Sitting At Their Feet

I was sent up to Oxford by philistine middle class parents who had no idea what went on there, or even what this thing called education might truly be, but just wanted the bragging rights. That is not to say that, looking back, I would consider that education was something Oxford actually provided. The pretenders on both sides thus deserved one another. You could educate yourself there, to be sure, but at the same time it was still the world of Anthony Powell, where people went in order to be recruited into powerful coteries. I never was, not would have been of any use to one.

Since writing the above paragraph I have started in on the early Scott FitzGerald. Yes, This Side of Paradise describes exactly the same scene.

It has been observed before that the only profession that (at any rate then) received not the slightest training for its supposed mission was that of university teacher. More than that, the dons appeared to have an active contempt for normal rational processes. For example, the idea of providing new students with a reading list was anathema; the dons gave out the names of essential books at a brisk conversational speed, which you were supposed to retain by powers of total recall or else talents in stenography that of course you did not possess. The photocopier had yet to be invented, but the mimeograph and stencil machine did exist. The dons did not use such things, however, presumably because useful devices were bad for the character.

The same principle was employed for lectures. I attempted a few, once sitting literally at the feet of a great man, underneath his lectern, because there was no other space. The effort was soon abandoned, in part because of the huge logistical difficulties of getting from one lecture to another, pedalling or trotting across town and so always in a lather, in part because I dimly realised that this was the most inefficient means of information transmission ever invented. The party of the first part, who has had no training in public speaking, reads aloud his new book to the party of the second part, who has had no training in shorthand. The latter can either attempt to comprehend something of the material, or attempt to note some of it down, but never both. I was never told which lectures were important to new students and which were an exercise in obscure scholarship or even an ego trip. I came to suspect that the real way to use Oxford was secretly communicated by older family members to younger, so as to cripple and exclude grammar-school boys and other such oiks.

At any events, I resorted to reading books, and thus obtained a respectable Upper Second. Had I been better directed to the best lectures, I might have taken a First; or then again, I might not. I was never able to form a clear idea of what, if anything, I had missed; and with the wisdom of age, if any, I still stand on my assertion that this was a system simply designed not to work. Since my day everything at Oxford has become co-educational, making in some ways a huge difference, but my impression is that the place is even more about trading on medieval glories, specifically extracting money from innocent foreigners.

Posted on January 1, 2012 at 16:06 by Hugo Grinebiter · Permalink
In: CULTURAL ODDS AND ENDS, Odds And Ends, Miscellaneous

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