The Oxford Vote
The last ten years have seen a major expansion in the education service. The next ten will see expansion continue – as it must, if education is to make its full contribution to the vitality of our society and our economy.
Education: A Framework for Expansion, presented to Parliament by the Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mrs Margaret Thatcher), December 1972.
I do not think that irrevocable damage has yet been done, but I do regard the situation as alarming in the sense that the contribution made by Britain to world science will be severely reduced if the factors now operating are allowed to continue for a number of years.
Sir Andrew Huxley, Presidential Address to Royal Society, 30 November 1984.
A lot has happened in the 12 years that separate these two pronouncements, much of which can be summed up as the revolution of declining expectations. Few now assume that the world will continue to supply more of everything and that each of its inhabitants can count on automatic increments of welfare. The result is that competition for resources has become fiercer and, in some cases at least, more ill-tempered. That is the context for the vote on 29 January by Congregation of Oxford University, by 738 votes to 319, not to award an Honorary Doctorate of Civil Law to the Prime Minister. The vote was not an end in itself. If it had been, some of the accusations of personal spite that have been levelled at the majority would be justified. It was a means to an end and the end was political: not in the partisan sense of Left versus Right, but as a statement of the changing relationship between academia and politicians.
There are two main components of that relationship: the political atmosphere in which we now live, and the universities’ own reassessment of their place in it. The atmosphere is that of the politics of conviction, of which Mrs Thatcher is the principal prophet, but not the only practitioner. No one has repudiated more explicitly than she the old consensus that saw Britain – for better or worse – through the post-war decades. Consensus does not mean absence of conflict. There were plenty of strikes and demos, and some violence, in those years. But the social fabric held together, because most people most of the time kept to the recognised rules of the game. Oxford, with Cambridge, had an accepted place in this world, as the principal supplier of civil servants, bishops, judges and prime ministers. As long ago as 1970 the Times complained that this cosy world of interlocking acquaintanceship offered the country no real choice: both parties were led by men who had been at Oxford together, along with the civil servants who were to administer their decisions.
To offer an honorary degree to a serving politician in those conditions was therefore not a political act at all, since Oxford and government were parts of the same world. Hence it could be taken for granted that Socialist dons would no more veto an honour for Edward Heath or Harold Macmillan than Tory dons would veto Harold Wilson. Even Michael Foot might have slipped through as a representative of the old order, a Thirties-ish, literary champion of the supremacy of Parliament, who caused offence mainly by mistaking the Cenotaph for the Aldermaston March. But Tony Benn of Westminster School and New College? Not on your life. One of the ironies of the whole episode was that the Iron Lady’s champions appealed to a set of conventions that she had done more than any other British politician to consign to the dustbin. Those who sow conviction politics must also reap them. Indeed our vote was not a snub at all, but an accolade, a recognition that we had learned to read the new map of politics.
Yet if the vote was a response to the changed political atmosphere it took a complicated form. Dons have responded to the increased politicisation of education, as of every other sphere of public life, by making their own withdrawal from the old consensus. In the old days they were, like the rest of the country, mainly Labour or Conservative, though in practice that probably meant Butskellite. As the two main parties move off more and more into their ideological cloud-cuckoo-lands, dons – like car workers and bank clerks – have cast off the partisan restraints that kept political conflict stable. According to a revealing opinion poll in the Times Higher Education Supplement of 18 January only 17 per cent of academics would now vote Conservative. But that is not because there has been a swing to the left. The Labour share is 28 per cent. Even in the Polytechnics, whatever their reputation may be, the Labour share is 32 per cent. The favoured parties of academics are those of the Liberal/SDP Alliance. Yet this is in many ways an apolitical, even anti-political stance. Few Alliance votes come from the deeply committed; most are a protest against polarisation and elective dictatorship, rather than for this or that item from a largely unread manifesto. The vote against Mrs Thatcher was another go at breaking the mould, or at least that bit of the mould whose motto was ‘You vote for my crook. I’ll vote for yours.’
