Critics of Oxbridge take unkindly to our M.A. When I had to fill in one of those innumerable time-wasting forms to show how unqualified I was to hold an academic post, I was specifically instructed to describe myself as a B.A., which I was proud to do, since our B.A. is our best degree (everything in Oxford being the opposite of what it seems). But the real equivalent of a mediaeval M.A. is a modern D.Phil, with every academic wanting to call himself Doctor rather than Master, which is felt to offend our egalitarian age; and now we are going back to the mediaeval trivium followed by a post-grad quadrivium, it might seem that we should tidy up our gradations, and have simply a B.A. for the former, and a D.Phil. for the latter.
I shall be sorry if we do. In part it is just that in an age obsessed with paper qualifications, I value there being one that does not depend on an examination but witnesses to the fact that some people do get better just with the passage of time, and the brilliant candidate of twenty-one is likely to mature into the sensible academic of twenty-five. Moreover, if we did not have the M.A., I strongly suspect, granted the gerontocratic tendencies of our time, that admission to Convocation and Congregation would be deferred to a later date, and we should both lose the counsels of those in their twenties, and---more serious---give them the feeling that they were still not really grown up and capable of having an opinion worth anyone's attention.
A quite different rationale was borne in on me when I attended, as a parent, a degree ceremony in Cambridge. Many colleges presented all their erstwhile undergraduates of the same year together. The ceremony was early in the Easter vacation, away from finals, admissions, or preparations for the new academic year, so that the graduands could stay the night in college, after having been given dinner. It was a mini-gaudy, only one that made special sense, and attracted old members from Singapore, the United States and Eastern Europe, since it offered a good prospect of meeting the majority of their own contemporaries.
The main rite of passage for junior members is going down, and it is a great pity that we, alone of all universities, have no adequate ceremony to signal the change from being an undergraduate to being a fully- fledged member of society. But in most Oxonians' lives there is a further change, which also could well be marked. For the first few years after going down they keep very much in touch with their university friends, and then with career and marriage they form new links, and find it harder to keep up with old friends. At gaudies we get a high turn-out from those recently gone down, and then there is a negative period, when father cannot really make time to go back to Oxford, since he is needed to keep junior in play while the newest arrival is being bathed and nappied. Only when junior is nearing sixteen and having to choose A-levels is it worth coming back to the Old Place, and sounding out the current college policy on admissions, and making sure that tutor knows that there is a sprig of the old tree coming along soon.
The M.A. marks the change from being freshly down from Oxford to being an established operator in one's chosen walk of life. The ceremony could be an occasion to bid a final farewell to acquaintances on the point of disappearing into domesticity and the increasing demands of a responsible career. And at that moment also the actual words of the M.A.'s oath, not to promote the unworthy or to prevent the promotion of the worthy, begin to make sense. We are apt to sit light to the obligations of being able to form an independent judgement. It is good to be reminded of them at the stage when most are just beginning to be in a position to take decisions that matter.Return to home page