Oxford management school's history lessons

August 30, 1996

It was good of Alexander Murray to provide such obvious target practice. His tone of high seriousness barely concealed some pretty ill-informed prejudices. The damning with faint praise of management studies (useful, he is sure, but not at this university) sits uneasily with the promotion of his own subject, medieval history.

I studied medieval history at Cambridge and found it a wonderful subject but it left me very ill-prepared for the sort of work I and most of my peers went on to do.

It is worth contrasting my experience with some student voices (so notably missing from his letter) speaking about Oxford's combined economics, engineering and management course, with its six-month working secondments: "EEM proves that when Oxford gets its act together it can produce something world-beating" (Oxford University Student Union guidebook 1995-97).

Murray's other gods amused me. It is pretty easy to pursue truth when it comes to medieval history but a lot harder when the subject is moving very fast and there are a lot of interested, live parties. But it is nonetheless vital to try.

Finally, it is striking that an historian has so little sense of the history of his own university. Every new subject has been stoutly resisted by Oxford over the centuries. Invariably the resistance was fuelled by the same attitudes that Alexander displays in his letter. Indeed a colleague recalls a don even in the late 1980s still lamenting the coming of sciences to Oxford. Is there something here about those not learning from the mistakes of history being doomed to repeat them? In his cry of "No room, no room!" Alexander wishes to play the part of the Mad Hatter presiding over his Tea Party. As Alice said: "Nonsense! there's plenty of room." Lewis Carroll certainly knew his Oxford.

LESLIE WILLCOCKS Templeton College University of Oxford

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