Tables

by

J.R. Lucas

from Oxford Magazine,99, Fourth Week, Michaelmas Term, 1993, pp.3-4.

The Norrington Table is scotched, but not killed. It still appears each year in a national daily, having been compiled by an enterprising graduate with more need for money than time. Some people argue that this shows the futility of trying to suppress the table. But that is not so. In a free society it is open to anyone to obtain information and publish his results. There are many things that people might like to know about colleges. Of greater interest to many than schools results would be the average earnings of graduates of each college five years after going down: that would enable people to pick the best college for repaying student loans, and for enjoying the fruits of worldly success. An enterprising graduate with nothing better to do might go through the university telephone directory, and work out the Ms-ratio for each college and department: no doubt the Daily Telegraph would pay good money for a list of those parts of Oxford that were entirely Ms-free. What is important is not what other people say, but what we say, or seem to endorse its being said, about us. Once the Norrington table appeared to have our imprimatur, it suggested that we set too much score by schools results, and instead of regarding final examinations as a necessary evil, bad, but less bad than any available alternative, we reckoned that getting a good result in schools was the chief raison d'etre of an undergraduate's being here. We were mistaking a necessarily fallible indicator for the real thing, and playing down the value of the time spent at Oxford as merely a means to the end of a good performance in an examination, and altogether discounting the intellectual integrity and abilities that go with our pupils when they go down.

Other tables beset us, even more insidiously. If five-star ratings are on offer, we want five stars. If I am going to be given more money, or even just an honorific title, on account of my output, I put out all the stuff I can. I can no more stand out of the competition than I can want my pupils not to do well in finals. But we can collectively remind ourselves that the tables are based on merely measurable criteria, and often miss the real point at issue. In a hundred years' time it may be possible to assess the contribution each has made, though even then comparisons will be difficult and judgements fallible. But now, before the test of time has been made, research ratings are so ill founded as to be useless.

They are also pernicious, in much the same way as the Norrington Table was. They divert attention from the valuable to the merely assessable, and encourage academics not to do what they really believe in but what they think others will be impressed by. Bertrand Russell would have got no brownie points for the ages he spent staring at a blank piece of paper, nor I for the time I have spent trying and failing to find a modal derivation of time, or a foundation for topology in terms of ordering relations alone. Candid friends sometimes suggest to me, as Attlee did to Laski, that a little silence on my part would be welcome. Perhaps I should enter all the books I have not published, all the articles I have not written, or at least those I have not sent off to any editor, after realising that no tree should be felled in order to spread the thoughts they contained. It is part of our duty to exercise some quality control on our output, but government pressure militates against that. I am increasingly depressed at the longer and longer cvs served up, listing not only books and important articles, but reviews, talks given, conferences organized, conferences attended, letters to the newspapers published, even the monitorships held at school. It is not only that the noise-signal ratio is needlessly increased---as with bibliographies given in lecture courses, the value is, roughly speaking, inversely proportional to the length---but that we are being led to think that what is important is what we churn out, not how we think, and in what spirit we perform our various duties. One colleague of mine regularly puts down on his assessment form as his achievement for the preceding year that he tried to do his duty, and his project for the ensuing year that he hopes to do his duty still: what better account can any of us give, what better ambition can any of us nourish?

Whitehall will have none of that. It wants accountability, and not only accountability but ``transparent accountability''. It is a serious criticism of Greats tutors that they did not din into their pupils, the future mandarins, the deep conceptual truth that in asking people to account in one way one precludes their being accountable in others. I can ask you to justify yourself by reference to the number of articles you have published, but if I do so I cannot then complain that you have not produced any world- shaking discoveries. I can make it an absolute requirement that my generals conform to certain standards of normality or sobriety, but must accept the consequence that then I have deprived myself of the services of a Wolfe or a Ulysses S.Grant. If Her Majesty's Government wants the services of industrious hacks, there are plenty of people willing to call themselves academics, and meet all the requirements that the U.F.C. lays down: the one thing we can be certain of, however, is that they will not have an original thought between them.

We are in the business of originality. We lay ourselves open to having new ideas that have never been had before, and certainly have never been approved by a grant-giving authority. Each of us, therefore, has to chance his arm, and is necessarily in a better position to judge what he ought to be doing than anybody else. That is not to say he will get it right: it is highly hazardous, and there is a high wastage. But that should not worry us, individually or collectively: we should remember the dictum of Alfred Dupont, who knew that half the money he spent on advertising was wasted, but that nobody could tell him which half. The rational course in such a situation is to back people not projects, and to ask them to render an account only in the long term---perhaps, even, not until the Day of Judgement---and in the broadest possible terms. Some of us, we should freely admit, will not make a good showing, will have contributed little in return for the privileges and very great opportunities bestowed upon them. I am in no position to judge, but guesstimate that perhaps 5% of dons in Oxford have squandered their forty years of academic freedom. But the parable of the tares applies: it is less wasteful to let them waste their time than to try to do some timely weeding: not only is the process of assessment exceedingly extravagant, but it may well inhibit the genuinely original who have hunches they cannot justify to any third persons. Better not to cut out the dead wood than to bruise the fragile green shoots in the process.

Many practical consequences ensue. We need to explain much more fully and carefully why government policies are not only misconceived, but disastrous. Conrad Russell has done an admirable job in the House of Lords and in his recent book Academic Freedom: we need to follow up his extended lecture with prolonged tutorials in which we listen to what the government has to say for itself, and then patiently, but thoroughly, point out its inconsistencies and false assumptions, as we would with any second-year undergraduate who served up a shoddy essay. We also need in our own practices to maintain the conditions of academic freedom. We need to make a conscious decision of policy to go back to giving what effectively amounts to tenure at an early stage, when it is most likely to spur the young academic to risky endeavour---recent retrenchments have dangerously encouraged colleges to give only limited-term fellowships, which may be prudent for the college but is bad for Oxford. The General Board needs to think carefully whether it may not be encouraging colleges to go down this path, and be prepared to change its own priorities to make sure we do not end up with the American practice where the thirties are wasted trying to please those who can grant tenure instead of thinking straight without fear or favour. And, finally, we should set about relegating research ratings to the same dusty shelf as the Norrington Table. We cannot stop the government wasting the tax-payer's money on useless exercises, but we can say that they are useless, and we can explain why. As with the Norrington Table, collective action is called for. Oxford is in a position to give a lead. Nobody can think we can have much to hide, and almost all universities would, by now, know the unreliability of the exercise, its great cost and its damaging effects. If all universities were together to say to their masters that out of solicitude for the public purse they were anxious to discontinue footling form filling, and were therefore advising members of their own institutions not to serve as assessors and not to fill in their forms (beyond the excellent minimum statement of my colleague), it would be difficult for a government with an unmanageable budget deficit to take no notice, and if in response there were murmurs of ``accountability'' the real tutorial could begin.

click here to view an earlier article, published in Oxford, May, 1980, pp.45-49.

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