Avoiding the 'O' word

Cambridge Contributions
December 11, 1998

This collection of lectures is something more ambitious than a soft-selling public-relations exercise on the part of an ancient university: in the context of current political concerns the book can be read - with pleasure - as a real and convincing case for the elite university that merges teaching with research. An earlier collection of similar lectures was published as Cambridge Minds.

The book offers, with a certain subtle but forgivable hype, an account of the significance of the Cambridge tradition in 11 selected fields - and in some of them, Cambridge has loomed and continues to loom very large indeed. The word Oxford is seldom employed and is sometimes ingeniously evaded. But that is all good fun, for the book is an excellent one to hand to students at any university, encumbered with courses and semesters, who can easily lose sight of what the institution they attend or are applying to is really about. This short book provides a model from which all universities with outstanding research records might benefit, for it provides an entertaining and readable way of getting across to students (and school-teachers) what it is that a university can achieve over a long time-span in advancing human knowledge.

Martin Rees, astronomer royal and former holder of the Plumian chair of astronomy and experimental philosophy, kicks off the opening lecture with an account of the foundation of his chair in 1702 and the construction of Cambridge's first observatories in the 18th and early 19th centuries. He weaves together the story of 20th-century cosmological discovery, using local materials where possible, including Cambridge's role in the big-bang controversy, the advent of radio astronomy, the discovery of pulsars and neutron stars, and the theory of black holes. The secret of the reader's acceptance of so rapid a sweep through a vast terrain of knowledge lies in the sheer authority of the speaker. He demonstrates simply and comprehensibly the way in which we have come to understand the place of the earth and the solar system within the cosmic evolutionary scheme stretching back to the hot and dense fireball with which the universe began. It might be said to be a somewhat parochial view of the cosmos, but not complacently parochial - and the same may be said for the whole of the collection.

Stefan Collini remarks in his piece on the study of English at Cambridge that a future lecturer might be more at pains to concentrate on the influence upon Cambridge of scholars now at Berkeley and Yale. But he proceeds to map the evolution of the treatment of English as a Cambridge subject in the 20th century, convincing the reader (if needed) of the very long-term and probably still-smouldering influence of a line which starts with I. A. Richards and F. R. Leavis and includes L. C. Knights, Muriel Broadbrook, Basil Willey, Raymond Williams and Frank Kermode. The achievement of this cohort was to "combat a slackness of attention and coarseness of response" which was, so it was believed, being brought about by the newly commercialised cultural environment of the early century. The movement at Cambridge gave other students of English the world over the sense of doing something that did, after all, matter. Before the Cambridge position emerged, English was an academic branch line, an adornment of social manners, a distraction; it was the material of the finishing school, rather than a rigorous subject fit for rigorous university attention.

To become one of the main branches of study in the new mass universities of the inter-war years English had to separate itself from the study of the classics, which had overshadowed and inhibited the study of vernacular literature for centuries. Moreover, it required a persuasive intellectual force to make the new universities concentrate upon the signifying practices of the literary text rather than upon other materials of vernacular culture - to render English something different from the mere cultural or sociological study of a single nation. The Cambridge school secured these changes of perception and then convinced the academy that it was criticism rather than linguistic, social or historical study that was required. It highlighted the need to concentrate on image, metaphor, tone and texture in a text and to assess the text's essential value to society. Much of that has now become commonplace, if perhaps replaced or modified, but it has certainly not been reversed, and, moreover, it constitutes an intellectual revolution of peculiarly Cambridge derivation. Collini's contribution to the volume is convincing and illuminating.

By no means all of the "contributions" are written out of contented pride in the achievements of Cambridge. Gillian Sutherland's lecture on the higher education of women at the university ("Nasty forward minxes") provides a hard-to-believe reminder of blinkered male resistance to the education of female students. The mistress of Girton and the principal of Newnham were both trapped in a social threshold, lumped together ambivalently with the wives. Academic women were treated as among but not of. New university statutes in 1926 allowed women who took university examinations to have only "decrees" rather than degrees ("the titular BA", known familiarly as the "BA tit"). Women maintained little more than this foot in the door until the new gender-blind arrangements of 1947.

The editor has saved until last the chapter by Christopher Andrew on the Cambridge spies, the so-called Magnificent Five whose treacherous espionage on the West was considered by the KGB to have provided the most talented foreign agentry in its history. But espionage, too, is a Cambridge contribution with a long tradition behind it, its roots traceable to Elizabeth I's secretary of state, Sir Francis Walsingham, with able assistance from the brawling playwright from Corpus Christi, Christopher Marlowe. In this century when Bletchley Park, the second world war codebreaking centre, required an influx of "men of the professor type" a third of the fellowship of King's College were recruited, including Alan Turing, the inventor of the world's first electronic computer, Colossus - a group of intelligence workers who were exceeded in skill only by their students.

But meanwhile the five - Kim Philby, Guy Burgess, Donald Maclean, Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross - had been captured so completely by the glamorous vision of the world's first workers' and peasants' state, that they were blind to the real nature of Stalin's regime. Even direct experience of the Soviet Union failed to diminish its emotional appeal for these credulous disciples of communism. Philby's tutor, Maurice Dobb, gave him the contact which eventually recruited him as an underground agent. All five were in a position to penetrate the social institutions of Britain so convincingly and so enthusiastically that for a long time their Soviet employers could not believe that they were not double-agents of the British Secret Service. Nor could they believe that the Soviet Union was not itself penetrated in the same way and to the same extent by the British. All of which provides convincing evidence, were any further required, of the superiority of Cambridge in every field of endeavour. It provides a satisfyingly gripping conclusion to the 11 essays that constitute this collection.

Anthony Smith is president, Magdalen College, Oxford.

Cambridge Contributions

Editor - Sarah J. Ormrod
ISBN - 0 521 59243 7 and 59738 2
Publisher - Cambridge University Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 2

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