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The Woman Problem & other prose

The Temple of Academos

page 69

The Temple of Academos

As our century glides with swan-like majesty down the river of time towards the second millennium, little problems of navigation keep cropping up. One of them concerns the modern University. Not a little problem in this case, indeed no, but one that hacks at the very roots of society, threatening to strand us on a mud-bank covered with broken reeds, and to get our metaphors into a hopeless tangle. For several decades the University has been in a state of crisis. Scholars and publishers continue to make quite a nice thing out of it. There seems to be no good reason why I shouldn't horn in.

The fierce spotlight of public opinion is being focused more and more closely on University affairs. In buses and trains, in withdrawing-rooms, in bars, even in college common-rooms, anxious questions are being asked, and no less anxiously debated: 'The University—whither? What of the morrow?' The reasons for this avid interest in the higher learning are, as the leader-writers would put it, not far to seek. Increasingly it is found that employers, both public and private, are demanding that if illiteracy cannot be abolished, it should at least be better organised, and are insisting that the new recruit shall have a degree of some sort. Every year some further walk of life is professionalised, and the University is expected to install departments, chairs, courses, degrees, and to act as midwife. The rising tide of professionalism has not yet engulfed the retail soft-goods business. It is still possible to be a milk roundsman or a pick-and-shovel man on a paid-amateur basis. A few other pockets of economic primitivism remain, but it will not be for long. The University, being a hidebound institution, opposes this drift towards a new guild system, and is staunch for feudalism. When it cannot put up any further fight it cuts its page 70losses and offers a diploma instead of a degree. This is known as the diplomatic approach to the problem.

All this froth of activity is not due to any special baseness in human nature. It is part of a broad historical movement. We are in the first stages of a new Enlightenment. With the growing popularity of Culture in all its manifestations, it is now taken for granted that everybody ought to go to the University; and already one has the impression, at times, that nearly everybody does. We have, indeed, almost reached the point at which University education may properly claim the grandiloquent title of Education for the Masses. (Its auxiliary service, Adult Education, may be described as Education for the Missus.) I think we may look forward confidently and with the ripest of hopes to a period, not far distant in time, when this process will have completed itself. Every person will attend the University in adolescence, and be granted a degree as of right after finishing a course of studies. Examinations in their present form will be abolished, and the waste of public money that results from failing a certain number of students every year will be avoided. There may still be invidious distinctions, of the sort we have had in the past, between people of high degree and people of low degree, but at least everybody will have a degree of some kind. All will be equal in terms of basic academic status. Social justice will prevail. The same end might of course be attained by abolishing degrees altogether. But—to quote one who was born too soon, alas, to benefit from the present dispensation—

Take but degree away, untune that string,
And, hark! what discord follows; each thing meets
In mere oppugnancy.

No decent-living person could be satisfied with mere oppugnancy. The better way is to make degrees universal. Then every one of us within the great democratic republic of learning will be able to say 'Civis Romanus sum', even if he is not very good at sums.

You may ask, 'How then shall we single out persons having special aptitudes in this or that field of learning, in the page 71remote event of this being necessary?' The answer is childishly simple. They will be known by the shape of their ears seen from behind, and by certain birth-marks visible only at low tide.

The chief problem of the University in time to come, when the democratisation of learning is complete, will be to reconcile two more or less contradictory aims—on the one hand, to establish a closer connection with practical affairs and everyday life ('gearing in with' is the correct phrase); and on the other, to preserve traditional decencies by keeping up a proper degree of academic disinterestedness and detachment. Can this dilemma be solved in any simple way—by which I mean, can we hope to hit two glasshouses with one stone? I think not. I can see nothing for it but to set out deliberately to breed two distinct types of University teacher, each fulfilling one of these ends as completely as possible.

