Workahol is the curse of the thinking classes. Though popular opinion has it that Oxford dons are given to claret and gluttony, no public recognition is given to our much more dangerous addiction to work. As we move into an era of great financial stringency, and are increasingly having to cut our coat according to our cloth, we need to review not only our resources but our use of them, and press home the question whether we are using them aright.
It is easy to pick on some targets of our misplaced zeal: we over-teach; we over-administrate. What is more difficult, and more painful, is to subject our other intellectual activities to the same scrutiny, and entertain the possibility that we publish too much, read too much, confer too much. Not that these are bad things, any more than teaching or administration is. But, as with them, we are under an insidious internal pressure to increase quantity, often at the cost of quality. Just as it is easy to get a warm glow from having injected a pupil with an extra hour's tuition, so there is a temptation to think one has done well by writing an extra article or another review. It is, of course, possible that one has, but it is not necessarily so. And while we need to foster industrious habits in order to get anything written at all amid the pressures and distractions of Oxford life, we need to pause sometimes, and ask to what end we dirty paper or fill up floppy disks. In the years I have been at Oxford, we---I---have failed in three respects. We have failed first in being friends with the young. I do not play cricket with them; I hardly ever watch them playing rugger; I seldom go to the JCR bar. I have my excuses. Although I do my best to curb my college's lust for committee meetings, we waste thousands of don-hours discussing the undiscussible, and many afternoons when it would be healthy and pleasant to be with the young as they disport themselves at play are spent indoors gazing at the fading sunlight on the other side of the Quad. Equally the Student Movement did a lot to destroy the easy relationship that once existed between senior and junior members of the university. Whatever the excuses, whatever the explanation, something has gone, something that was one of the great glories of Oxford. And one of the reasons why I fail to make time to re- create it is that I perpetually feel that I ought to be getting on with my work.
I am conscious of a second failure in the Oxford I have helped constitute, as compared with the Oxford of yesteryear. Intellectual friendships between senior members are fewer and less deep. In this, even more than in the first case, it is difficult to speak of others, and I hope I am wrong. But we seem to be a society in which we have many colleagues but few friends, and once again the reason is largely that we keep ourselves too busy to have much time for one another. The third failure flows partly from the second. Our academic output, though professionally very competent, seems to lack depth and breadth. It is good of its sort---and I certainly would not want it not to be good of its sort. But though it wins stars from the Government's Quality Control Monitors, I find that I am rather seldom deeply shaken by what I hear, or made to think afresh, and cannot often place the particular point at issue in a wider conspectus. I sometimes wonder how much of this will seem interesting in a hundred years' time, how much will resonate with the outside world, and influence the future course of history. Of course, it would again be unreasonable to expect that every utterance should be world-shaking or profound. But as we pride ourselves on our academic professionalism, and think how much better we are than the dons of the nineteenth or eighteenth centuries, we need to ask ourselves whether professionalism may not have an inhibiting effect, and hold us back from chancing our arms in an unprofessional way.
Scholarship, I try and remind myself, comes from the Greek word, schole, leisure; if only I could be open with undergraduates, have time for friends, sit back and really think---I might do less, but perhaps it would be worth doing. But I must get on with revising chapter 9.Return to home page