Pattison v. Jowett

Benjamin Jowett and Mark Pattison quarrelled, and Oxford has lived under the shadow of that quarrel ever since. Pattison thought Oxford needed to be brought up to date and fashioned to be more like other universities, with a proper hierarchical structure and a disciplined emphasis on research: Jowett saw the prime role of Oxford as educating the elite who were to govern the British Empire, a task for which its collegiate structure was peculiarly well fitted. It seemed to them, and has seemed to many ever since, that their ideas were necessarily antithetical, and posed a dilemma that Oxford collectively, and dons individually, had to face and decide between. Only this term the Warden of St Anthony's, at the close of the debate in Congregation, spoke of Research Oxford as a different entity form that represented in Congregation, which had a different ethos and a different agenda, and whose existence we could not any longer ignore. But I believe this picture is fundamentally flawed, and distorts our understanding of ourselves. Although the tensions are real and experienced by all of us, they are tensions inherent in our existence as thinkers, and, though sadly in some cases destructive, potentially creative, leading us to a far fuller self-realisation than exclusive concentration on any aspect of the intellectual life could ever achieve.

We think. Ideas come to us, sometimes in the solitude of the study, or on a long walk in the countryside, sometimes in chit-chat of lab tea or common-room conversation, sometimes in the course of the hard slog in the library or with the word-processor. But having come to us, ideas are not content to stay with us, but demand to be shared, to be told to others, perhaps to a colleague, perhaps to a pupil, perhaps to the world at large. It is primarily that one is on to a good thing, and wants others to enjoy it too, but it is also a rational recognition of one's own fallibility, and a need to subject one's own intimations of truth to the more dispassionate scrutiny of others, not so madly in love with the new idea. It is only in communicating that we come to know what it is that we think we have glimpsed; only in making others understand, that we come to understand it ourselves, only in persuading others of its truth that we come to realise the strength of the arguments which led us to adopt it in the first place, only in hearing the criticisms of others that we are saved from erroneous thoughts and fallacious arguments, only in seeking to meet their criticisms with counter arguments that we arrive at a well buttressed position we can defend against all comers.

Since the invention of printing, great emphasis has been laid on publication, of which the present ``publish or perish'' policy being forced on us by the government is the final manifestation. But printing, as we knew it, has been overtaken by the new technologies, and no longer represents the debut of an idea on the public scene---indeed, often in the sciences the real life of an article is almost entirely in the pre-print, and publication represents the decent burial, rather than the birth, of a new idea. We need to rethink the rationale of different modes of communication, and re-assess their value. Going public is, indeed, important: it constitutes an open challenge to each and every critic, anywhere throughout the world, to do his worst. In the Middle Ages it was accomplished through lecturing in public, and it survives in a vestigial form in the public examination for a doctorate, in which the candidate defends his thesis against all comers. But there are many other ways in which ideas can be communicated, many other ways in which they can be exposed to criticism. Just because I am addressing myself to everyone when I write a book or an article, I am debarred from concentrating on you, and trying my hardest to get across to you. And although in theory I expose myself to the severest criticism there can be, when I go public, in practice the most searching examination of my ideas will come from the few who have actually taken the time and trouble to go into them fairly fully---it is the examiners, not the public that the doctoral candidate has most reason to fear. I communicate most fully and effectively when I do indeed concentrate on you, and can devote myself entirely to getting across to you, taking all the time I need to surmount your difficulties, and meet your objections, without wasting time and losing your concentration by putting in extra explanations for the benefit of other people or meeting their imaginary objections which you do not, in fact, wish to raise. There is a trade-off between the number of people I am addressing and depth with which I can communicate to those addressed. Good though it is to write books and give public lectures, it is not, and cannot be, the only good form of academic communication, but can only flourish, indeed only make sense, in a setting in which other forms of communication also take place, and in particular the one-to-one communications of personal conversation.

If we have ideas, we need to communicate them to others, that is to teach others to have them too. Although some people manage to communicate only with their colleagues of equal standing, there is a natural nisus towards communicating ideas to the young. It is partly that they are more deferential, readier to listen to us and not insist that we listen to them; it is partly a long-term insurance policy, to bring it about that when we and our contemporaries are dead there will still be pupils who will remember us and embody in their lives and thinking the ideas and attitudes they gained from us; but it is chiefly that in teaching the inexperienced, inexpert young we give ourselves an opportunity to stand beck from the obscuring parochialism of our own particular specialism, and survey the whole field of our mutual interest. It is good on occasion to paint with a broad brush, to give a thumbnail sketch, picking out the broad outline, and passing over the pettifogging detail. A change of focus improves our own understanding of what we already know, and may help us to see new shapes of woods among our all-too-well-known trees. Often also in coming across the uncomprehending, unconvinced gaze of the young, we come to realise the limited validity of the assumptions of our own discipline, and in attempting to justify its fundamental assumptions obtain a better sense of its place within the edifice of human knowledge, and the commitments and presuppositions involved in its practice. Our pupils are not professionals, and introduce an invaluable element of lay common sense into our ratiocinations. More important for many of us is the fact, which Plato noted, that our tongues are cleverer than our brains, so that in the course of talking we hear ourselves saying things we had never thought of before, though, once said, we recognise their essential rightness. It is this that is the mainspring of the tutorial system: tutors teach because in so doing they learn, and they want to learn. It is a large part of their intellectual life, self-standing, in need of no further justification. They teach, because they are not just teaching, but are thereby exercising the intellectual life in one of its central modes.

