Norrington Blues

from Oxford, May, 1980, pp.45-49.

by

J. R. LUCAS

Sir Arthur Norrington deserved better of the world than to be known for his table. The Norrington Room, his presidency of Trinity, his long service to the University Press, deserve repeated coverage in the papers. But the only thing they say about him year after year is that he devised the table for comparing the academic prowess of the colleges in the Schools. It is not even true. Long before the Norrington table was first published, when I was an Assistant Tutor in a Cambridge college, I used to see the table which the Tutor drew up each year to show how our college was faring in tripos in comparison with other colleges. And, as a private tutorial check on Schools results, it is a legitimate and useful tool. But, published in the newspapers and made the subject of tea-time conversation in the country, it is a menace and counterproductive to the good things that Oxford should be chiefly concerned to foster.

The Norrington table is bad, obviously, for the colleges which come near the bottom. It is bad also, more insidiously, for those that come near the top, and more pervasively for the undergraduates who read or hear about it, or absorb by osmosis the attitude of mind it engenders. It is bad for colleges to feel themselves publicly disparaged. When the Merton SCR Eight fails to get on to the river at all, few people know, and if it did, and was bottom of the river, it would not terribly matter. There are many Eights, and no particular ignominy attaches to a college if its sixth or seventh Eight ends up bottom of the bottom division. The Norrington table is quite different. It produces a single order, with winners and losers identified for all to see. Of course, those of us in the know, those who are actually examiners, know better than to place much reliance on the results of our labours. When I think back to last July, and remember how my colleagues were over-impressed by my pupils' arguments or how. lenient they were about that indubitable delta, I mentally drop my college several places. But most people are not examiners, and do .not know bow fallible examiners' judgements are. They invest us with a wisdom hitherto reserved for the Almighty, and suppose our collective verdicts are definitive both about individuals', and about

46 Norrington Blues

colleges', academic merit. And whereas individuals go down, and can shake the dust of Oxford from their shoes, and make a success of their lives whatever class they got in Schools, colleges remain in Oxford, and may be discouraged if they are said to be no good, and attract a worse entry, and actually become bad just because the Norrington table gave them a bad reputation.

The Norrington table's influence on the top-ranking colleges is more insidious. It ministers, all too gratifyingly, to a natural inclination. If there is a table, I want my college to come top in it, just as if there is a river, I want my college to be head of it, and if there are Cuppers, I want our teams to win them. We have---can scarcely help having---competitive instincts, and it is a measure of our identification with the college that we want it to do well in each aspect of university life. But the wise tutor knows that success is a mixed blessing, and a college can suffer if it is too much identified with rowing or drama or politics or sport. A dominant clique may be installed and an ethos engendered which are inimicable to the real purposes of the college. It is the same with Schools results. A college which sets its sights on the class lists may lose sight of the things of the mind. If I come to think that my job is to put my pupils through their paces simply in order that they may perform well on the day, I shall teach them such tricks. of the trade as I reckon will be useful to them rather than on occasions allowing them to develop some interest of their own even though it has no Schools value. The man who wants to write two essays on the Ontological Argument, on Spinoza, or on the Meaning of Life, must be firmly restrained, and confined to the straight and narrow of performative utterances, split brains, and convention T. Not that syllabuses are to be ignored or that a pupil's ability to acquit himself well in Schools is unimportant. But they are not all-important, as they may be thought to be if a college stands or falls by its position in the Norrington table.

An undergraduate wants to get a good class. Not only is it a matter of proper pride,: but it may be, for all he knows, a ticket to a, better job when he goes down, a stepping-stone. to a successful career. Although in an ideal world every member of. the University would be moved exclusively by a disinterested love of truth, most young men come up with mixed motives, and the desire to get on gives an edge to their efforts which the disinterested search for knowledge does not always by itself supply. This being so, I want to help them achieve the success they seek. Doing well in Schools is valuable not only

 Norrington Blues 47

 because they value it but because it demands a turn of intellectual speed and stamina, a width of reading, a depth of thinking, and an incisiveness of style, which are inherently valuable in themselves, and which can be developed only by strenuous and prolonged effort. To get a First demands strength of character as well as cleverness of mind: and time and time again I have watched men who were nature's Thirds pull themselves up into the Second class by sustained reading and hard work.

