undergraduate to draw them together and extract some common thread of understanding. Even where all three subjects overlapped, there was no common understanding---I found that the Theory of Games studied by the philosophers was quite different from that studied by the Economists, which again was distinct from that turning up in International Relations. In the end it has disintegrated into a Social Studies Pick'n'Mix. Strong libertarian arguments were adduced in favour of the change, but little account was taken of the cost. It is a truth unacceptable to tutors, that undergraduates learn more from one another than they do from us. If there is someone on the same staircase reading the same books, going to the same lectures, and writing essays on similar topics, it is easy to pick his brains about which articles are really worth reading, and tempting to point out to him the fallacious reasoning that leads him to his erroneous conclusions. But if everyone is making an individual choice from twenty five options, it is likely that the only other person doing exactly the same ones will live somewhere up the Banbury Road, inaccessible, and possibly unknown or uncongenial. Although the opportunity to do one, or at most two, Special Subjects in one's final year is valuable and needs to be preserved, there needs to be also a large common core of central topics studied by everyone and therefore able to be argued about by anyone. The suggested rubric for papers in the Final Honour School of Mathematics ``Read all the questions carefully, and if you still have time, try one'' speaks well of the range of mathematical studies in Oxford, but means that most mathematicians would have nothing to say even to most other mathematicians. We have to sacrifice width to centrality. The questions undergraduates are required to study should not be those that interest their tutors most, but those that through discussion with their contemporaries will deepen their understanding of fundamental issues.

It might be possible to reinvent Modern Greats on the ashes of PPE. Cambridge long ago sought to set up a Moral Sciences Tripos to parallel its Natural Sciences Tripos, but the different subjects soon fled the nest, leaving philosophy, cuckoo-like, in sole possession. I sometimes mused that if I had been made Tsar of PPE syllabus reform, my first step would have been to make the Theory of Games part of Prelims. My second would have been to establish a central set book: Adam Smith's Wealth of Nations, probably, or perhaps his Theory of Moral Sentiments. Politics, Economics, Law, History and Literature deal with actions and the reasons for them rather than scientific phenomena and their natural causes. One philosophical paper should deal with the concepts and arguments of the humanities, and consider what reasons we have for accepting statements about politics, economics, law, history, or literature as being true. Criticisms and defences of the market economy (Hayek) and the nature and limits of law (Hart) might be suitable core topics, and many others will suggest themselves.

A resurrected Modern Greats is not the only possibility. When was I coming up in 1947 on a science scholarship I enquired about ``Science Greats'' of which I had heard rumours. It had been talked about, but did not exist. Now, however, there are two joint schools, Physics-and-Philosophy and Maths-and-Philosophy, which bridge the gap between Snow's two cultures. I am very keen on them, but hesitate to put either forward to be Oxford's new flagship. I hesitate because they fail the beef-eater test. Worse, they fail to cater for the many highly intelligent people who have a blind spot for mathematics. At the top of every tree there are brilliant non-mathematicians who wince at the sight of a differential equation. Meditating on the need for wider accessibility, I muse on a biological partner for Philosophy, not the reductionist biology of Biochemistry and Chemistry, but biological subjects that view things as a whole and in the light of Information Theory, such as Ecology and Genetics. Darwin's Origin of Species would be an admirable set book, or more controversially, his Descent of Man. Leibniz might offer illuminating insights into the hierarchy of biological organs and organisms. Problems of environmental and reproductive ethics are live ones where we are still fumbling to formulate the questions while trying at the same time to adduce arguments that adequately address our concerns. Such a combination might provide Oxford with a flagship Final Honour School which would stretch the brightest and also help the less academically able to leave Oxford able to think for themselves about things that really mattered.

Many objections will be raised to our having a new flagship. Inevitably, when My Subject comes under scrutiny, I shall lament the exclusion of my favourite fields from the compulsory core, but the question I have to ask is not whether I, and a few enlightened undergraduates who choose it as a special subject, find it fascinating, but whether it should be force-fed to unenlightened undergraduates whose eyes are already set on a career in the City. Again, undergraduates will lose out if they are not taught by tutors actively engaged in the subject, and tutors will lose out if they have to teach subjects they are not actively engaged in. But though it is desirable that undergraduates sometimes work with someone actively engaged, it is neither necessary nor desirable that this should be so all the time, and tutors similarly benefit by having to teach outside their speciality. Contrary to received opinion, it is actually an advantage sometimes to be taught by someone who is not a specialist. I was lucky in my last term to be revised by Sherwin White of St John's for Ancient History. He was a Roman Historian, and therefore was able to condense Greek History to just the essential framework I needed to know. Sometimes pupils have told me of things they have learned from me, and often these were asides far from the centre of my own thinking. Equally for tutors it is no bad thing to be teaching in a distant field. For one thing, it confers a precious freedom to depart from a much cultivated field, and seek pastures new. I once spent a couple of years following up a question in history, and could do so without discomfort since I was justifying my existence teaching mainline subjects. In any case it is good to be brought back to the central topics of one's subject, and not to be allowed to meander endlessly as one seeks the keys to all mythology. Sometimes one's own studies provide a new perspective on well-worn problems, and often rehearsing central topics strengthens one's grasp of one's own specialities. And always the exercise of making oneself intelligible to pupils about their work helps one also to make oneself intelligible to readers about one's own. Admittedly, there is a cost: time spent teaching not one's own speciality is time not spent in producing more articles to satisfy HEFCE's production targets. Fewer might be, would be, better.