There is more to the universities’ response to the changed atmosphere than a repudiation of the traditional courtesies, however. The biggest mould-breaker of them all is, after all, the Prime Minister herself. The universities, like the schools, like any number of other long-established institutions, are on the defensive. True reformer that she is, Mrs Thatcher is making us account for ourselves. Perhaps the British record of slow but steady national decline really does call for a great ceremony of public repentance, some auto-da-fe in which we throw off our old, comfortable habits. What we now realise is that universities have in the past hoped to survive by being ignored, either unaware of how weak their base of public support is or keeping their fingers crossed that this weakness would not be exposed. In the light of the substantial backlash against the Thatcher vote we can no longer plead ignorance. We have to ask ourselves what we should do, though the answer will depend on whether we are defending Salford, Essex or Oxbridge. I shall concentrate on Oxbridge, not only because I have more experience of that, but also because its image shows the greatest contradictions. For most of its existence Salford had no image at all. It was the place down the road. More recently, it has acquired a reputation of business-like hard-headedness, of which more below. Essex, which produces excellent research on a number of subjects, is irrevocably caught in a time-warp of rioting students. But Oxford and Cambridge?
Oxford and Cambridge, as anyone working in them knows, are tourist attractions. Visitors regard colleges much like stately homes. They admire the architecture, the paintings, the furniture. But the real curiosity is about the daily lives of the inmates: who sits at high table, is chapel compulsory, when do you wear a gown, does the Queen ever come? We are a remote and romantic world, which touches everyday existence at few points. The best-known work by a don at my former college, Christ Church, is not the Essay Concerning Human Understanding but Alice in Wonderland. Side by side with this deferential admiration there is a strong anti-intellectual populism, as some of my post-bag reveals. Dons and undergraduates alike are parasites who have never done an honest day’s work in their lives, but are maintained in their luxury by hard-working taxpayers. This populism is exploited, not only by tabloid newspapers and tabloid MPs, but also by at least half of the quality press. In the present context the populism is right-wing: most dons are assumed to be active agents of the KGB; the only fact known about Oxford is the ‘King and Country’ debate of 1933, the only fact known about Cambridge is that it produced large numbers of homosexual spies. In a different context the populism could as easily come from the Left, where there is, after all, plenty of anti-intellectual animus and certainly plenty of anti-Oxbridge animus. We’d be CIA agents, not KGB agents, but the general tone would be much the same.
This anti-intellectualism is probably a constant factor in British life, stimulated into sudden outbursts by particular events, but otherwise not fluctuating very much in its level. Since one’s chances of converting the hard core with a few well-aimed shafts of reason are rather low, it is best to concentrate on the floating voter. For the fact is that we have to convince rather a lot of people that we are worth spending money on, and the first step towards that is to ask ourselves why we are worth spending money on. Again I want to concentrate on what I know about at first hand, universities, though much of what I say applies to other sectors of education too.
We have to show that we are socially useful. We also have to show that the less government interference there is in our activities, the more effectively we can serve society. This last proposition is not self-evidently valid and is rejected by a great many of our paymasters. Populist anti-intellectualism extends to fear and resentment of research. That penicillin or pocket calculators or meteorological satellites would not exist unless someone had done the basic theoretical research on which they are based is a notion alien to that constituency. Research either consists of mad professors waiting to blow up the world or looking for more animals to torture, or of clueless sociologists asking old ladies their preferred method of crossing the road. Here, too, there is nothing to be done. But there is another line of attack, rather more dangerous because more plausible, and because more plausible more attractive to the present government. It goes like this: by all means research, but make sure it yields results. If the results are what industry or commerce or public authorities want, they will pay for it and you won’t need handouts. If not, you had better stop playing about with it. Put briefly, this is the way-can’t-you-be-like Salford argument.
No doubt there are ways of making us be like Salford. If I had been Vice-Chancellor of Salford, faced with the choice of leasing out my university or going broke, I should have acted exactly as he did, though probably with less success. All universities do to a lesser extent what Salford does: i.e. undertake research on contract and teach for vocational qualifications. I am told that Oxford generates between a fifth and a quarter of its research money in this way. But they can only sell on the basis that they – or someone else – does the fundamental research: the sort that private industry’s shareholders and bankers are understandably reluctant to take an equity in. They know this very well at Salford, though they may not, in their present shell-shocked state, want to say it out loud. They know it equally well in industry and nothing illustrates this better than the success story of Silicon Fen, the high-technology complex round Cambridge. Explaining its secret recently, one of the whizz-kids, Hermann Hauser, listed three conditions that are essential for take-off. One is a good network of personal relations. A second is that these relations must cut across the industry-university divide. But the most important was ‘a top-notch university – a second-rate one won’t do: you need access to state-of-the-art research’ (Sunday Times Magazine, 27 January). In other words, if the university of Newton, Russell and Whitehead had not been there, there would have been no spin-off. This is what is threatened by current cut-backs, and this explains the turn-out of scientists and medics at Congregation and the 70-30 majority against Mrs Thatcher’s degree. But it is not the only source of anxiety and not the only purpose of universities that is threatened.
