Speaking Volumes: Microcosmographia Academica

May 22, 1998

Graeme Davies on Frances Cornford's  Microcosmographia Academica .

I have in my bookshelf a presentation copy of Frances Cornford's Microcosmographia Academica, which bears on its frontispiece the inscription "This book no longer belongs to him who signs but is now in much better hands", signed "Ken Punnett". Ken was at the time the works manager of the Cambridge University Press and he gave me the book in 1964 to celebrate my first university appointment. The book was to be a rich source of information over the following 34 years. It is not by accident that it has as its subtitle "Being a Guide for the Young Academic Politician".

The work, first published in 1908, is a slim read - a mere pages - but full of pith and wit and valuable advice. I have re-read it every year since receiving it and drawn freely from its pages to help me interpret the wiles and subterfuges, the twists and turns, the candour and the cant of the academic arena.

Which of us in academic life has not encountered the "Principle of the Dangerous Precedent" (every public action which is not customary, either is wrong, or, if it is right, is a dangerous precedent. It follows that nothing should ever be done for the first time), or the "Principle of the Wedge" - usually with a thin edge (you should not act justly now for fear of raising expectations that you may act still more justly in the future).

The few pages are littered with such observations. Henry Chadwick, in a foreword to a recent edition summed the position up with clarity and perception: "Experience of the tortuous paths pursued by academic bodies in reaching (or avoiding) a decision led [Cornford] to write this famous satire ... when he was still in his early thirties. It is more than an occasional piece arising out of a particular context. Its immediate occasion and impetus are no longer recoverable except in the sense that here is a manifesto by a youngish academic disillusioned by ultra-conservatives who sought to avert all changes."

Certainly it has been much more than an "occasional piece" to me as I have sought, with greater or lesser success, to promote changes through often reluctant, occasionally hostile but frequently wise academic bodies.

Equipped with knowledge of the thinking that lay behind the Dangerous Precedent and the Wedge, the "Fair Trial Argument" (give the present system a fair trial) and the "Principle of the Unripe Time" (people should not do at the present moment what they think right at that moment, because the moment at which they think it right has not yet arrived), the job of advancing change has been made a little easier.

I have been helped also in recognising the arguments of Cornford's Conservative Liberal - "the present measure would block the way for a far more sweeping reform" - as well of those of his Liberal Conservative and the "Last Ditch" (considered a place in which you may safely threaten to die. If you did die nobody would much mind; but the threat may frighten them for the moment).

And finally, I could not have effected change without an awareness of the opposition's use of "Wasting Time" and "Boring" (talk delivered slowly and indistinctly at a little distance from the point), or "College Feeling" (a sincere belief that the institution to which you belong is better than an institution to which other people belong), or "Private Business Habit of Mind" (eager debates about whether it is allowable or not to amend an amendment, or whether it is consonant with eternal laws for a body of men to rescind a resolution that they have just carried).

Dear Dr Cornford, I owe you much for the valuable advice embodied in your slim volume.

Graeme Davis is principal, University of Strathclyde.

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