Singing the Blues

Noël Annan

  • A History of Cambridge University. Vol. IV: 1870-1990 by Christopher Brooke
    Cambridge, 652 pp, £50.00, December 1992, ISBN 0 521 34350 X

Who better to be our guide to modern Cambridge than the Dixie Professor of Ecclesiastical History? Christopher Brooke was brought up in Cambridge, the son of the professor of medieval history and himself a post-war Apostle. He begins by whisking us round the colleges telling us what each was like in Victorian times and how the abolition of the religious Tests and the Royal Commission (1872) transformed Cambridge from being a provincial seminary and a federation of colleges into a university of faculties and departments where the dons could marry and no longer had to be clergymen. But on such a tour there is always a pest who asks questions. What, he wonders, are the colleges like today? Did Snow give an accurate account of Christ’s? What about the way Nevill Mott was treated as master of Caius that led to his resignation? What of the delectable days of Lord Dacre in the Lodge at Peterhouse? Surely space could have been found to praise the leadership Trinity gave to science by using her great wealth to found the Science Park and the Isaac Newton Institute, and make Cambridge a scientific city as well as a university.

Brooke replies that he is writing the history of the university not the colleges. Winstanley wrote his history of later Victorian Cambridge by minutely analysing institutional change. Brooke will have none of that. The history of a university, he believes, is the history of the contribution its scientists and scholars have made to learning. He shows how chemistry and biology grew out of the demand for medical students, who went on to do their clinical training at the London teaching hospitals; how physics emerged from mathematics and how the Duke of Devonshire built the lab that Clerk Maxwell, J.J. Thomson and Rutherford made synonymous with the history of physics; and how history and law were established by student demand. In later chapters he covers the vast proliferation of subjects and their departments – from modern languages to cosmology and from engineering to the social sciences.

Brooke is entirely right to put scholarship first and no one will dispute the eminence of the scholars he chooses to praise. But doesn’t he praise rather too often the scholars from his own college, asks the pest. But why not? Caius is now very rich and has for long been distinguished in both humanities and science. Yet why, the pest continues, are four of his 18 chapters devoted to religion and theology? Brookes explains. Christianity was more fervent and theology more challenging after the Test Act was repealed. Does one detect the faint distaste of the historian for the social sciences? No mention of Keynes’s circus, a veil over anthropology after Frazer, and you sense his approval that Cambridge took its time before climbing on the sociology bandwagon (no reference to the work of W.G. Runciman). Odd, too, that Appleton and Aston are missing from the roll-call of the Cavendish. Still, there is only one staggering omission. He describes the genesis of physiology under Michael Foster but never mentions Adrian, Hodgkin or Huxley, all Nobel Laureates and masters of Trinity, who immediately after the war worked in the most prestigious biological department which pullulated with FRS.

The greatest change in social life? Brooke is in no doubt. Women. He writes with generosity about the establishment of the women’s colleges, with shame of the decision after the First World War to refuse women degrees, and with sympathy about their revenge when such men’s colleges as held out against the admission of women had to capitulate because ‘the quality of applicants to all-male colleges plummeted’ – though the proportion of women to men (roughly two to three) is still below the national average. He also has words of sympathy for that self-sacrificing group: dons’ wives. But he does not mention the extreme difficulty women have in obtaining university teaching posts, thereby inflicting a crushing financial burden on Newnham, a single-sex college – as indeed on all colleges which want to appoint women fellows to match their female undergraduate intake.

What was it like to be an undergraduate in Edwardian, Georgian or Elizabethan days? I haven’t time for that, Brooke replies: you should read some memoirs. A pity, because his history begins in the days when Sammy Woods could reside as a member of his college for 12 terms, playing rugger and cricket for Cambridge, while failing monotonously to pass the university entrance exam. Edwardian etiquette decreed that if you called on a fellow undergraduate and he was out, you could help yourself to a cigarette; but it was bad form also to help yourself to a whisky and soda. The contrast between the years before 1931 and after 1951 could hardly have been greater. The Trinity flat-cap of the Pitt and the Blues of the Hawks Club receded and were replaced by the editors of Granta and Varsity, who had an eye on Fleet Street and were keener on lay-out than content, and by producers and actors determined to storm the RSC. He writes with sense and sensitivity of the student unrest which, in the Sixties and early Seventies, changed the relations between dons and undergraduates. But does he not think it odd that for a long time Cambridge undergraduates were subject to fines and petty punishments that would have amazed any Continental student?