Society needs its science parks and silicon valleys, its surveyors and veterinary surgeons. It also needs its ivory towers. Somewhere where thoughts can be thought and books written without the worry about where next year’s support grant is coming from. Somewhere where new, critical, unpopular, even dangerous ideas can be tried out. Somewhere where speculation can flourish even if it does not have any obviously quantifiable ‘added value’. Somewhere for Wilhelm von Hum-boldt’s ideal of Einsamkeit und Freiheit – solitude and freedom. That is a lot to ask and those who get it are highly privileged. It means that a handful of people, chosen by some not tremendously exact criterion of intellectual merit, are allowed to live in some comfort and – in the case of Oxford and Cambridge – exceptionally beautiful surroundings as Crown pensioners to pursue their hobbies. (The hobbies include teaching, contrary to the widely-held belief that that is the one thing dons want to get out of.) They can do this only if they do not have to look over their shoulder all the time, in case something they say or think loses them points in the competition for renewal or promotion. Ivory towers therefore risk an element of waste. It would be surprising if our profession were unique in having no dead-beats. But the dead-beats are protected along with the geniuses by the tenure system. They are the insurance premium for freedom of thought. In so far as there is a malaise in academia today, in so far as there is a suspicion of politicians and parties in general, and of the politicians in this government in particular, it is because of the fear that solitude and freedom are under attack. It is not the demand that we should be useful that we resent, but the insistence that politicians alone define that usefulness, and the use of fiscal stringency to make us come to heel. No government in living memory has established such detailed supervision over what we teach and where, who researches on what and where. That is true of the ‘New Blood’ posts; it is true of research grants, which are subject to the Secretary of State’s veto if over £25,000; it will, according to newspaper reports, apply to schools as well, through special earmarking of the block grants to local education authorities.
Those who founded the University College of Buckingham in the 1970s as a countervailing force to state control have been conspicuous by their silence in the face of this creeping nationalisation. Anyone wondering whether education and science are exceptional victims of the detailed scrutiny need only look at changes in the administration of grants to the arts, or the Secretary of State’s proposed discretionary powers in the Local Government Bill now going through Parliament. Indeed, one illustration of how seriously the Government takes the need to control our thoughts on policy questions is the curious matter of the spending figures which appeared in friendly newspapers (the Times, Daily Telegraph and Daily Express) a day or two after the Congregation debate, as well as in speeches during the debate itself. They were carefully tailored to suggest that Government spending on education had actually increased, although presented in a form that differed from that available in any published source. Their brief career ended on 6 February, when the Under-Secretary of State, Mr Peter Brooke, agreed in a Written Answer that, even when expressed in real terms, these figures are not comparable from year to year.
What one does about all this is a different question. The universities have in the past been lazy about defending themselves, relying on friends in high places. Now fewer high places are occupied by friends, and those that remain are tarnished by past associations. Still, there are some who advocate a softly-softly approach. There are others who advocate a defeatist prudence, fearing that only disaster can come from collision with as immovable an object as our Prime Minister. As one of my colleagues put it, ‘you throw a tigress a hunk of meat, you don’t stick a pin up her arse.’ This is a superficially attractive strategy. Its weakness is that there is no evidence the tigress is satisfied with one hunk. Indeed, she has had her hunk in the form of a much-disputed and much-resented FRS. It does not seem to have turned her into a herbivore.
Having been politicised against our wills, we have no choice but to act politically, for all the risks that that entails. We are in much the same position as the Frenchman during the revolutionary turmoils who protested, on his way to the guillotine, that he had never interested himself in politics. That, he was told, was why he was about to be executed. There are two political conclusions that I draw from the debate in Congregation and from many casual conversations, telephone calls and my fairly voluminous post-bag. The first is that the response from anyone even remotely involved in education, especially outside Oxford, was overwhelmingly positive. It may even – though this was not our intention – have done the image of Oxford some good in those quarters. One lady from Peterborough wrote: ‘Universities, particularly Oxford and Cambridge, are sometimes accused of leading a cloistered existence, shut away from the realities of the outside world. This action by the academic staff of Oxford University shows that this is not the case.’ A couple from Malvern wrote: ‘We have two 18-year-old children studying for A-level examinations in a comprehensive school. Your vote was a vote for them.’
