A little more honesty would go a long way in academia

Schools used to be more honest about the pupils they were putting forward to universities, and not all applicants were predictably ‘passionate’ about their subjects. We would do well to recreate some of that spirit, says Lincoln Allison

August 22, 2019
Punks wearing masks
Source: Alamy/iStock montage

The recent obituary of the controversial historian Norman Stone by his University of Cambridge contemporary Richard J. Evans in The Guardian recalled something of a bygone era.

“At a time when malice and rudeness were highly prized by some rightwing Cambridge dons, Stone outdid them all in the abuse he hurled at anyone he disapproved of,” Evans notes, of the man sometimes known as “Thatcher’s historian” and who later became professor of modern history at the University of Oxford. And his conclusion is very much in that robust tradition, repeating former prime minister Edward Heath’s observation that “Many parents of Oxford students must be both horrified and disgusted that the higher education of our children should rest in the hands of such a man.”

I am not sure I would have approached Stone’s obituary quite so uncompromisingly. I have memories of sitting opposite him at well-funded conference breakfasts when he ordered a bottle of whisky with his bacon. Later he would tell us that, of course, he hadn't read the text we were discussing because he could tell it was crap without bothering, but – perhaps because I was neither important nor a historian – I always found him jovial and pleasant.

Moreover, even in Stone’s heyday, brutal honesty wasn’t universally appreciated – at least, not in obituaries. When I was a young man, an elderly academic once took me aside and asked me if I had ever been required to write an obituary for The Times. Although this was a totally unrealistic scenario, he was keen to instruct me on the technique involved. As it happened, he knew a lot of very senior chaps and liked very few of them. But he considered it no longer acceptable, as it had been when George IV died in 1830, to write: “There never was an individual less regretted by his fellow creatures than this deceased king.” No, one had to know the code.

The technique, he told me, is to list the vices and failures of the deceased. Then you re-express them as virtues or, if you can’t manage that, you have to leave them out. “He couldn’t teach a dog to chase rabbits” becomes “his grasp of his subject matter was appreciated by students who were both able and diligent”. “Her writing was so turgid that nobody could get through three pages at a sitting” could be summarised as her possessing “a style that was uncompromising in its scholarly caution”. And “He was an ambitious little sod who wouldn’t give you the time of day unless he thought there was something in it for him” translates as “he was enviably focused and did not concern himself with the social niceties”.

In the intervening 50 years I have written only one obituary, and that for a man so nice that no techniques of subterfuge were necessary. I have spoken at a number of funerals where the technique I’ve mentioned proved useful. But when it comes to speaking of the still living, it has often struck me that while Stone’s and Evans' brand of excoriation may be over the top, we could certainly do with a little more frankness.

Take the references that are written by their schools for university applicants. By the end of my working life, these had become extraordinarily dull. Everything conspired to make them so, including league tables, computers, templates, freedom of information regulations and the general blandness of the age. One would read, for example, that “Blackley High School is a co-educational comprehensive rated as ‘good’ by Ofsted…James Smith has successfully completed [this, that and the other].”

But back in the 20th century, headteachers (who, unlike today, always wrote the references) thought it their duty to express an honest view of a candidate and whether they ought to go to university or not. One picked up a bundle of applications with the expectation that some would be odd or interesting. Here are a few of the most striking examples that I came across (the names have, of course, been changed):

“Theresa O’Leary is a licentious and ostentatious young woman who should be rejected by all respectable universities.” This came from the head of a convent, herself a lady in holy orders. Its imagined recipient was perhaps a bespectacled “bluestocking” whose loathing for licentiousness and ostentation would be predominant in her decision-making. Instead, it landed on my desk. “Licentious and ostentatious” set us asking how generous an offer we could make. But I never got to meet Theresa – I imagine that the other universities to which she had applied invented scholarships and bursaries especially for her.

Years later, when fees had been introduced and large numbers of parents had started turning up on open days, I used to mention this reference as part of the tale of the changing admissions system. Invariably I could see the mothers, themselves of Theresa’s generation, nodding and smirking with approval.

“Gerald Haythornthwaite is a hawk-like cover point and an outside half of outstanding potential who would catch the eye for selection in any varsity team I have ever seen.” This reference giving such close attention to sporting achievement came from the headmaster of an extremely remote public school, but who was his imagined recipient? A tweeded “don” who was president of both the cricket and the rugger clubs? There was no mention of academic work anywhere in the reference – and the facts of Gerald’s academic career seemed to preclude any kind of offer.

