UNDER THE GRILL

from Oxford, 1965, pp.57-63.

``NOBODY should take Schools twice'' had been Mr. Gladstone's advice, I reflected ruefully. The air of the viva was unmistakable; I had sat in when a friend was being done, to spot the form; it was the same room, which I had not been into since my own viva in Greats many years ago, the same table, the lonely candidate on one side, the sombre Inquisitors on the other, courteous, considerate, anxious that the candidate should acquit himself well, but sure to notice every fallacy or error. Others, too, had sensed the likeness. ``Yes, I think the candidate passed'' one tutor said meditatively of an ennobled Vice-Chancellor; ``I think the Examiners passed too; very fair, very fair---but very searching. You had better look out.'' A blur of people, perhaps friends and supporters. Kindly, encouraging questions, some expected, some not. Balls asking to be hit for six; dropped catches---why had not I gone armed with a list of a dozen different ways in which Oxford was more up to date than other places? missed cues; fumbled answers; moments of caution; moments of over-confidence-- -``I have heard tell of a women's college where...'', biting my tongue just too late. Turannida echete ten archen---it will turn into a tyranny---they were asking about administrators, permanent Vice-Chancellors, people to run us, boss us, and push us around. I was no longer arguing with the Commission but through them, arguing with all the people who do not like Oxford, who resent its being different, its being old, its being a democracy, who want to work their will on Oxford, and refashion it after their own image of what a modern university ought to be. The Oxford of Colleges, Common Rooms, and conversations arouses fierce loyalties, but also hostility and resentment. Along with other established institutions it is obscurely felt to be to blame for the unjointedness of our times. Moreover it is often at Oxford men first find themselves failures. Many never even get in: those who do are often disillusioned to find themselves only ordinary undergraduates after having been the intellectual ‚lite of their schools. It is easy to feel slighted and snubbed by Oxford. We personify. Oxford, beautiful in truth as a city, becomes in thought a beautiful woman, a beautiful woman without feeling, whom we wooed but could not win, who does not appreciate our achievements, who never noticed our endeavours, never even knew our aspirations. It is a mythical Oxford which arouses men's love and hate. Oedipus, Prometheus, Lord Altrincham and Wayland Young provide the feelings: Gibbon, Matthew Arnold, Max Beerbohm, Evelyn Waugh, and (with due transposition) C.P. Snow provide what are taken for the facts. And from these have been distilled a number of myths, which because they are satisfying are often repeated, and then are taken as true because they are known to be believed.

Most immediately, therefore, the Commission is an exercise in exorcism. The maligning spirits must be conjured up once more in order that they may be laid for good. Allegations have been made by one man:

Oxford Colleges are ``inefficient and, for admission and government, corrupt'' for they control ``Admission of their own undergraduates, selected for their own reasons''.