There lies the strength of our case. Its weakness is that it looks self-interested. If we were merely asking for more for ourselves, as the down-market editorialists implied (‘Greedy grow the dons’), if we were simply another lobby in ‘the long welfare handout queue’ (Digby Anderson in the Times, 6 February), we should deserve nothing. There is only one purpose for which we want more money: so that we can work better, harder and for longer hours. Having your project cancelled is, after all, a great way of getting more leisure.
The second conclusion is that there is undoubtedly a large Thatcher constituency in the land that is hostile to all but strictly vocational and practical education. That this constituency is Thatcherite rather than Conservative is evident from my letters. The Prime Minister is compared favourably, not only with Wilson and Callaghan, but with Heath and Macmillan. She comes second only to Churchill and Queen Elizabeth I. Her supporters condemn, as she does, the whole of the post-1945 regime. It is the constituency, more than any other, that was deeply offended by our vote. However, the constituency is not as big as the noise it makes would imply. The most recent MORI poll (Sunday Times, 10 February) indicates that only 34 per cent of electors are satisfied with the way Mrs Thatcher is running the country, while 51 per cent think she is out of touch with ordinary people. Mrs Thatcher’s camp is organised, disciplined and determined. That, not overwhelming support, is its mainstay. The non-Thatcher camp (and it would be misleading to call it anything else) is heterogeneous, divided and direction-less, although on many issues and in many places – including such non-radical institutions as Christ Church and All Souls – it is in the majority. It would be extravagant to claim for the vote in Congregation any great national significance, for all the publicity it received. What it does indicate, yet again, is the re-alignment Mrs Thatcher has brought about in political loyalties. It expresses her success. But it also defines the limits of that success and the composition of the army that could launch a counter-attack.
Vol. 7 No. 5 · 21 March 1985
SIR: Professor Pulzer (LRB, 7 March) is living in a dream world. The old Butskellite consensus for which he hankers could not continue, because the time came when the country had to realise that it must earn its living in a competitive world, and by its tolerance of the greedy and stupid oafs who were running the big trade unions the Butskellite consensus was making that impossible. I have suffered, both as teacher and as parent, from what I regard as the present government’s philistine and insensitive attitude towards universities. But what matters most to me is that this is the first government since the war that has faced the fact that one cannot exist for ever on borrowed money.
Voting for someone to have an honorary degree does not mean that one approves all that person’s actions. I never thought of opposing the proposal to give an honorary degree to Lord Wilson, whom I detest and despise. After all, he was an Oxford man who had risen to a high position. That is why I find the attitude of Professor Pulzer and the other left-wing ideologues who took advantage of the inability of many scientists to see beyond their own immediate concerns another example of the meanness of spirit that has always been characteristic of such people.
Christ Church, Oxford
Vol. 7 No. 7 · 18 April 1985
SIR: The main burden of Peter Pulzer’s article, ‘The Oxford Vote’ (LRB, 7 March), is that Mrs Thatcher has broken the Butskellite consensus of the post-war period, and that the reaction of the Oxford dons has been to enter the arena of party politics and take their revenge on her for this heinous act. Professor Pulzer seems to support this consensus: the time when, he argues, ‘the social fabric held together, because most people most of the time kept to the recognised rules of the game’. Now, reluctantly, yet, as with the philosopher of old who cornered the olive oil market, triumphantly, the non-ideological, non-partisan, utterly non-political centrists have left their noble towers and delivered a crushing rebuke to the grocer’s daughter who dared to break the centrist consensus and challenge their raison d’être. Pulzer also offers, as if it were an unchallengable truth, the notion that the university, uncut and in a condition of constant growth, is of special value as a place where ‘thoughts can be thought and books can be written without the worry about where next year’s support grant is coming from. Somewhere where new, critical, unpopular, even dangerous ideas can be tried out.’ He refers to the danger of elected dictatorship and polarisation, and talks of ‘creeping nationalisation’ to describe, not the takeover of Oxford funding by the state (which consensus Butskellites supported), but the process of imposing a limit to the growth of state funding, and the checking of unlimited growth of research expenditure. His article also includes sneers at populist responses: but these are largely irrelevant to his argument, though important to an understanding of centrist politics.