In the past there has been little difficulty about detachment from practical affairs. I myself have encountered, or been told about, the following examples:

  • A Zoologist who hated dogs and horses.
  • A Mathematician who loved horses so much that he regularly lost money on them.
  • A Greek scholar who blushed at nude statues.
  • A Philosopher with a stomach ulcer.
  • A Nuclear Physicist who burnt his fingers while letting off a Roman candle on Guy Fawkes' night.
  • A Gynaecologist who detested the screaming of babies.
  • An Economist who went bankrupt three times.
  • A Professor of Surgery who always bungled carving the joint.
  • A Science Lecturer who sat on the end of a branch and sawed himself off.
  • A Geologist who hit his thumb with a hammer.

I have no doubt that this list could be extended greatly if one cared to carry out a systematic survey along Mess Observation lines.

Such academic aloofness from practical things is praiseworthy. It augurs well for the future. But can we not carry it page 72further, and come even closer to realising one of our twin ideals? Most of these men (you will be surprised to hear that there were no women among them) obviously continued to have dealings with other human beings outside the University world. Some years ago, heedful of the importance of academic detachment, I designed a University building that was intended to go right to the heart of the problem. The main principle was that the lecture-rooms were to have no doors or windows. The idea received very serious consideration, and was at one stage strongly supported by some of the more conservative members of the academic fraternity—stalwarts of the grand tradition, for whom cloisterphobia held no terrors. In the end the idea was discarded because it was thought that students might be missed by their families after the lapse of several months, and cause them worry.

There is a call, however, for special measures of some sort. For in spite of the best efforts of scholars, academic detachment is in peril. Year by year, as democracy marches forward, there are wilder, more insistent cries for the inclusion of fresh subject-matter of what is called a useful kind. We may anticipate that, sooner or later, chairs of Book-making, Bottling and Pickling, Soap-boiling, Truck-driving, Ragpicking, Cheese-blending and many others besides will be pressed for. We may be sure that the business fraternity will want departments of Salesmanship, Tax Evasion, and Black Marketing to be established; and the legal profession is bound to ask for specialised studies in Pettifogging and Chicanery. A public fully awakened to the needs of twentieth-century man will be exigent in its demands. How in good conscience can the University resist them? This is where our second kind of teacher must be bred and trained to fill the bill—not the black-beetle type with thick lenses and keaky goloshes, but the jovial extrovert, coiner of neologisms and speaker at Rotary luncheons.

It will be obvious that as the field of practical studies is extended, specialisation will become more and more necessary. I must admit that until recently I was a firm opponent of the tendency towards greater specialisation in the University. I even devised a system whereby all the occupants page 73of chairs in a single University would change places once a year, on the 'musical chairs' principle—so that, for example, a professor starting out with trying to build up the Botany Department would find himself gathering laurels at Architecture the following year, then mucking about with Philosophy the year after, and so on. But since becoming aware of what has been done by specialised training in the field of athletics I have abandoned this notion. If a professor is intended by nature to do his best at 440 yards, by all means let us keep him to that distance. International competition is too intense nowadays for dilettantism to be tolerated. In the University of the future, each professor or lecturer will find himself dealing with a very narrow segment of human knowledge, and he must be restrained from wandering away from his subject. Much as I abhor the examination system, I am strongly in favour of compelling every person on the staff of a University to sit regular tests to show that he is illiterate in all subjects except his own. I look to the day when we shall have a professor of Applied Geometry whose proud boast it is that he had never sullied his mind with Euclid, and a classical scholar who speaks nothing but Babylonian, and that only when he has his teeth out. There must be no dissipation of intellectual energy in wasteful directions.

