Oxbridge: beta-minus-minus

March 24, 2000

Having viewed universities on both sides of the pond, Simon Blackburn finds Oxbridge graduate studies quaint and less than professional.

Anyone seeing the recent flare-up of argument over the rival merits of Cambridge and Oxford must have a sense of "deja vu all over again". We all know the cliches. Oxford: Tory, worldly, traditional, Beowulf; versus Cambridge: Whig, puritan, scientific, Leavis. Alan Ryan, the sagacious warden of New College, recently quoted as saying that while Cambridge invents the modern world Oxford governs it, must have anticipated the obvious Cambridge invitation to look at the mess they have made of it.

Outsiders, however, may be apt to echo Henry James's remark:

"When I say Oxford I mean Cambridge, for a stray savage is not in the least obliged to know the difference." To the American eye the peculiarities of the college system, and the arcana of greats, tripos, congregation, syndics and delegates, are equally shared between the two universities, and as impenetrable as the activities of mid-offs or scrum-halves.

It is notable that many of the mysteries belong to the shrouded business of examining undergraduates. Far into the summer, rooms full of dons argue passionately about whether Rupert or Fiona deserves a 2.1 or a 2.2. Like too many others in the ancient universities, this process is secret, Byzantine and uncontrolled. When, in Oxford, I came to examining in the school of philosophy, politics and economics in the 1980s, it meant interpreting "sums" of 16 initial marks for each candidate, presented as beta-beta-alpha-query-plus or alpha-beta-minus-minus. It took 20 dons a mind-numbing week to sift through the several hundred candidates. In time, as chairman of this rigmarole, I got the whole thing computerised, but not before meeting passionate opposition from dons who believed that numbers lack the diamantine precision of alpha-beta-minus-query-plus. The day was gained only by my ungentlemanly threat to reveal what the computer had just told us, that over many years the correlation between the initial two examiners on some papers - political theory sticks in my mind - was actually worse than chance.

Many suspect that the traditional examination system rewards brittle superficiality and short-term memory, self-confidence and good handwriting. However that may be, the tyranny of examinations condemns the poor tutor at Oxford (somewhat worse off there than at Cambridge) to a lifetime coaching students to score off the examiners. The tutor then dons his other cap as examiner and tries to outsmart other tutors. It may be fair that a philosophy examination will throw questions such as "Is it better that there should be two people just a little over half-happy than one person wholly happy?" (mock not, this question is a major focus of research in Oxford moral philosophy). Still, the results are often strange. Faced one day in June with a curve ball such as "Is politeness a virtue?" the prepared mind is expected to discourse brightly of whatever it remembers of Aristotle and Kant, rather than giving the proper answer, memorably suggested by a sceptical Rhodes scholar: "No. Bugger off."

In the United States it is thought that people who teach a course might have some say in how well a student has done in it. In the humanities, however, Oxbridge does not traditionally notice whether the student attends courses, provided he can sparkle on that morning in June. Nor does it care about that other valuable US concern, the students' say about how well the teacher has done. In the US, tenure, promotion and salary can hinge on whether you teach effectively, just as on the quality of your scholarship or research. In Oxbridge, stories of people barging into rooms and finding the pupil in one armchair and the tutor in the other, both sound asleep, generate affection and pride.

It will be said that this was in the past, and in any case the enormous merits of the tutorial system license occasional lapses. Yet I recently saw a recommendation from an eminent Oxford tutor for a young man seeking jobs in America, containing the characteristic sentence: "He has taught the Hume for us, as far as I know successfully." The indifference to his protege's teaching ability, not to mention the complacency that the rest of the world knows what Oxford course "the Hume" might be, marks the college man in full flower. In the US a teaching recommendation would describe in detail the course, the syllabus and the student response.

The problem Oxford shares with Cambridge is attracting the best minds to their graduate programmes. This problem has several routes, such as the high ratio of noise to signal cherished in Oxford in recent years, but it is clearly connected to the emphasis on grading undergraduates. That emphasis means that undergraduate teaching takes priority over the graduate school - again, unthinkable in the US, where a university's ranking depends largely on the quality of its graduate education, measured by the jobs they get at the end. "Good college men" resist such indices strenuously, of course. And that emphasis keeps the tutor chained to his college teaching, meaning that there are only grants, loans or at best casual paid labour for graduates. In the US a graduate school will typically fund graduates throughout their studies. The funding is not a grant or a loan, but a salary, because it is the job of the graduates to tutor the undergraduates.

Graduate school in the US takes seriously its role of preparing students for professional life in other ways. Courses are carefully designed, and assessment is continuous. Courses are flexible and responsive to social and cultural change: feminist thinking, or thinking about the environment, entered the arena with a speed unthinkable in Oxbridge. Students are encouraged to measure themselves against the standards of published work, and a wide acquaintance with all important current work, not just that from some favoured inner circle in the same university, is compulsory. By comparison, graduate work in Britain has traditionally been fairly languid, a time to cultivate social skills after the strain of getting a first.

It is, indeed, hard to see why an ambitious and able student should be directed to Oxbridge rather than to salaried graduate positions in good schools in the US. In philosophy the problem is worse in Oxford than in Cambridge because the establishment is bigger and more scattered. As a result there is no social and intellectual focal point for graduates, who are condemned to lonely, insecure lives, worried that in some college somewhere else there is somebody brighter, more competitive, more successful. Where nobody knows anybody, it has curious results. When I first arrived in Oxford, I found myself at parties at which in hushed tones people talked of a particular bright young comet: "X says he may be the greatest philosopher since Aquinas"; "Y said she has learned more from him than from anybody living or dead." Eventually I met this second Solomon, who proceeded, with the confidence appropriate to such a reputation, to give me his views about Russell's theory of definite descriptions, evidently unhampered by an almost perfect ignorance of that theory. To avoid all this, advanced studies need a cohesion, a centre, and a constant exposure to the rest of the world. Cambridge is busy building exactly this, and other universities, notably London, have noticed the problem.

Eventually, of course, advanced studies need private and public resources. If philosophy or other humanities disciplines are to compete for those, they must present themselves to the wider world as essential parts of something valuable. In the US philosophy does this better, partly because political and moral theory form a larger part of public and legal discourse. Britain, by contrast, believes it knows what needs doing without thinking too much, so public philosophers are at best licensed pets, and too often behave as such. To do better, universities and the humanities must present a public face, and it had better not be a face that cannot be read.

Simon Blackburn, previously philosophy fellow at Pembroke College, Oxford, is professor of philosophy at the University of North Carolina. He will take up a chair at Cambridge next year.

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