Today, I am making a concerted effort to do nothing. Aside from writing here, of course. We’re nearing the end of our fifth week of residency, and already, but for curtains, the apartment is Done. I feel, at least half the time, as though this has been my home for a long time. The pictures and the furniture appear to have forgotten where they used to be. The pictures especially. Last night, Ray Soleil put up all the pictures that are going to hang in the bedroom — period. Eight photographs, some of Kathleen’s finest, are being reframed, as is a print that she is very fond of, and these all have designated spots on still-vacant walls. I’ve decided to mount a miscellany of the remaining pictures, crammed in tightly — a souvenir of upstairs — behind the door to the bookroom. But, as Ray likes to say, “we’re done here.” The pictures have bonded with their new rooms and new neighbors.
Now I have to make an effort to change the address on a host of subscriptions. (I just took care of The New Yorker.) But not today.
Later last night, I finished reading Jan Morris’s Oxford. I’m stumped as to what to say next. That Oxford is a great piece of travel writing, of cultural anthropology? That it is also a dish of treats, anecdotes wry and dry that flatter the reader’s sophistication? (Who’s going to read a book about a university town with a very long history?) That I had just about concluded, when I got to the end of the antepenultimate chapter (“Distant Trumpets” pivots on the unprecedented and decimating lurch toward military service in 1914 — and although Morris doesn’t make this point, I couldn’t help thinking that all those gallant young officers who went off to Flanders only to find mud and rot instead of glory were realizing, in a truly awful way, the ending of Max Beerbohm’s sardonic fancy, Zuleika Dobson), that Oxford is a feint, a book “about” Oxford that manages to keep all the important secrets, so that only those who study in its colleges will know what the place is all about — that, in short, I was feeling had? Or should I come right to the point: Morris saves the truth for last. For it is in the penultimate chapter, “The Heart of Things,” that we are finally told what it is that makes Oxford Oxford.
One of the perennial complaints of the English reformers is this dominance of Oxford in the affairs of the kingdom — Oxford bishops, Oxford politicians, Oxford publicists, Oxford lawyers: but it is likely to last, for there is no city in England where a young man may better get the feel of the State, tread in the footsteps of so many leaders, or more easily slip up the road to picket the party headquarters. (264)
Oxford is the home of many good schools, many of them not part of the University, and a great deal of serious scholarship in the humanities and research in the sciences hums in its libraries and laboratories. The density of clever minds, as the English would put it, is perhaps unparalleled anywhere on earth. But its institutional foundation, the bedrock of its well-preserved fabric of stone walls, garden lawns, and collected treasures is its function as the finishing school par excellence for the leaders of the British nation. It is the School of Politics, brilliantly conducting a curriculum that, from the University standpoint, is strictly extracurricular. While most undergraduates pursue a higher grade of what nonetheless remains an undergraduate education, a self-selecting few study the levers of political power. The Oxford Union is a luxury Parliament, compleat in every degree of procedural fuss, but delightfully free of hustings and constituents.
The standard explanation for the University’s refusal (under Roy Jenkins’s chancellorship) to grant Margaret Thatcher an honorary degree, in 1985, is that her policies concerning the funding of education were deplorable. A much better reason, I suspect, was that, as Margaret Roberts, Mrs Thatcher attended Oxford (Somerville) without knowing what it was for.
Reading chemistry for her degree, rather than history or PPE (politics, philosophy, and economics) like most aspiring politicians, she was not exposed to the discipline of sampling the whole spectrum of political thought; she was free to read only what she was likely to agree with. … It was only retrospectively that she would like to claim an intellectual pedigree that was no part of her essential motivation. (John Campbell, The Iron Lady, 15)
In other words, the lady emerged from Oxford unfinished. You might almost have argued that the Prime Minister didn’t deserve the degree that she already had.
The Oxford that tourists visit, that the producers of Inspector Morse, Lewis, and Endeavour transform into a member of the cast, the Oxford of “dreaming spires” — that Oxford is a front, a gaudy camouflage. It has nothing to do with education; indeed, what it teaches, this burnished, medievalized rock garden, is abominable conceit. But so long as Britain is a parliamentary democracy, the rock garden will be kept spruce, and the education overall will be superior to that available anywhere else, except, arguably, at “the other place,” Cambridge. The front will be maintained.
Lest anyone imagine that this finishing-school-for-politicians role marks a degradation of Oxford’s greatness, it must be noted that it was precisely to civilize and polish the scions of wealthy and/or powerful families that European universities began admitting, five hundred years ago and more, students who had no intention of taking holy orders and remaining celibate. Long before the Germans overhauled the idea of the university, giving us the research model that still governs higher institutions of learning, universities taught their students about the ways of the world. There was nothing academic about the lessons. True to their name, universities were gathering places for smart people from everywhere.
Although I despise the notion that education can or ought to be “useful,” I am no believer in unworldly education, in ivory towers of “pure” learning. No matter how lacking in practical applications a branch of knowledge might be, it is to be studied in the perspective of human society. Everything that we learn conduces to our better understanding how our public affairs ought to be arranged. This, strictly speaking, is not a political matter, but pre-political; it must be worked out before political activity can begin. Each of us is engaged in the pursuit of a probably unattainable social consensus; those of us with good educations must do more to make our understanding available to those without. The politicians’ job is to harness society’s competing interests in the attempt to implement such consensus as has been reached and as much consensus as can be afforded.
I come away from Jan Morris’s Oxford all but convinced that it would be a very good thing if an Oxbridge background were a sine qua non for all political candidates. After all, we like our doctors to have gone to med school.