And the quality of the dons’ lives? There isn’t time – the pest is told – to show us what it was like to work in one of the great labs. How many were like Max Perutz’s molecular biology lab, where juniors were encouraged to contradict their leaders, where everyone knew what everyone else was working on and spent the minimum time on paperwork and going to international conferences? But Brooke makes an illuminating comparison between his father’s life-style and that of a professor today. Bound by the social conventions of the time, his father lived in a spacious house in west Cambridge with three servants, sent his sons to public schools but never took a holiday abroad. Today no don can afford to buy a house there, and few can pay boarding-school fees; so a professor has more choice how to spend his income (which, Brooke might have added, is less in real terms than a professor’s income sixty years ago).

To Brooke the pest’s inquiries reveal a trivial mind. A historian should be concerned with the larger problem of how Cambridge rectified a social embarrassment. By the middle of this century so many posts in science and esoteric arts subjects had been created that tenured dons were divided into two classes: those who had and those who did not have college fellowships. By 1961 46 per cent of university teaching officers were without a college fellowship. So the former secretary of the Cabinet, Edward Bridges, was invited to examine what could be done. True to form, the colleges turned down his main, and the university his secondary, recommendation.

Commensality means a lot to Brooke. Cambridge should be a community of scholars not a nine-to-five office. He prefers the Oxford system whereby the colleges appoint the academic staff (after consultation with departments) so that nearly all dons are fellows of a college. At Cambridge staff are appointed by the faculties and departments, and colleges are free to offer (or not to offer) them fellowships. But surely Cambridge science, had it been hobbled by college high tables, could never have followed the lines of research that it did before and has done since the war; and some might add that high tables are apt to prefer the socially acceptable to originality and intellectual distinction.

All is well, however. The colleges created more fellowships, or hived off a graduates’ annexe; and unsolicited benefactors appeared, to found new colleges. In the building boom of the past forty years practically every post-war architect of repute has designed a building in Cambridge. What do you think of them, asks the pest. Brooke mentions Stirling’s ill-conceived History Faculty building, but does not reveal that members of his faculty disregarded the University Treasurer’s warning that Stirling’s building at Leicester had drained the university’s finances, as was to be the case later at Edinburgh, St Andrews and Oxford. It still plagues Cambridge. Brooke averts his eyes (as a former generation did from Waterhouse’s building in Caius: they considered it ruined King’s Parade).

And here our guide ends his tour. He is a kindly guide. He never says a harsh word about anyone and defends the most redoubtable diehards on the grounds that they held a different but not despicable view of education; and are we so sure that ours today is unassailable? In this account of Cambridge the sun is always shining, and the east wind of nil admirari, so relished by Fawcett and Housman, never blows.

Suppose, however, that our guide had not been Christopher Brooke but someone from LSE. In 1935 the economic historian Michael Postan left there for a lectureship at Cambridge, and gave his first impressions in a letter to a former colleague.

The bulk of the dons I have met are dull and provincial. They read little, know less and are smug and conservative in the worst Edwardian manner. They sneer at ‘fellows with ideas’ or tell funny stories about Americans or admire Jimmy Thomas. It is all very painful and explains why so many of the young scientists here turn communist.

Postan was astonished to find that the medievalists ignored the work of Marc Bloch and none of the lectures on political thought mentioned Marx. Brooke explains on his very first page that though Cambridge draws its students from far and wide, ‘it is also profoundly inward-looking.’ So is his book. Of the effect that Cambridge has had on our schools, on other universities, on the economy, indeed on general ideas, he is as silent as an undertaker.

Why, for instance, were England and Wales alone in the Western world in allowing adolescents to drop maths and science, or alternatively languages and history at 16? The root cause was the Oxbridge system of entry after the First World War. The university’s requirements were so low that all but the thickest of athletes could meet them and read for a pass degree. But an intelligent boy or girl could gain exemption at 15+. What then were they to study in the sixth form? The answer was to sit for the exacting college scholarship exam. These scholarships had been founded by benefactors and self-sacrificing dons to help poor boys, but had been transformed over the years into a blue-riband competition among the schools – a type of exam that eventually spawned A Levels. The system suited the dons: it kept standards high and boys and girls arrived knowing something of scholarly disputes and more than basic science. It suited the boys and girls: why study maths if you have a block, or language if you have no ear or grasp of grammar? It suited the professions: a doctor could qualify in seven years, a lawyer in six. It suited the Treasury because a first degree took only three years. But did it suit Britain? The Crowther Committee (not mentioned by Brooke) complained that the colleges kept jacking up the requirements. Industry complained that scientific graduates had narrow interests and commerce that arts graduates were innumerate. Not even to refer to this matter is curious.