But again, there are limits. Although for a time I can engage in tutorial teaching to the exclusion of everything else, just as I can, for a time put everything else aside while I polish my final draft, I cannot do either for long without great cost. In the course of conversation, whether in tutorials, or at High Table, or in the lab, sparks fly upwards: many fall down again, extinguished by second thoughts, but some linger, and need to be fanned into flame if the illumination is not to be evanescent. I need to write it up. When I was young after many a tutorial I really needed the rest of the day to write down what had been said and what had been left unsaid but might have been said, what had been taken for granted, and objections which might have been raised, so as to turn the quick argument into something that would stand up under continued scrutiny. Even now I sometimes make notes of the structure of the argument in tutorials which have gone really well, and illumined my understanding of the topic as well as that of my pupil. If I do not do this, if I go on from one tutorial to the next, without ever pursuing ideas to their bitter end, I become frustrated, stale and intellectually constipated. My mind becomes cluttered up with half thoughts which have occurred to me, but which I have not had time to think out to their conclusion and have neither been able to discard as ill founded, nor capture and tie down in unevanescent prose. Once I have written an idea down properly, I can say good-bye to it, and forget it for the time being, but if I cannot get it out of my system it goes on going round and round in my head, blocking other thoughts, and preventing me form being able to attend to them, or to anything else that my next pupil may say. In the short run, in an emergency, if a colleague is ill, I can live with this, and can surmount it---I am an old hand now, and can put on a good tutorial show, even when tired and below par---but in the long run I become very much less good as a tutor, simply because I cannot respond to my pupil's ideas by having fresh ideas of my own, but am constantly aborting them, knowing that there is no possibility of their going to full term, since they must be cleared out at the next knock on the door to make way for a different discussion with a different pupil on a different topic. It is evident to me that many tutors are suffering in this way, and that it is one of the chief causes of our present discontents, that many teachers are frustrated by having to teach too much, so that they cannot balance their tete-a-tete conversations with periods of reflection, in which they can ponder in solitude what they have said, or write down the winged words from their mouths as permanent marks on the page, to be read and re-read, and wrought and re-wrought, in time to come.

In Oxford we have a further commitment to administration. That too, though a tax on our time, is not just that, but a further, though subordinate part of the life of the intellect: it is not just that if we will not be run by others we have to take time to manage our own affairs, true though that is, but a recognition that ideas often arise from, or issue in, action, and it is only if we sometimes act out our ideas that we come to understand them fully. My understanding of justice owes more to my experience as dean of discipline and as an objector in Public Inquiries than to time spent in the law library, and I imagine many a historian has found that his time spent as Proctor or on a faculty board has been as useful to the study of cabinet government as was Gibbon's time in the army to the historian of the Roman Empire.

The academic life needs all these forms of intellectual activity, and suffers if any is pursued to the total exclusion of the others. But they do compete. If I am trying to get a book completed before the end of the long vac, I do not read the new books that come thudding down on my desk, I do not follow up that bright remark made in common room last night, and if I give all my attention to an unsatisfactory pupil who has not been getting his work done, I fail to read the agenda for the college meeting. Life is short, and art, especially academic art, is exceedingly time-consuming. We are always having to compromise, and forgo writing up the talk we gave at the last conference in order to have something fresh to say at the next. That sort of tension is inherent in our being thinkers who want to communicate with different classes of people in different ways: we may moan about it, but cannot seriously expect to be spared it. Our present difficulty in Oxford is not that we cannot do all of everything, but that we have allowed our institutions to pressure us into thinking that we should; we waste our time trying to do too much of them all, instead having them help us to make rational decisions about what should be given up in order to secure what. We teach far too much, and con undergraduates into thinking that two bad essays are better than one good one: we publish far too much, and think that if our department churns out twenty articles, which nobody is going to have time to read, it is doing better than if it produced one good one, which we all read and discussed and thought about. We administrate far too much, endlessly writing letters to ourselves in order to ensure that the quart fails to get into our pint pot by exactly the same margin that it fails to get into the other pint pots. In each case we should do better if we set our sights lower, and did not try to maximise on all fronts at once. And it would be much easier for individuals to be reasonable, if we did not think in terms of polarized institutions, with Jowettian colleges thought of as endeavouring to get the maximum stint out of their tutors while a research oriented university was trying to get its pound of research flesh from the same bods. Colleges are necessarily Pattisonian institutions, because else they could not be the educational engines that Jowett would want them to be: research institutes want to spread the word, for else they labour in vain, and need to spread it by word of mouth and by E-mail, and not only on the printed page, if they are to generate and disseminate knowledge effectively, and as they respond to the necessities of colleagueship and the urge to induct the young into the mysteries of their special art, they begin to develop the features of collegiality that have been, since the Middle Ages, characteristic of the Oxford ideal.