“Jeffrey Davies is a very dangerous boy.” This came from a fairly ordinary school and it went on to describe how the candidate had behaved during the school production of Romeo and Juliet. He had played Tybalt and, in the scene in which his character dies, had refused to allow Romeo to kill him and had launched brutal attacks on all the others on stage, shouting “And you, too, must die!” It was not clear how the performance had proceeded after that – it clearly couldn’t recover completely.

This story is much longer than the others because we decided to interview Jeff. When I say “we”, there were seven of us, all consumed by curiosity. He looked rather scholarly and spoke quietly, explaining his behaviour in terms of what he had read about theatrical improvisation. (Ah, Jeffrey, they may say they want you to improvise and think for yourself, but they never really mean it.) We accepted him.

Jeffrey was expelled from the university, allowed back in and then expelled again. He joined the Civil Service, rose rapidly through the ranks, became involved in arms dealing, gambling and embezzlement and was sent to jail. On his release, he studied for an Open University degree, got a first, went on to study for various degrees at other universities and became an academic. He also developed something of a niche for himself in the theatre and is currently, among other things, a fellow of the Royal Society of Arts. Dangerous, perhaps, but very interesting. And that is the important point: the uncoded, uncensored reference is not necessarily bad for the candidate nor for those receiving the information. It was more likely to endear you to traditional academics looking for interesting students than a modern, bland reference would.

 Person with green hair wearing mask

The references I most detested were not called references at all, but the “personal statements” that have been obligatory for all applicants since the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service was established in 1992. At one point, I was reading hundreds of tales of virtuous young men and women “passionate” in their commitment to the subject they intended to study, though with a healthy taste for physical endeavour and an absolute commitment to charitable work when time allowed. I compared these paragons with my own children and their friends and yearned for danger, ostentation and licentiousness. Since we were massively oversubscribed, I welcomed the suggestion of a colleague that we should start the admissions process by rejecting all candidates who used the word “passionate” in describing their attitude to their subject. “‘Dispassionate’ is what is wanted,” he said in his quiet Welsh voice.

Then I went further and refused to read the damn things. That would have been fine, of course, because nobody would have noticed, but I announced my refusal in an article in a national newspaper. There was a storm of protest, mostly directed at the vice-chancellor of my university. It came not from applicants, nor even from their parents, but from the various employees of schools who “guided” applicants on personal statements.

I rest my case: I had described the personal statement as part of an induction into a “culture of deceit” that was taking over society, and it all begins with these would-be functionaries from the Ministry of Truth – the “personal statement" isn’t even personal. The vice-chancellor felt constrained to announce that I would no longer be involved in the admissions process, so another avenue of pleasure was closed off to me.

Since you may wonder, I never had to write a personal statement when I applied to university. Although the University Central Council on Admissions (as it then was) already existed, the sole university to which I applied remained aloof from it and was still operating some fairly traditional and informal procedures. (These were not particularly efficient at selecting the best candidates, but as a beneficiary I was unlikely to complain.) Although I’ve always aspired to a degree of bluntness, I’m not sure how honest I would have been. How might it have gone?: “I spend most of my time thinking about ladies’ bottoms and Burnley Football Club, but I am also interested in the causes of the English Civil War.” In fact, the nearest thing to such a statement I ever had to make was when appraisal was introduced quite late in my career. Invited to talk about future projects, I said I was intellectually clapped out and should be offered early retirement. After that, appraisals became selective and I was never selected.

At the risk of being accused of moderation, I must end by making two concessions. The first is that very few people were in a position to be as arrogant and insouciant as I was and even fewer are now – although I would spin my arrogance as a spirit of freedom. The other concession is that, of course, society must contain a proper element of deceit: we must pretend to be better than we are and to rate other people more highly than we do. But we could still be more honest than we are now. We should be – and we used to be.

Lincoln Allison is emeritus professor of politics at the University of Warwick.

POSTSCRIPT:

Print headline: We must show our true faces

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Reader's comments (2)

What a joy to read.
Absolutely, what a joy. The sad thing is, it is also a cautionary tale of what lies ahead in ever increasing numbers. A few more 'dangerous boy[s]' and 'licentious and ostentatious young wom[e]n' sound just like what we need to recover our senses.

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