The Robbins Report in 1963, says Brooke, ‘spoke harsh things to Oxford and Cambridge and told them to set their house in order’. He does not say why. One reason was that they resisted requests to integrate themselves into a system of higher education, pleading that their system of government absolved them from the obligation to fit in with other universities. They plagued the schools because each college set a different date and different requirements for entry, and boys and girls spent their days travelling for interviews. John Morrison, the tutor of Trinity, tried to get the colleges to agree to a uniform procedure, but Armitage of Queen’s and Pratt of Christ’s fought him until the establishment of UCCA forced Cambridge to take its head out of the sand.

Another reason was Cambridge democracy. It was good that all dons were consulted about university business: not so good that they could vote on every issue. What was bad was the paralysis suffered by those trying to effect even minute changes and the unwillingness of the central committees to take unpleasant decisions. Every piece of business had to be referred to faculties or colleges for comment. That might take a term, and as terms last only eight weeks and the central committees did not meet in vacation, and as nothing could be put to the vote of the Regent House (i.e. the whole body of dons) between mid-May and mid-October, one had to be pretty nippy to get a proposal brought to a vote before the year was out. Oxford took the Robbins criticisms to heart and in 1964 set up a commission of inquiry under Oliver Franks. Franks took evidence in open session and was criticised for washing dirty linen in public. But in so doing he educated his electorate, and showed just how distinguished Oxford was. Some at least of his reforms were accepted, although to the day of his death he was bitter that Oxford refused to implement his main proposals.

Cambridge was earlier off the mark. In 1961 I got a committee set up to consider what questions should be asked, were Cambridge ever to reform its governance. A year passed. The committee never met. They said they were too burdened with business. So in 1962 I tried again and a prestigious committee, numbering among others Eric Ashby and Nevill Mott, was set up by the Council and General Board, and we made the not very astonishing recommendations that vastly more business should be delegated, fewer matters put to the Regent House, and a small posse of senior dons, equivalent to the pro vice-chancellors and deans of civic universities, appointed to undertake the diplomatic work of persuading their colleagues that certain decisions ought to be taken.

By now, however, the conservatives, led by Herbert Butterfield and Ivor Jennings, were alarmed and took the necessary blocking action. A paragraph in our report showed that the archaic method of taking decisions had resulted in £66,000 being spent on architects’ fees on the new museums site with nothing to show for it. The conservatives had no desire whatsoever to educate the electorate. They deleted the paragraph on the grounds that it was likely to bring the university into disrepute. Virtually nothing was done, and not until 25 years later was a committee under Douglas Wass to come to much the same conclusions. The attempt to rationalise teaching between the university and the colleges met with a similar fate. So did a proposal to give better instruction to graduate students in the humanities. Some from overseas wandered for months before they could settle on a subject and find a suitable supervisor.

Brooke laments the brain drain of the Eighties but he does not mention the exodus to the new universities of dons who were frustrated by their inability to introduce minor adjustments to the curriculum. The discontent was not universal. The scientific departments were nearly all well-managed; decisions had to be taken about bench-space, equipment or the lines of research. In the humanities decisions were all too often postponed. As a result, the scientific departments prospered and, as Cornford declared in his Microcosmographia Academia, got the lion’s share of the UGC grant. At a time when centrifuges were to be had for the asking, the university refused to provide the professor of music with a piano: the infuriated Thurston Dart resigned the chair and left for King’s, London.

The university’s administration may have been labyrinthine, but it lacked nothing in rapacity when a donor hove in sight. After the war an accountant hoped to establish a chair in his utilitarian profession: the first scholar to hold it was indeed eminent but had nothing to do with accountancy. Judith Wilson intended the lectureship in drama she endowed to be held by someone who would work in the theatre, as George Rylands had done when he directed the Marlowe Society productions: the English Faculty converted it into yet another routine lectureship. Nor did government fare better. Brooke is amazed that two outside reports recommended the UGC to close the veterinary science school. They did so because of Cambridge’s incompetence to ensure that the colleges admitted students to study the subject. The Scarbrough Committee recommended the UGC to create posts to promote the modern culture of the Middle and Far East. Among other coups of genial banditry Cambridge set up a chair in Egyptology, and a lectureship in Tibetan which provided a comfortable billet for a Classic to pursue with distinction his study of Cicero. But the rapacious should not be careless. When the Venezuelan Government asked how much a chair in South American studies would cost, the Vice-Chancellor told them £75,000 without consulting anyone. The true cost at that time was £250,000 and the difference had to be met somehow.

