A Plea for Incompetence


J.R. Lucas

Of course I have an axe to grind. I am one of the old school of tutors, generally regarded as outmoded and amateurish by our more up-to-date successors, who are anxious to introduce more professionalism into Oxford's academic life. I probably shan't be replaced, but if I am, it will be by somebody competent, capable of looking the twenty-first century in the face, who knows what he is about, and adopts effective means to bringing it about.

Nevertheless I want to warn against the self-defeating emphasis on efficiency that is fashionable today. We have all seen it in the purely academic field. At the behest of the UGC we have wasted a lot of time trying to think which of our colleagues' publications over the last five years would stand up to casual scrutiny by outsiders. The object of the exercise has never been made clear. It resulted in many dons being made unhappy and many departments depressed, and provided some copy for the newspapers, but didn't - and couldn't - produce more support for research; and it diminished the actual amount of research done. Pressuring dons to be rating books rather than writing them is inherently counter-productive. The Russians reduced the productivity of their universities by similar means before the war, and now the UGC is following the lead of the civil service in this country in enforcing inefficiency by efficiency audits.

But it is not only the UGC: it is us too. We waste hours in committees deciding questions that do not really need deciding, or supplying information which could be done without. When I was last Chairman of examiners, I was being required to tell the Registry how many people had been taking the examination years before I joined the board. I am sure these figures provide useful fodder for statistical exercises: but I have the gravest doubts whether it is a responsible use of don-time to use it to supply the greedy appetites of computers. Sometimes when abroad, I have relied on my imagination to answer the impertinent questions of immigration officials, and acquired much status as an undergraduate in supplying not only my wife's maiden name but also the names of our five children. I have not yet knowingly given wrong answers to silly questions from the Registry, but my conscientiousness is diminishing with the years.

My worst failings are as a tutor. I am always tempted to sacrifice the best for the sake of the not-too-bad. I set collections this term to winkle out a bad pocket of idleness I had detected among my pupils, and I shall succeed in making them work. But at the cost of letting them think. Occasionally it is right to do this, because idleness is catching, and we have a considerable responsibility to the tax-payer. But Oxford is the only opportunity most undergraduates have of thinking for themselves, and if we collar all their time in order to process them into passable images of ourselves, we may flatter our own self-esteem, but deprive them of the chance of discovering themselves. Although I must be prepared to goad the public-school boy who is settling for a comfortable second before becoming a chartered accountant and earning 37K, I must not convey the impression that it is I who can be relied on to say what must be done, and that provided I do not express displeasure, my pupils can be sure that they are doing all they should.

It is a great advantage to me as a tutor that I do not know the subjects I am supposed to teach. It means that I do not, because I cannot, tell my pupils the things they ought to know. I can ask them questions, and that may make them think, and I can try to answer their questions, and in seeing how I, who have not got the answer pat, tackle the problem, they may be the better able next time to tackle something hard. If I knew Greek, or Logic, or Hume, or any of the other subjects I give tutorials in, I should not know how difficult they were, and should become impatient at their slowness in mastering in half an hour what I took six months to understand. It is a great pity that modern Oxford has gone overboard on the idea that tutors can only teach subjects they know. Quite a few tutors in consequence do not cover the whole of their subjects, and send people out for the eighteenth century because "it is not my period". But this is ridiculous. It leads to under- graduates having different tutors every term, so that there is nobody to keep an eye on their progress, and notice if things are going wrong; and to tutors who are specialists in their subjects force-feeding their pupils with all the latest articles in the subject instead of letting the undergraduate think his way into the main lines of it, and discuss the major issues which even the non-specialist can see to be important. It is reasonable for a man not to lecture on something he is entirely ignorant of, and for a young tutor to send some subjects out when he is still struggling hard to cope: but Oxford would be much better educationally if we were not so "professional"; and were more ready to expose our ignorance to the young, and encourage them to think that they too could manage to discover the main bones of some unfamiliar subject.

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