Despite the no doubt sincere organ swell of emotion that informs his arguments, Professor Pulzer would, I am sure, agree that these points are open to reasoned and rational criticism. If the claim to be non-ideological – and he has made that claim for Oxford University in public – has any meaning, it must mean that claims for freedom of thought and speech can be verified according to the customary liberal tenets. His defence of ‘intellectualism’ needs to show that the intellect of the Oxford dons actually needs a Butskellite consensus in which to flourish. He needs to show that contemplation, meditation and, surely, some occasional product of those processes are inexorably linked with, not just security of tenure (how many tenured dons in Oxford have been sacked?), but with increasing university job opportunities, unchecked increases in research grants with unverified results, and increased student numbers. He must demonstrate, not, indeed, that all members of the university contribute to thought, scholarship, art and culture, but that more significant contributions of that nature emerge from the universities than from the non-university world. I suggest that in the field of the arts that would be a difficult claim to substantiate. A wide range of disciplines, from history to archaeology, originated outside the universities, as has the finest literature. The role of the universities in the arts has been to cherish, guard and protect the heritage of the past. Their notable lack of success in this task in recent years has been due to their non-partisan cravenness in resisting new and trashy intellectual fashions, and not because of any cuts. As for science, Japan has managed to increase its proportion of GNP devoted to research and development through recourse to business support.
The use by Pulzer of Russell and Wittgenstein as examples of stimulating pure research is self-defeating. How far did either contribute to basic scientific thought? They merely contributed to a pervasive moral uncertainty and cowardice that has characterised university-based philosophy since their time. I suppose that Cambridge in Wittgenstein’s time was an autonomous institution: but if not, does Peter Pulzer really believe that the low-paid manual worker or shop assistant should have been called upon to support Wittgenstein as he cavorted around his room with a poker? How far did Newton’s university contacts contribute to his Rosicrucianism? In what way did the university contribute to his theory of gravity? These are serious questions, and should not be as condescendingly dismissed as they are in his article.
It is certainly true that Oxford has contributed to the post-war consensus, and instead of claiming its supposedly non-partisan nature as a victory, Peter Pulzer would do well to try to demonstrate that these post-war policies have had a beneficent effect on Britain, the British (much as he may despise them), and the colonies from which we gracefully and non-partisanly withdrew, leaving them to dictorship, famine and barabarism. What he claims as a non-political, non-ideological set of virtues proves, by his own argument, to be a subtle form of totalitarian dictatorship. It is a great error to suppose that centrism is non-ideological. Centrists in Oxford have supported specific policies, whose results can be examined and judged. They have supported – curiously, one may think, for such an élitist body – comprehensive education. They have supported the destruction of working-class communities all over Britain in the name of planning and slum clearance, and presided approvingly over the erection of hell-holes for the masses known as council estates. Dons do not live in council estates. They have supported creeping inflation, nationalisation and the Heathite corporate state. They have called for more overseas aid, and (with honourable exceptions, such as the President of Magdalen) seem unconcerned by the misuse of this aid by the corrupt or inept or genocidal governments to whom the aid is given. They are understandably concerned for the interests of the two million or so members of the British middle class working abroad, including many of their children, but with typically non-partisan selfishness show this concern by opposing British interests abroad, from the Falklands to the EEC, at every possible moment. Since scholarship is allegedly international, they are fanatical internationalists, and hate to be reminded of the fact that their financial support is coerced from an unwilling population living within a geographically-limited area coinciding with the nation state, an entity they especially loathe. Much as Professor Pulzer might dislike the reminder in his voluminous, populist postbag, Oxbridge has produced the majority of our more notorious traitors, not to think of that rogues gallery of incompetents who have been in receipt of prime ministerial doctorates in past decades. To ensure the continuation of this non-political tradition, Oxford dons have been electing only those who agree with them, to create a self-perpetuating oligarchy, while keeping a few Marxists around the place as pets. I was struck by the comment of one aspirant to fellowships who, at the time of the vote, remarked to me that, despite his support for Mrs Thatcher, he would not appear at the debate because his vote night well damage his chances of election to a post. While Professor Pulzer might argue that liberal, non-political dons would never before the era of Fortress Oxford have been obliged to protect their interests by biased recruiting, and that such a situation is all the fault of Mrs Thatcher, he must admit that the result of the THES poll to which he refers, showing an amazing preponderance of Liberal/SDP Alliance support considering its proportions in the country at large, demonstrates that the process of appointing only those with ‘nice’ political views has been going on for years, if not decades. No one is so intolerant as the centrist seeing his centrism under fire. If all he has as ideological support is the comforting awareness that he is in the centre of two opposing wings, with no intellectual buttressing other than non-ideological niceness, then it is hardly surprising that he should fight so viciously against the idea of unbiased, external evaluation of his activities. Professor Pulzer’s attacks on the populist anti-intellectual who, he alleges, does not realise that basic research is essential for pocket calculators and penicillin (and do they really, really think so?) demonstrate that. Perhaps one could refer here to the recent smear campaign carried on in Private Eye against non-Liberal/SDP candidates for the Gladstone Professorship which Professor Pulzer now holds, carried on not by or on behalf of Professor Pulzer, who is the most honourable of men, but because the dreaded possibility arose that the professorship might go to – a Conservative.
