Thursday, 27 May 2010

The Idea of a University

Cardinal Newman wrote, characteristically beautifully, an essay with the title of this blog-post. He made a point in it which I have long remembered. He suggested that in the environment of a great university you learn as much from your fellow students as you do from your professors.

The Biography course at my present university does not provide the environment to encourage such interchanges. Plenary sessions take place not on campus in Buckingham but at a flat near Marylebone Station in London, without the benefit of any congenial wine bar, watering hole or coffee shop at which to rendezvous with one's fellows beforehand or to jollify afterwards. The argument seems to be that, as mature students, we have no need of such things: besides, neither Buckingham nor its campus is exactly swinging.

Regardless of this, I feel that the course is more like one at a crammer or a correspondence college than at a university. You pay your money, you turn up at a block of flats, waiting outside if you are early or your tutor is late, you work through the weekly topic for three hours or so and then you go home immediately afterwards. As a result, I know next to nothing about my fellow students: they know next to nothing about me.

Willie Sutton the American bank robber is reputed to have answered, when asked why he robbed banks, "Because that's where the money is." This, I assume, is why the course is now held in London. Whatever, it means that I still know as little about my fellow students as they know about me. I am therefore putting the finishing touches to a thousand word mini-autobiography which I will post here tomorrow: it's something that would usefully have been the first assignment on the course.

Doing this provides a creative balance to the Biography thousand words I am writing to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography format as part of this term's three assignments. Doing this is also giving me the energy and will to finish them before the deadline of Friday week: so, back to the notes and the books!

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