History, tragedy, farce

Felipe Fernández-Armesto finds his beloved Oxford changed, changed utterly

February 26, 2009

The romance is fled. My last visit to Oxford killed the lingering sentiment I felt for the place. Anyone educated in the little city of learning and laughter feels nostalgic for it when they leave.

In my own case, long years of immersion in the university - with all the frustration Oxford inflicts on those who try to teach and research there - were insufficient to dispel the enchantment. I can still take pleasure in walking the streets and idling in the meadows - but now the emotional investment is no greater than in any physically beautiful place.

The shock that woke me from my retrospective reverie happened last week, when I gave a talk to the Oxford University Historical Society - a commendable band of earnest undergraduates who educate each other and import speakers from outside the university, at their own expense, to remedy the sad deficiencies of the current Oxford history school. Despite the delightful undergraduates, the evening was grim. It was cheerless.

My misgivings began when my hosts at dinner ate little, drank almost nothing, and ordered herbal tea as a digestif. It was hard not to become a bore in the not-like-this-in-my-day tradition. When I was an undergraduate, we historians used to gather in the Stubbs Society, named after the 19th-century divine who founded the school, and had uproarious fun.

The bedrock business was serious - sometimes almost deadly. Fatally pertinent questions reduced the excellent but academically underqualified historical writer Veronica Wedgwood to tears. I recall an occasion when a visiting professor from Lancaster, who gave a talk on an early-18th-century Tory, wilted on being asked, "What have you added to what Macaulay has to say on the subject?" Self-destructively, he burbled, "I didn't know anyone still read Macaulay."

"We do in this university," rejoined his interrogator.

Yet we rollicked with gusto. The society, said its constitution, "will honour its toast to Clio in mulled claret". We always had an after-dinner coffee-party to start with. I recall an occasion where I arrived early to hear Joseph Needham, to find that two senior members of the society had preceded me: Christopher Hill stood, clutching his coffee cup, facing into the corner at one end of the room, Hugh Trevor-Roper in an exactly parallel pose at the other.

We discussed the papers, charged glass in hand. We lounged in sympathetic, decorous rooms. We had amusingly contested elections for office. "How we laughed!" will be the sceptical rejoinder of over-sophisticated readers of Times Higher Education, but the business really was fun.

The meetings brought dons and undergraduates together in companionable complicity - whereas horrible social distance now gapes between the generations, and tutors and pupils seem inhibited from genuine friendships. The Oxford University Historical Society still manages to give its members intellectual pleasure, and the meetings close with a glass of wine, but it is all dreadfully solemn: the chairs are of bottom-aching plastic, the room comfortless and baldly lit.

A further shock came when I learnt how the society is now financed. The undergraduate treasurer - who surely has enough to do to keep up with his or her studies - has to tout for commercial sponsorship. The university provides nothing: no subsidy even for a social lubricant as harmless as coffee, no pittance to pay for a visiting speaker's bus fare from London or Reading or any nearby place of learning from which a fresh perspective might enrich the students' vision of their subject. The university even tried to make the society pay for a page on the website.

That kind of skinflint close-fistedness is worse than a crime: it is a mistake. I see no reason why any member of the university should feel loyalty to so mean a bunch of people, or subscribe charitably to keep Oxford going after being treated with so little consideration, and so little good sense.

The dreariness is deep. With not much prompting from me, most of the students I spoke to complained of the narrowness and incoherence of the curriculum (although one was writing an essay about Japanese attitudes to animals, which sounded truly broad-minded and fascinating). A member of the society had noticed one of the most exciting prospects in the Oxford history school: the chance of a semester at Princeton on an exchange programme.

He wanted to diversify his experience of historical education, sample a different culture, broaden his horizons, enhance his life and study with the brilliant Princeton history department. Unfortunately, his college was not one of the five or six that deigned to take part in the programme, but he persuaded his young, dynamic, newly arrived tutor, who was not yet paralysed by the inertia of Oxford, to put in a good word for him.

The final say rested with a characteristically crabbed and unimaginative old subject tutor, who expressed disbelief that anyone privileged to attend Oxford should wish to waste part of his time at Princeton. A term away, he argued, would weaken the applicant's performance in his final examinations. On the contrary, a chance to spread his wings would surely have helped him to take flight.

Negativity has become the Oxford curse. In any vote in faculty or Congregation, it was always easy to get a majority against anything in Oxford - but a majority in favour costs sweat and tears.

There is a lesson here for everyone in authority in every university. Try to say "yes". It is the most energising word in the academic world.

Felipe Fernández-Armesto is William P. Reynolds professor of history, University of Notre Dame in the US.

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