In short, let us have some evidence that ‘new, critical, unpopular, even dangerous ideas’ have emerged from Oxford in the last fifteen years, before this argument becomes a reason for increased and uncritical support of the university. It is a dangerous argument. The self-perpetuating consensus centrism he describes is, of course, perpetually and inevitably biased against ‘new, critical, unpopular, even dangerous ideas’. The logic of that point would be to abolish Oxford, whose main virtue is its ability to cling to lost causes, to maintain a tradition of scholarship, and (something virtually omitted from Pulzer’s article) to teach.
I am not a founder of the University of Buckingham, and can only assume that its founders have not attacked ‘creeping nationalisation’, as Professor Pulzer so curiously calls it, because they quite rightly see it as the logical extension of that state control they so bitterly fought in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and which helped lead to the establishment of the University of Buckingham. I observe that the University of Buckingham has managed to grow and flourish at a time of state cut-backs. It is a living refutation of Professor Pulzer’s arguments. I would be astonished to find that staff at the University of Buckingham are subjected to more thought control than at Oxford, that they are less intellectually free. I remember that in my two years there as a student several Marxists were recruited (three from Oxford, of course) to teach. This suggests that a wicked right-wing institution was actually much less ideological and conformist than Professor Pulzer’s totally non-ideological Oxford, where conservative ideas are ostracised and Thatcherites are virtually banned. Is it not a criticism of Oxford’s capacity to generate or even to comprehend new and critical ideas that the breaking of the Butskellite consensus had to be carried out outside its ranks?
Vol. 7 No. 8 · 2 May 1985
SIR: May I reply briefly to some of Dr Bramwell’s more specific points (Letters, 18 April), leaving on one side the question of Oxford’s guilt for all the evils of post-war Britain, from high-rise flats to membership of the Common Market?
1. No one sought ‘revenge’ on the Prime Minister. But since the Butskellite consensus had – for better or worse – gone, we thought it odd that it should be resuscitated for the sole purpose of honouring its chief opponent. Anyone as hostile as Dr Bramwell to this consensus will surely acknowledge the logic of our position.
2. I am relieved that the few Marxists in Oxford are kept as pets. That is not what we were told the morning after. Mintruth must have been nodding.
3. I am even more relieved to learn of our ‘cravenness in resisting new and trashy intellectual fashions’. That, too, is not what we were told the morning after. Mintruth is nodding badly.
4. Dr Bramwell asks what we have achieved in recent years. Let me turn the question round. The company that wants to set up a science park on the site of the old railway yard in Oxford explained that the essential feature of this location was that it was within easy cycling distance of the university. Why should an entrepreneur risk his money in his way, if we are as useless as Dr Bramwell claims? Why not go to growing and flourishing Buckingham instead?
5. Apropos Buckingham: it is splendid news that it should be progressing so well, despite the mass recruitment of Marxists. But what is it growing and flourishing at? Advanced research? The teaching of the sciences and technology that the government sees as essential to Britain’s economic recovery? And if not, why not? And if not, what is the relevance of Dr Bramwell’s advice to imitate Japanese methods of private funding?
6. Apropos Japan: not everyone agrees on the merits of its funding methods. Writing in the Times on 3 April, Sir Douglas Hague, chairman of the Economic and Social Research Council and not, I think, a great consensus man, says: ‘I would not go so far as one business leader who recently suggested to me that Britain should stop basic research altogether for thirty years and concentrate, as the Japanese used to do, on learning how to exploit other people’s inventions.’ Mintruth must be for the chop, I fear.
7. I am sorry one of Dr Bramwell’s colleagues felt constrained to miss Congregation for fear of incurring the wrath of the Centre. I can name numerous persons who opposed the degree, but declined to sign our flysheet because they feared it would harm their research projects. No wonder we are not entirely happy with the ‘unbiased external evaluation’ offered to us by Dr Bramwell on behalf of the conviction politicians.