Another question arises when we consider the implications of Universal Higher Education and the democratisation of learning. If all human beings are to attend the University, why should the principle not be extended to animals? Have we not a great deal to gain from such an inspired stroke of the practical imagination as the establishing of animal courses in the curriculum? When we consider the countless ways in which we are dependent on animal skills for concrete benefits, training for our dumb friends at the highest level appears as the merest common sense. Let us by all means set up courses designed to teach sheep-dogs to work their flocks, other dogs to carry such things as newspapers and flasks of brandy, parrots to talk, fleas to perform in fleacircuses, and horses to win races.

page 74

The University of the future, if it is to fulfil its highest destiny, must minister faithfully and comprehensively to the needs of the modern community. Great changes are imminent. We must face them squarely, in a spirit of radiant optimism. I repeat, the examination system in its present form must go. It must be driven out with whips and scorpions, as a vicious restriction on the individual freedom of expression and of opportunity that we cherish above all things. Our forebears did not spill their blood, tears and port for nothing. But there is a strong case for a re-modelled examination technique that will serve our contemporary purposes much more usefully. I suggest that the University should regularly prepare lists of questions to be broadcast on suitable occasions, such as New Year's Eve, Ash Wednesday, and All Fools' Day. These must not affect in any way the awarding of academic tattoo-marks, which should be based on no test other than that of having sat through certain courses. They should be intended quite simply as exercises in self-improvement, in which the whole population might take part. Furthermore, the examiners should cast off all prosaic restraint, and aim at developing their own and other people's imaginative powers. I offer a sample paper. You will see that it combines the austerity of a 'Test Yourself' exercise with the freshness and vitality of a radio quiz session; and that it contains a remarkable variety of ingredients —geography, biography, literature, astronomy, physics, mathematics, and just a nice quantity of history— as much as can be heaped, in powdered form, on a sixpence:

(1)Discuss the effects of the Corn Laws on the distilling industry in the reign of Bloody Mary.
(2)Who said, 'Lay not that flattering uncle to your soul'?
(3)An estuary is: (a) a place for exhibiting statues; (b) a statistician who works for insurance companies; (c) an artist who is good at figures; or (d) water on the brain?
(4)An archipelago is: (a) an estuary; (b) a prehistoric monster; (c) a piece of water entirely surrounded by an island; or (d) a Pelagian archbishop?
(5)When Cardinal Newman used the phrase 'solitary,page 75poor, nasty, brutish and short', was he referring to (a) Swinburne; (b) Charles Lamb; (c) Thoreau; or (d) the Tichborne Claimant?
(6)Which of the following discovered the square root of minus one: (a) Rameses II; (b) Isadora Duncan; (c) Robespierre; (d) Samuel Smiles?
(7)Write a short (150-200 words) history of the Solar System. Be concise.
(8)A misanthrope is—(a) a woman who makes verbal solecisms; (b) a poisonous fungus; (c) a married man; or (d) a female ape?
(9)Which of the following provides the origin of the word 'spiv': (a) Sans peur, irrprochable, valereux; (b) V.I.P.'s spelt backwards; (d) Sure profit in vice?
(10)Which of the following said, 'You can fill all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fill all the people all of the time': (a) Mistress Quickly; (b) Mrs Beeton; (c) Marie Antoinette; (d) Sir Ernest Davis?
(11)Compose a limerick on one of the following persons: (a) Moses; (b) Mr T. S. Eliot; (c) Maria Monk; or (d) William of Orange.
(12)Is 'Crisis': (a) the Greek word for cricket; (b) a man with more money than the Commissioner of Taxes knows about; (c) an Army oath; or (d) a Russian plot?

If anybody should question the purely practical value of such an exercise, I am compelled to fall back on the obvious. A University degree, even today, can guarantee no special privileges or opportunities—only the chance of a bare livelihood. But with the spread of New World values, which I take to be inevitable, commercial radio quiz sessions are bound to be introduced, and to grow into one of our heavy industries. The talented student who has subjected himself to a number of these tests will be able to qualify as something more than a mere bread-winner; he will be able to take home washing-machines, grand pianos, motor-cars and helicopters.

My purpose in writing of University matters is to open the eyes of the public to the potentialities of the situation now page 76opening up before us. There is much ignorance, or at least lack of information, among our people. Some time ago a young man asked me if he could study for a Dip. Som. And only the other day I encountered an unhappy young married woman who asked me if she could go to the University to get a degree nisi. Not as things are at present, I told her. But some time in the future… well, perhaps… who knows?