Readers Journal     weblog/wEssays     home

An Oxbridge Education   (Protagoras, January 2, 2008)

Our education forms us intellectually. My own exposure to the typical education of the English intelligensia of the previous generation started at the age of 16 or so. This is the way in which the entire Establishment of the country used to be educated, and the assumptions and attitudes it produced dominated Government, the Law, the political parties, until well after Thatcher.

It produced a body of people with no fear of feeling stupid, nor fear of admitting ignorance, totally confident that if they read anything enough times and worked at it hard enough, they could grasp it, no matter how recondite. Frustration in the face of lack of understanding was an emotion that had become alien to them, and one they found it very hard to recognize in others. For them, there were no experts, only people who happened to know more about a particular subject. That was interesting, not threatening. If you want to see a mind formed like this in action, read Monckton on Global Warming. Its as good a case study as you will find. G R Elton on the Tudors is another example in an unrelated field.

People formed like this grow up not thinking they are in any way remarkable. They probably do not even consider themselves particularly smart. For them its just how the world is. If they are required to learn a new language from scratch in three months, they will simply shrug their shoulders, get a grammar, a dictionary, and a few texts, and get on with it for many hours a day committing stuff to memory, rewriting bits of prose. In this way, Macaulay taught himself Hindi on the vogage to India with a Bible and a dictionary. If they go to Berlitz and are told not to learn grammar, they will laugh and know the people they are talking to don't understand anything, because they can learn all the grammar they need in a week, and will do so, if it takes 10 hours a day. If they have to learn to write programs in C, fine, they can learn C, why not? They will get tired, they will get exhilirated, they'll be pleased or not with their progress, but it will never occur to them that this is unreasonable, boring, or that they may find it impossible. I had a friend with a classics degree who was taken on as the planner of a large telecommunications company. His reaction was to buy a physics textbook and learn the basics of electricity and information theory from scratch. It never occurred to him that this was in any way unusual.

Another friend's husband fell ill with a complex condition whose best form of treatment was obscure. At a meeting with the head of the medical team, and some of his students, she asked which was the standard textbook and most important recent articles on his condition. The students sniggered. The consultant supplied a reading list with the expression of one who thinks this is at best a harmless waste of time. It was a 500 page technical textbook and a dozen specialist journal articles. Their reaction bothered her so little she hardly noticed it. She knew that what they thought of her abilities or approach was irrelevant.

Two weeks later they met once more, and the smiles were wiped from their faces in the first five minutes as she explained to them what she thought the issues and choices were, what further reading she had done on the basis of the list, and why she had made up her mind on one particular course of treatment. Apparently the sense of shock in the room was palpable. She said to me that having a common background I would of course realize that it is not terribly hard to know more than an eminent specialist in two weeks if the subject is restricted enough, and if you are motivated enough. She was right, they changed their proposals, and he lived.

The down side is, that such people will sometimes make terrible mistakes from overconfidence, sometimes they will mistake superficial acquaintance for understanding, and if enough of them are together, they will be subject to collective waves of delusion. Britain declined in the fifties and sixties under the governance of people like this. The Battle Cruiser Hood was sent into action against the Bismark by people like this. The Repulse and Prince of Wales were sunk on an expedition commanded by them. British Leyland was assembled and managed by them. They ran a secret service in which Philby, Burgess, Maclean, Blunt and Cairncross flourished, and in which, as Peter Wright records, the first hour of the day was spent doing the Times crossword puzzle. Windscale, the greatest nuclear disaster before Chernobyl, was managed by them. As dons, their personal lives were often a complete mess. They often mistook emotional illiteracy for sophistication. If they had lovers, it was rare to have one simple good relationship at a time. If they had children, they often grew wild. We must not idealize them or the process in any way. I'm not. I'm describing it.

My teacher one day without warning handed me a copy of Hopkins' poems, and told me to write an essay on the Windhover. I was 15 or 16. It was clear that one was not supposed to ask for further direction. I went away and read it over and over again. I couldn't figure out what it meant or was about or where it came from. 'Plow down sillion shine'? I looked up sillion in the dictionary. 'Gash gold vermillion'? No work of criticism figured in the assignment. It was clearly not expected that the essay would be a digest of other commentary, or even mention any other commentary. But actually, I hardly knew there was such a thing as literary criticism at the time, and my teacher was certainly not about to let me know of it.

I handed in my essay, finally, and received it back some time later, well annotated, with a section of prose comment at the end. There was no grade - there never was to be a grade on anything for the next several years. There was no word of praise or criticism. There were simply a series of remarks of the form: but have you considered this? How would you meet this counter argument? With the essay came another assignment, which was simply a work. It could have been a poem, a short story, a novel, a text. Shortly afterwards I received an assignment of a similar sort from my history teacher. It concerned some fundamental issue in the complex detail of some period we had never studied in class.