8. Lastly, Thatcherites are far from ‘virtually banned’ here. We have lots. As pets, of course.
All Souls College, Oxford
Vol. 7 No. 9 · 23 May 1985
SIR: I am in a position to comment on two of the rhetorical questions posed by A.C. Bramwell in the hysterical letter which you published in your issue of 18 April. Bertrand Russell made a substantial contribution to the foundations of mathematics and the ludicrously inept image of Wittgenstein’s cavorting around his room with a poker has no basis in fact.
SIR: In her attack on Peter Pulzer’s article on the Oxford vote, A.C. Bramwell ignores Professor Pulzer’s conclusion that the strength of Oxford’s case lay in the tremendous boost which that vote gave to the morale of all those who care about education at every level. Dr Bramwell expresses a deep concern at the awful conditions and the quality of the lives that many working-class people are obliged to put up with, and seems to imply that this is somehow the fault of the anti-Thatcher-voting dons. Illogically, she also blames them for supporting comprehensive schools. Now many of us have thought for a long time that Oxford University, the birthplace of much that is greatest in the adult education tradition, was pretty heartless when it came to caring about the needs of the people in whose city it occupies so central a place. And so I’d have thought that Dr Bramwell, like me, would have rejoiced in the vote, in that, however much self-interest lay at its heart, it also expressed an eloquent concern for education as a whole. Better late than never! It must have been the first time in its history that the walls of the Sheldonian Theatre heard a passionate plea on behalf of nursery schools.
The debate and the vote were perhaps only the most dramatic evidence of a growing concern among dons about, to take one example, the harm to schools on their own doorstep. Only the year before last, the local paper headlined a ‘Dons’ Petition to support Sixth Forms’. In Oxfordshire the damage has included the dropping of Classical Greek from the curriculum of the only state school in the county to offer the subject, the abolition of the Chinese department of another school, which had gained a national reputation for the distinction of its teaching of the subject, of Russian from yet another … The list is formidable. It is evident that more – not less – expression of opposition to the starving of resources is needed from the great brains of Oxford. There is a road in Oxford called Between Towns Road and it is beyond that that those heartless estates exist which Dr Bramwell rightly deplores – two nations indeed. It seems fair to interpret ‘that vote’ as implying an opposition to the most dangerous of the Two Nations notions: that of the educated and the uneducated.
Ruskin College, Oxford
Vol. 7 No. 10 · 6 June 1985
SIR: I wonder if I might be allowed to answer the eight points which Professor Pulzer selected from my letter (Letters, 2 May). The answers will be brief, since when one has deleted caricatures or inventions, there is not a great deal of substantive material left. I do not, for example, understand the references to ‘Mintruth’. Is Professor Pulzer saying that a check on government funding of universities, or the introduction of private funding or endowments, is equivalent to state censorship? Does he think there was more freedom for intellectuals in socialist states such as Cuba, Allende’s Chile, or today’s Nicaragua? I am genuinely curious.
1. I am grateful for the revelation that the award of an honorary Oxford doctorate was always a celebration of the Butskellite consensus. I wish that this knowledge could be more widely disseminated.
2. As was made clear in my letter, the most unattractive aspect of Oxford politics is not Marxism, but the self-indulgent, cowardly, woolly fantasies known as the Butskellite consensus.
3. I am not responsible for what was said to Professor Pulzer on ‘the morning after’, and do not understand his comment. I can only repeat that one of the most distressing aspects of life in what should be a fountainhead of learning is its apparent inability to resist new and trashy intellectual fashions, as the current ‘rereading’ of literature (no doubt soon to be followed by the ‘rereading’ of history) shows.
4. The prospect of a science park in Oxford is hardly an argument for more state funding of research. If businessmen feel they can make money out of Oxford science, it is quite disgraceful that they should be enabled to do so by money coerced on pain of imprisonment from those in employment. If there is to be a substantive spin-off from Oxford inventions, it should be financed by the world of industry, just as industrialists should be financing the training of engineers and computer operators. Why should such training be a charge on the state when it is of benefit to specific interest groups?
5. I did not suggest that there had been a ‘mass recruitment’ of Marxists at Buckingham, but simply demonstrated that there was more ideological tolerance in a privately-funded university than at Oxford. Furthermore, UCB has survived despite having to attract payment from students and their parents, not at the expense of disadvantaged members of the nation state.
