The Dons

Aug 2 2012 @ 7:36am

Depressed by the state of the modern university, which is "governed by an ever-proliferating thicket of rules" that reward hyper-specialization and publishing in arcane journals, Adrian Wooldridge celebrates two late, great Oxford dons, Isaiah Berlin and Hugh Trevor-Roper:

Berlin wrote a popular book on Marx (in the Home University library, of all tenure-destroying places) rather than bothering with a PhD. A striking proportion of his work appeared in out-of-the-way publications rather than learned journals. Trevor-Roper dispensed with even more academic formalities. He savaged the most revered figure in his field, R.H. Tawney, with the flourish that his work was not only incompatible with the truth but positively repugnant to it. He was an erratic, not to say self-indulgent tutor—sometimes relaxing his academic standards for the sons of dukes, or taking against over-ambitious protégés, as he did with Lawrence Stone, but also sweating blood for obscure young scholars.

This freedom from petty rules meant that Berlin and Trevor-Roper could devote themselves to cultivating the life of the mind rather than tilling a narrow field. They could study whatever caught their interest, whether it be the life of a sex-crazed sinologist or Tolstoy’s political philosophy. They could publish when they felt like it, holding back whatever did not pass the twin tests of rigour and readability, rather than dancing to the tune of state funding. 

They were exemplars, in other words, of what was once known as a "liberal education." We need it now as much as ever.