It is inherent in the College system to balk change, to favour stability, and to tolerate stagnation.
and by another,
Oxford encourages ``Apartheid in Education''
or again,
Colleges extract large tuition fees from undergraduates, who are then are farmed out to ``hired hacks''.
along with other, fairer criticisms, many helpful some hostile, many sensible, some unrealistic. All are heard. Some will be accepted: some will be answered: some fail ever to get off the ground.
What do you mean by `selected for their own reasons'?
I mean that the tutorial fellows of Colleges represent all interests. They represent the Church, and politics; they represent Eton and Winchester, naturally; they represent cricket and football, not so naturally.
And you think that in the admission of undergraduates these interests are reflected?
Well, they do not represent certain science departments and that of course is wrong, from my prejudiced point of view.
It has been put to us by a number of witnesses that the main fact taken into account in admissions nowadays is the judgement of academic ability. The headmasters and headmistresses have put to us the point of view that it is extremely difficult to get to because of the high standard applied in the admissions examination. Do you disagree with that?
I quite agree that the standards are high, but I would maintain that the standards are so high that certain people are not admitted. If a department is not represented in any College....
So it is not the general quality of the admissions so much as the failure to correlate them with the requirements of the University?
I would repeat what I have said: Church and politics are represented, Eton and Winchester are represented, cricket and football are represented, but certain science departments are not represented. All those things are out of proportion. That is why I mention it.
Coming back to my point then: You do not feel that admission is primarily by academic ability. What do you mean when you talk about Eton and Winchester, and cricket and football?
I mean of course that certain other possible interests do not get quite their fair share. For example, people do not think in exactly the same way of the point of view of somebody coming from a grammar school as they think of a person coming from Eton and Winchester. At least, I imagine that is so; I have heard it said. I do not know....
At least, I imagine that is so; I have heard it said. I do not know. The myths had to be repeated once more in order that they might be exposed, the images made to appear in the cool daylight of rational inquiry, in order that they might be seen through, even though it was likely that the allegations would be reported, and the fact that they were unfounded not. Oxford men have been distressed to read reports of Oxford's dirty linen being washed in public. They forget the Press. Any linen will appear dirty if the laundry marks alone are exposed to view. But it is the Commission, not the Press, which will have the last word on the allegations. Those who believe that what they say three times is true have had their say, and their unsubstantial fantasies are fading in the face of the facts. And in the end the facts will be known. Facts. Oxford is oozing with facts. Questionnaires have been queuing on every don's desk. One undergraduate in every six was asked to fill one in; of the postgraduates one in two. Faculty boards and College Committees have turned in their stint. ``How do you teach your undergraduates, in their first, in their second, in their third, and in their fourth years? Singly? In pairs? In classes? How many lectures do you give? How many do you go to? How many books have you written? How many of your undergraduates are given tutorials by Fellows of your own college? By Fellows of another college? By research students?'' The answers provide full and precise information about every aspect of Oxford's teaching, organization, and research. General impressions are being corrected or confirmed by exact figures. The average undergraduate, it has now been ascertained, has one and a half tutorials a week; one in his own college, and half elsewhere. Of all tutorials given, 84 per cent. are given by college dons, 6 per cent. by research students, 6 per cent. by dons with a university but no college post, and 4 per cent. by ``others''. False accusations in future will be easier to rebut: sensible suggestions easier to implement. The Commission of Inquiry is concerned with arguments as well as facts. Many Oxford men assume too easily that whatever is done at Oxford is best, and forget how strange and perplexing our ways are to the outsider, and are not prepared to consider whether our methods and institutions need---or can---be justified. The Commission is putting various facets of the Oxford system to the test. ``What are you doing?'' they ask, ``Why are you doing it?', ``Is it the best way?'' These are questions that ought on occasion to be asked. In Oxford, as elsewhere, we are often too busy doing things to be able to give the rationale of what it is that we are doing: we need, for our own sakes as well as others', to be able to give an account of our activities. In the long run perhaps the greatest benefit the Commission of Inquiry will yield us is this: that it will elicit a rational critique of our society and its institutions, an understanding and assessment of the forms within which the academic life in Oxford is lived. It is difficult to believe that everything about Oxford is perfect. Imperfections in Oxford are perpetually being pointed out, and being reformed. The Commission of Inquiry, because it is considering every point of view, is likely to urge a different order of priorities from the orders adopted at present by various people in various parts of the University. The very virtue of Oxford, that it allows a large number of local initiatives, and therefore admits of many piecemeal reforms, has meant that the right hand often does not care to know what the left hand is doing. Decentralization has led to parochialism. Our activities are often uncoordinated; it would be wrong to adopt the remedy, supported by many men of influence, of securing co-ordination by subordinating all members to a single head. The Republic of Letters is better exemplified by existing institutions at Oxford than by academic autocracies elsewhere. But it would be better exemplified still, if every one turned occasionally from hoeing his own particular row, and viewed the whole field of academic activity. The Commission of Inquiry will provide just such a synoptic view, and will enable Oxford to get itself into focus, and to set its sights accordingly.


J. R. LUCAS

See for the original evidence I submitted to the Franks Commission in 1964.