6. The attack on Japan is irrelevant to today’s reality: indeed, the ESRC has published numerous studies which demonstrate this point (in this area, at least, catching up with current general knowledge). The day has long gone when Japan was dependent on exploiting other people’s inventions. Today she is so far ahead that multi-million-pound research institutes are being established in Europe to try to compete, but with the certain knowledge that they will fail. Japan has enough inventions of her own, and the research was largely funded by private enterprise. There is no reason why the supply of knowledge or research should be a natural monopoly, and hence the prerogative of the state.
7. Professor Pulzer seems to be saying that any attempt to evaluate the worth of research projects financed by the nation state will result in thought control and totalitarianism. Strange that this is not the case in Europe and America. What, besides, is so special about those currently in charge of research funding that makes them immune to fashion, to prejudice, to personal resentments and to political bias? Who are these giants of integrity and originality? Any research student who has had to spend weeks concocting projects in a form that they hope will appeal to what they perceive as the current obsessions of the various research councils will want to know. Does Pulzer feel that all problems are ‘obvious’? That what are perceived as the ‘right’ fields of research are always unchallengeably and exactly that? This is Popperian idealism run mad.
8. I am thrilled to learn that there are ‘lots’ of Thatcherites at Oxford. Perhaps he could let me have a list, so that we could emerge, blinking, from our bunkers and get to know each other.
It is a pleasure to be abused by A.J.Ayer (Letters, 23 May). Unfortunately, his descent into epistemological precision (‘the ludicrously inept image of Wittgenstein’s cavorting around his room with a poker has no basis in fact’) is a little hasty and hotheaded. Friedrich Hayek has referred to an incident in the early 1940s when
Suddenly Wittgenstein leapt to his feet, poker in hand, indignant to the highest degree, and he proceeded to demonstrate with the implement how simple and obvious Matter really was. Seeing this rampant man in the middle of the room swinging a poker was certainly rather alarming, and one felt inclined to escape into a safe corner. Frankly, my impression at that time was that he had gone mad!
(‘Remembering my cousin, Ludwig Wittgenstein’, Encounter, August 1977). In the November 1977 issue of the same journal, a correspondent referred to a similar incident described by Karl Popper, in Unended Quest: An Intellectual Biography (1976):
At that point, Wittgenstein, who was sitting near the fire and had been nervously playing with the poker, which he sometimes used like a conductor’s baton to emphasise his assertions, challenged me: ‘Give me an example of a moral rule!’ I replied: ‘Not to threaten visiting lecturers with pokers’. Whereupon Wittgenstein, in a rage, threw the poker down and stormed out of the room, banging the door behind him.
Perhaps A.J. Ayer thinks that Hayek and Popper invented this ‘ludicrously inept image’ which has ‘no basis in fact’. Certainly, something is ludicrous here: but I fear it is the self-satisfaction of those with high reputations and inadequate information. Neither of my questions was rhetorical. Despite the efforts to sanctify Russell and his work, the question remains: ‘how much’ did he contribute to ‘basic scientific thought’?
Vol. 7 No. 12 · 4 July 1985
SIR: Dr Bramwell asks ‘how much’ did Russell contribute to ‘basic scientific thought’ (Letters, 18 April and Letters, 6 June). Perhaps the opinion of Alfred Tarski, one of the eminent logicians of the century, will help her. In his Introduction to Logic (first edition, New York, 1941), he says the following of Whitehead and Russell’s Principia Mathematica: ‘This work has already been quoted several times in the present book. It is undoubtedly the most representative work of modern logic, and as for the influence it has exerted it has been no less than epoch-making in the development of logical investigations.’
I may add that Russell was always very generous in acknowledging the value of Whitehead’s collaboration. But it is well-known that much that was especially original in Principia was due to Russell, and is contained in his paper entitled ‘Mathematical Logic as based on the Theory of Types’ (1908) – a paper which another eminent contemporary logician, Alonzo Church, considers as making the first appearance of a new idea of fundamental importance (Bibliography of Symbolic Logic, 1936).
Trinity College, Cambridge
SIR: Since A.C. Bramwell appears to think that Russell made little or no contribution to ‘basic scientific thought’, perhaps she could enlighten us as to the true discoverer of Russell’s Paradox – a discovery precipitating a crisis in the foundations of mathematics and which instigated the creation of all current set-theories.
The University, Hull