Why was Cambridge as eminent in the humanities as in science? Brooke believes it was in part due to the decision after the First World War not to enlarge the old University Library but to build a new one. The man who master-minded its building was the master of Caius, Hugh Anderson, who was, with G.M. Trevelyan, the architect of the report of the Royal Commission of 1923. Scholars came to Cambridge or stayed there because it was the largest open-access library in Europe. It possessed an excellent tea-room where they could talk shop, exchange academic gossip, or as Brooke notes, improve their marital prospects.

Yet even if one leaves aside the prestige and attraction of Oxbridge there is another explanation. Brooke does not cite in his bibliography the work over the years of A.H. Halsey and Martin Trow, although it is a major source on British universities since the Fifties. Using Halsey’s figures, Franks showed that an Oxford university lecturer was paid 18 per cent more than his colleague in a civic university; and the differential at Cambridge for a lecturer with a college teaching post was unlikely to have been much less. The extra payment reflected the hours spent giving tutorials in college. Lecturers in the civic universities might ruefully muse that they were required to give tutorials, teach classes and examine without extra payment.

Should Cambridge with all its advantages have special treatment? On this matter Brooke, caught in a bind, begins to bleat. He laments that the efforts of Robbins to create a new equality in esteem and achievement among British universities have foundered on the rock of Thatcherism. Class distinctions have been revived by what he regards as the loathsome device of the ‘selectivity exercise’ – i.e. the ranking of research carried out in each department within each university. Of course there are some who think that the UFC and the research councils ought to penalise, rather than reward, Oxford and Cambridge to compensate for the magic that attracts nostalgic benefactors to found new colleges and chairs. But the UGC began the selectivity exercise so that they could favour some universities at the expense of others without being accused either of bias or ignorance. If Brooke will turn to the Franks Report again he will see that in his own quiet way Franks prefigured the selectivity exercise. In Table 330 he showed that Oxford and Cambridge dons were not sunk in port but more productive than other university teachers. In 1963-64, 55 per cent of their dons published one or more books, whereas the average for all British universities was 34 and for Berkeley, California 40 per cent; and the differential for articles was similar. Every nation recognises and favours its leading institutions, the Grandes Ecoles and the Max Planck Institutes. As an unrepentant élitist I believe it is essential for the life of the mind to keep some centres of excellence funded – and keep them up to the mark.

Who can blame Brooke for feeling betrayed by the politicians who opened up a new vista ‘of expansion, and hope, and creativity’ only to obliterate it in the Eighties? His generous spirit grieves for the young graduate who will enjoy few of the advantages that were open to him forty years ago. Yet here the true inwardness of his book is so striking. What of the claims of the former polytechnics? What of the training schemes that, muddled and inadequate as they are, are needed by our workforce, so many of whom, by the standards of our European competitors, are unskilled? And how are these two sectors to be financed when British wealth declines?

At last Cambridge has begun to relate to the needs of society. But suppose that after the war it had set up a business school instead of waiting for Paul Judge to set one up in 1990, or insisted that all its undergraduate engineers take a course in management studies. Suppose rather fewer scientific resources had been spent on fundamental research, that industrialists had been asked what they needed rather than milked to finance long-term research that was more interesting. Suppose, instead of appointing as the first professor of education a scholar who despised the subject and preferred to write about medieval sermons, Cambridge had recognised the need to see that standards in the schools and the colleges of education did not fall and had monitored the work of its own and other university GCSE examining boards. Cambridge did not lack professors and dons who spoke of such matters but it lacked the organisation and the will to bring its influence to bear on government. In the background there was always an eminent scientist to declare that the spin-off from fundamental research towards industry was inevitable and, therefore, there was no need to woo industry. Or a twinkling Butterfield warning that Cambridge should resist the introduction of studies that ‘reflect current ideas or popular desires ... and sacrifice long-term values’.

‘No one,’ Dr Arnold wrote, ‘ought to meddle with the universities that does not know them well and love them well.’ Brooke loves Cambridge and the number of topics he finds space to discuss is astonishing. He makes one wish the one volume had been two. And he has a crushing final reply to the pest. Hateful as the selectivity exercises may be, the last one put Cambridge’s overall scholarly achievement top of the list. Seventy-seven per cent of its 52 subject areas received maximum rating; and the UFC has increased its grant by 11.7 per cent.