The Old School Polymath ; All-Rounders like Walter Oakeshott Aren't Allowed in Today's World
Hodgson, Godfrey, The Independent (London, England)
Walter Oakeshott by John Dancy Michael Russell, pounds 24
If you go into the British Museum and turn right, you will find the room in which the museum keeps its most precious manuscript treasures. Two of the oldest of these were discovered by one man, and he was not a professional scholar, but a schoolmaster.
One is the original manuscript of Malory's Morte d'Arthur, which Walter Oakeshott recognised in the library at Winchester College when he was teaching there. The other is a notebook which he himself bought before he realized it contained the notes Sir Walter Raleigh made for his History of the World while awaiting execution in the Tower of London.
Those two great discoveries, though, were only incidental to Oakeshott's life. He was an all-rounder of a kind that is simply not allowed in today's world; in a career of dazzling versatility, he led a more than double life. Starting with a double First in Classics from Balliol College, Oxford, he earned his living teaching in public schools and universities, ending his career as Vice- Chancellor of Oxford. But at one time or another he also tried his hand at journalism, economics, sociology, and art history.
Oakeshott's first book was an economic history of trade. Renaissance maps were a hobby, and he discovered the one used by the Elizabethan explorer Anthony Jenkinson when he tried to travel from Russia to China. He edited Raleigh's love poems to Queen Elizabeth. His interests extended to modern architecture, and as Vice- Chancellor at Oxford he supported the new school of engineering as well as helping to set up the reforming Franks committee.
His greatest scholarly work, though, was the study and editing of the two great 12th-century illuminated bibles in the library of Winchester cathedral. By analysing the way they drew details such as hair, leaves or drapery, he identified individual artists like "the Master of the Leaping Figures" and the "Master of the Gothic Majesty".
He was no cloistered aesthete, however. In the late Thirties he wrote a ground-breaking report, Men Without Work, on long-term unemployment, a subject which is still sadly relevant today. It contributed to the Beveridge Report, and so to the intellectual foundations of the Welfare State. …