OLYMPIAN ALLIANCES

from Oxford, vol. XXIII, no.3, December 1970, pp.42-47.

OXFORD, in this permissive age, is often accused of promiscuity. So far as the undergraduates are concerned, it is an old charge, and in very many cases untrue. But now it is true of the subjects they read. In the old days the Honour Schools were mostly celibate, each existing by itself without any relation to any other discipline. Only Philosophy and Ancient History were linked together in fertile bliss. Then, after the First World War, Philosophy turned polygamous to keep abreast of the times, and took up with Politics and Economics to form Modern Greats, and was even engaged to Science, but Mr.Joseph objected when the banns were called in Congregation. For Philosophy, however, it was only a temporary set-back, and her craving for further union found psycho-physiological satisfaction in P.P.P. In the sixties Philosophy has started on a further quest to be, if not the Queen of Sciences, at least in intimate relations with many subjects. Mathematics and Physics were successively wooed and won, and this time, to make sure there were no objections in Congregation, the measure was proposed in Latin so bad that nobody could understand it well enough to gainsay it. Then Philosophy and Theology, which had not been speaking to each other for a generation at least, came to terms. And now it is rumoured that the Philosophers and the English dons are billing and cooing at one another, and preparing draft joint papers on Aesthetics and the Principles of Literary Criticism.

Other subjects have not been idle. They do not see why Philosophy should have all the fun. Indeed, the suspicion has grown that the highway to academic success lies through having the right contacts, and that two can extract much more by way of grants from the General Board than any single subject can hope to do if it persists in making its way on its own. Economics, which had always felt rather strait- jacketed with P.P.E., embraced Engineering to enable engineers to become managing directors, and managing directors to know something of what they were supposed to be directing. More prestigious was the haul of History. History had always been very haughty, reckoning that, except for Greats, it was the Best Subject, and indeed better than Greats for the Weaker Man. For Economics to set its cap at History was to reveal ambitions rather above its station. Why, if Economics could get off with History, even Politics might have a go, and attain respectability by association. But more surprising still was the effect of the courtship on the heart of History itself. It was as though the loves of the Olympians had been written by Iris Murdoch. For as soon as History found her virginity assailed by Economics she discovered herself to be hopelessly in love with Modern Languages. If modern youth could not be persuaded to read its medieval charters in Latin, it could at least be made to study diplomatic history in the original Spanish, French, Italian, Rumanian, and Portuguese. By calling in the new languages to redress its ignorance of the old, History could reassure itself that it was a rigorous discipline demanding dedicated effort on the part of its devotees, and not a soft option for those who did not like learning any other language than English.

Some say that it was a logician who invented the Human Sciences course in order to see whether Reductio ad Absurdum was an effective argument in Oxford. But it is probably a libel, put out by the philosophers, who are strong moralists and much disapprove, in Sociologists, Anthropologists, and such like, the principle of free love they practise themselves. Or perhaps they believe that, while it is a hallowed tradition that letters may be humane, and their own more so than other people's, it is contrary to reason that any science should ever be so in any degree whatsoever. But at least the debate over the Human Sciences had the merit of making men think what the rationale of the Joint Honour Schools was, and what the limitations might be. There are two views. One argues that certain subjects are by nature suited for each other, and that such subjects ought to be joined together in an integrated course which brings out the relevance of either to other so that the undergraduate can benefit from the binocular vision thus given him. The other maintains that these marriages are not made in heaven, but are useful institutions none the less, simply because two is better than one, and an undergraduate will be saved from really believing the fashionable nonsense of either subject by virtue of being au fait with a different discipline with different standards of received foolishness. Both sides have a point, but if the latter view prevails, it is clear that Final Honour Schools at Oxford should be like A-levels -you have to take several of them, and some combinations, such as Latin and Greek, Chemistry and Physics, seem to go together, but there is no reason why an under graduate should not take any pair that suits his fancy. But then, as with A-levels, each subject will be taught in relative isolation from all the others, because, if it may be combined with any other, it will not be feasible to emphasize topics that are relevant to one subject rather than another. The sort of History which illuminates Econonics is often not that which illuminates Modern Languages. If those are the only joint Honour Schools containing History, the syllabus of each can be tailored to the interests of Economics and Modern Languages and History tutors can be expected to modify their teaching appropriately. But not if there are some two dozen combinations of History and something else.

So complete promiscuity is out. Only subjects which are naturally suited to each other should be allowed to pair, and in most Joint Honour Schools there is some `bridge' paper to cover topics that need to be approached from both sides of the fence---theory of Politics (P.P.E.), Philosophy of Mind (P.P.P.), Mathematical Logic (Maths and Philosophy), Philosophy of Physics (P. & P.), Philosophy of Religion (P. & T.) This should ensure some limitation. But one cannot be too confident. Name any two subjects and some ingenious academic will build a plausible bridge paper between them. The joint Honour School of Mathematics and Jurisprudence could have paper on the Metric Invariants of Meting out justice and the Topology of Crime-fitting Punishments, with a special practical in Quantifying Damages. Theology and Economics would be a bit more tricky. There is no truth in the rumour that a specimen paper was composed by the Dean of Christ Church and Lord Balogh antiphonally, although some of the questions they did not make up are public knowledge:

  1. `What effect does the Treasury of Merit have on international liquidity?'
  2. `Is it crude Keynesianism or is it naive Friedmanism to suggest that money is the root of all evil?'
  3. `What is the net discounted negative cash value of the fact that sufficient unto the day are the evils thereof?'
  4. `How far is it true that the Budget is an exercise in apophatic theology?-and would either the Cappodocians, or the Treasury, agree with you?'
  5. `"Their idols are silver and gold." Can an adequate justification for I.M.F. drawing rights be based on the O.T. alone?'
  6. `What effect should the doctrine of Predestination have on interest rates ?'
  7. `Discuss the oecumenical impact of the Principle of Economy as exercised by the World Bank.'
  8. `" For brass I will bring gold, and for iron I will bring silver." Will the effect of this policy be inflationary or deflationary?'
  9. `Is Isaiah anticipating the cashless economy or the welfare state when he invites Israel to buy wine and milk without money and without price? justify your answer to the P.I.B.'
  10. `"You cannot serve God and Mammon, but " (Spens). Continue.'
Perhaps in the end every subject will be combined with every other, and every tutor, if he is to teach his own speciality adequately, will have to be familiar with the whole of knowledge. But at present in Oxford the only joint Honour Schools that undergraduates can take are (in statutory order):

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