There were a number of characteristics of this way of teaching. You were never expected to ask what the purpose or objective was. The object of the instruction was never to teach in the American sense, to make anything available to you. You were expected to find out for yourself what else to read or study to understand what you had been given. The poetry assignment was to write on the Windhover. It was assumed that you would realize you had to read all of Hopkins to acquire the necessary background. You were supposed to work out not only what you made of the topic, but also what the question was. Years later, particularly baffled by one such assignment, I did ask what the essay was supposed to be about. My teacher stared in surprise, as if he had never been asked such a thing before, and replied "Why, you write about what is the question, and what is the answer."

The topics taught were narrow to the point of being obscure. In neurophysiology, for instance, the first assignment was a series of technical articles about the reticular formation. You were expected to find out for yourself what the reticular formation was, how it fitted into the anatomy of the brain. No teacher would ever have suggested you read one of those huge American synoptic textbooks. It was assumed that if you needed one of those, you would find it, read it, and then get on with the assignment from the readings given. In a course on the psychology of learning, you might be handed an account of a particular experiment in stimulus response conditioning, and an article by Chomsky about grammar. It was up to you to figure out how they fitted together. There were also no authorities. The only authority was the power of argument. If you were offered a weak argument, you were supposed to refute it. If you needed to know and use statistics (and you did) you had best find a book and learn it.

Only once, at the age of 16 or 17, I was given an American college textbook to read a piece in. The remark that accompanied it was, this is meant for third year American undergraduates so it should be about right for you now.

If the course of study, the topics, within a subject was narrow, the course of subjects was also narrow, and subject to the same assumptions that you would find and read what was relevant outside it. Did you need to know some history to go with your philosophy? Fine, go find some and read it. You would be expected to have a good background in literature to go with your Freud. Find it and read it. He refers extensively to the Greek myths. You have surely read Sophocles, Homer, Aeschylus? You will naturally read Proust and Flaubert, in translation if you can't manage the original. Our teachers did not think of themselves as imparting knowledge. Their task was not even to make you into a thinker. Their task was to teach you how to go about mastering a subject, any subject, without any formal instruction and with only the most minimal of guides to what the starting point was. They would never have thought of giving you a list of 'Great Books'. If you did not know what the great books were by now, have read them, and hopefully have found your own reasons for thinking a number of them were not that great, what were you doing there?

The contrast with American education was striking. To arrive at an American university for post graduate work, as I later did, was to be completely a fish out of water. The philosopher Quine, whose great contribution to the field was the doctrine of the indeterminacy of meaning, a doctrine whose truth would imply its own incommunicability, was upheld as a great twentieth century thinker. The alleged paradox of implication, which resulted from the unsurprising observation that implication as used in the propositional calculus did not mirror implication as used in everyday life, was taken most seriously. You did not question Quine, you commented on him. Nagel, a writer who had achieved eminence by shrouding his encylopediac knowledge in impenetrability, to avoid controversy, and to give an impression of a learned balanced judgment, was above criticism. Somewhere out in left field we found the Hegelians, who, as Moore says, debated the reality of time, while still shaving before breakfast, and who specialized in Heidegger and the dialectic - as Russell says, the art of drawing a conclusion which does not follow, from two false and mutually inconsistent premises. In this conformist and intellectually timid environment, to question any of this vigorously was felt to be unsafe, and even, if put in the kind of way that earlier led my Oxbridge teacher to a contented smile of approval, pyschopathically aggressive. You were there to learn, not to argue. To think, yes, but only as much as was needed to learn.

So were there examinations in England? After all, people did graduate. They acquired degrees of various grades. Yes, is the answer. At the end of three years study, you entered a large examination room, and were handed a one page paper with 10 or so questions on it. You wrote (with pen and ink) essays on four of them in two hours. Some of the questions on the philosophy papers of this era have become famous. Can there be nothing between two stars? If I promised to do it, does it follow that I ought to do it? Is this a question?

After three or four years of this kind of study, you might, as when studying with the Zen masters, arrive at a moment of acknowledgment. My own case occurred when I had taken with my teacher the correct side of a controversy, and forced him in defence of his position to adopt more and more extreme and desperate ad hoc amendments. Finally, at one particularly clear restatement of the position he had arrived at, showing its absurdity, he smiled contentedly and looked at me with an expression of some satisfaction. I had made my point in the form 'You cannot reasonably argue that...'. 'Perhaps', he replied, glancing up at the ceiling, 'perhaps only a philosopher, in a particularly tight corner, would resort to it...' He waited a little to see if I would relax now, and when I did, offered me a glass of sherry. The lesson was over. The conversation moved to other matters. A milestone had been passed. This was what we had been aiming for.

The Zen master might have said, "I note that you have learned to see what you are looking at. Good. We will resume our studies tomorrow."

For more on a wide array of other topics, please visit the weblog.


HTML, format and art copyright © 2008 Charles Hugh Smith, copyright to text and all other content in the above work is held by the author of the essay as of the publication date listed above. All rights reserved in all media.

The views of the contributor authors are their own, and do not reflect the views of Charles Hugh Smith. All errors and errors of omission in the above essay are the sole responsibility of the essay's author.

The writer(s) would be honored if you linked this Readers Journal essay to your site, or printed a copy for your own use.


  Readers Journal     weblog/wEssays     home