Magazine article The Spectator

It's Time to Scrap the Millennium Don

Magazine article The Spectator

It's Time to Scrap the Millennium Don

Article excerpt

NEW Labour and the University of Oxford are frighteningly similar. In communicating with the nation, both use the relentlessly upbeat language of public relations. Our undergraduate prospectus told us that, apart from the tutorial system and the 'world-class teaching and research', we should wish to give ourselves to Oxford on account of the 'beauty of its ancient buildings'.

Like New Labour, Oxford is deeply dependent on image for its catch. Tourists and prospective students are fed exactly the same bait to draw them to the city: the image of begowned dons standing in the middle of emerald lawns saying, 'and, ninthly . . . '; of pouting intellectuals laughing to themselves at some private pun in Middle English as they hurry from honey-- coloured quad to honey-- coloured quad to reach their tutorials at the feet of Gandalf,, St Dominic or Yoda; of 200 Bertie Woosters and as many Dukes of Dorset waiting around to see the Encaenia procession, where the assembled weight of international intelligence will actually bend light.

When a don falls asleep in one's first tutorial therefore, the disillusionment is not a little hard to bear. You begin to wonder whether the great men of the university give a hang for 'religious and useful leaming' when you hear, after an incandescent sermon on 'The Grace of Humility' from a Jesuit priest, a pro-vicechancellor and pro-proctors talking about 'the difficulty of car-parking in central Oxford'.

A graduate student was asked in her entrance interview why she wished to come to Oxford. Her reply, bubbling with girlish enthusiasm, was cut short by the don rising, crossing the room and producing an enormous Havana from a jar. 'Look at this,' he said. 'This is my last cigar.' He paused to light it. 'I'm dying of cancer. I've been told I have two years to live. If I smoke this, it won't be any good for me. But I'm going to do it anyway. I don't care. I've had a crap life. Because I've spent it all in Oxford.' The student came up to read East European studies and has been rewarded with a don who invariably polishes his shoes with a toothbrush while she reads him her essays.

Despite the pledge in Oxford's prospectus to provide us with 'world-class teaching', we have all encountered similar instances of dons incapable of conducting a tutorial to the promised standard. Most students when they arrive are deeply excited by their first encounter with Socrates or Spinoza. However, any passion they may have had for their subject dies when they discuss it with their tutor, who is usually a grey man, living in a grey office, wearing a grey jacket and grey trousers, surrounded by grey books, a grey carpet and a grey portrait of himself lit by sun filtered through grey curtains; a man who will speak in a grey voice at ten words a minute, and whose idea of animation is to speak 11 words a minute.

In the Senior Common Rooms of Oxford it is the culture that dons and lecturers are under no obligation to inspire their students. A former Lincoln tutor told us that dons could not be expected to be excited about their subjects for the benefit of their students, because this would tire them out. A senior theologian at Christ Church has said, 'Of course undergraduate lectures are boring.'

Many lecturers are as dire as the tutors. They fail to convey information properly. Some lecturers address students as if they were children; others as if they, the students, were themselves emeritus professors; yet others as if the students were not human. Many lecturers are distant, hunched, fungal figures quietly reading out their 30year-old notes, maybe once a term mumbling, 'I suppose I could have brought a visual aid at this point, but I seem to have forgotten the book ..... Often, lecturers are bored with having to relate the same material to an audience on an annual cycle, but instead of suppressing this familiarity gracefully, they make a point of childishly conveying their ennui and their wish to be elsewhere. …

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