And yet, for all their merits, the final examinations and the class lists distort the idea of Oxford; and although I believe them a necessary feature of university life in an imperfect world, and although I want my pupils to do well in them, I do not want to enhance their importance in their eyes. Men in our age are too easily persuaded to mortgage the present to the future, and to take the apparent paper for the real good. Three or four years spent in Oxford are wasted if they are seen simply or primarily as a preparation for six or seven days spent in the Examination Schools, and the important thing about an Oxford man is not what class he got twenty or thirty years ago but what sort of man he is now. Although some of my pupil's studies gain added point from the fact that they will be tested on them, their chief significance is, as it must be if they are to be valuable at all, an internal one. It is good to read Plato's Republic and Aristotle's Ethics. It is good to ponder the problems of foreknowledge and freedom. It is good to get clear our concepts of causality and personal identity, and to have got thoroughly muddled over the nature of universals and the problem of truth. And it is only because these and other intellectual activities are good in themselves that it is right for people to spend three or four of the best years of their lives within our walls. When I think of the justification of my own tutorial activities, I look much more to the present than the future. If I can help a man to unravel a problem, if I can goad him into asking questions he would not naturally ask, if I can stimulate him to scintillate, encourage him to persist, or introduce him to great minds or deep insights, then I have done well. But if I have merely enabled him to pull wool over the examiners' eyes, without having entered into and enjoyed the intellectual activities of the time, I have done little. In so far as a tutor's justification lies in the future rather than the present, it, lies in the more distant future.- To have got a beta + + instead of a beta in Schools is a small thing, best forgotten soon. But to be able to think clearly, when sitting on the local Bench

 48 Norrington Blues

what penalty it would be just to impose, to be able to help a local education committee to reach a. rational decision, to be able to write a letter on behalf of a deserted wife to the housing officer setting out her case clearly and cogently, and in general to be able to think independently and to be able to make up one's mind for oneself on the merits of the case---these are the real good gifts Oxford can hope to confer on its alumni, the real results it should seek to achieve. But they are easily overlooked, if the class lists are seen as the end of all tutorial efforts.

Contrary to the opinion of the young, life continues after going down, and even a man over thirty may still have a mind. If, by our emphasis on Schools results, we seem to suggest the opposite, we unwittingly imprison many of our former pupils in a cage of false appreciations. We make them look back where they should be looking forward, and burden them with past judgements when they should be living in the present. There are men whose lives have been blighted by an unjust Third. Less well known, but far worse---because amour propre supplies no natural corrective---is the case of those who are awarded an unmerited First or unmerited Second, and who spend the rest of their lives in the shadow of a success they cannot live up to. Even where the examiners' verdict is true, it is a mistake to go on remembering it too long. Class lists, like other references and testimonials, date rapidly, and after five years are superseded by other and better assessments. It is a pity that Oxford men go on being labelled by them throughout their lives, and often cherish the memory of the exact marks they got on each paper. For them their class is as much an incubus as a Blue has sometimes proved for our athletes, who spend the rest of their life looking back to the day at Twickenham, or on the Thames,, or at Lords, when they really existed. Just as we say to them `The important thing is not that you once played for Oxford, but what you are doing now', so we ought now to enable our pupils to say to themselves then 'The important thing is not that I got a First or a Second when I was at Oxford, but that I think honestly and effectively now'.

The Norrington table is dangerous to Oxford because it encourages tendencies, which are in any case already present in the undergraduate mind, to over-emphasize one aspect of Oxford life, and to. discount what constitutes our real raison d'etre. It sacrifices both the present to the future and, later on, the present to the past. It replaces the idea of a college as an intellectual monastery,

 

Norrington Blues 49

a community of scholars pursuing ideas together, teaching and learning from one another, by the idea of the training stable, where tutors back their fancies at the December sales, and try to push them to develop that extra turn of speed by the time they enter them for the June races. Instead of initiating novices into the intellectual life, thereby conferring on them a ktema es aei it makes each of them think of himself, while he is up, as merely preparing for his own finals, and, after he has gone down, as being first and foremost a man with a class, that is a has-been. It would be a good thing for Oxford if the Norrington table were no longer published.

 

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View a later article, published in The Oxford Magazine, 1993.

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