08 February 2007

On a passing tradition

This posting is unashamedly academic, elitist and reactionary.

I was sad to read today of the death of Tony Nuttall, who taught me as an undergraduate at Sussex in the 'sixties. But I was also deeply struck by his obituary by Laurence Lerner, another of the founding faculty at Sussex, and the values implicit in it. Lerner starts;

"A. D. Nuttall once gave a lecture at Sussex University about some difficulties in the Darwinian theory of natural selection, of which the first sentence was: "This lecture is the rashest act yet committed in an admittedly rather unadventurous life." [...] the sentence is a splendid glimpse of the intellectual atmosphere of the early years of Sussex (a new university in 1961) which he did so much to create.

"As a literary scholar, Tony Nuttall was willing to explore all intellectual issues that seemed to him to impinge on our way of seeing the world: [...] he showed his lecture to his colleague John Maynard Smith, one of the world's leading Darwinians, who took its objections wholly seriously.

Where and how would one now find;
  • A specialist in English Literature capable of lecturing seriously and critically on Darwin?
  • An institution which could offer him the opportunity to do so?
  • One in which academics in English actually know any of their biologist colleagues?
  • ... to the extent that each would look over the other's lectures?
As Lerner goes on;

"At Sussex, [...] he played a leading part in the development of the contextual course on the Modern European Mind, which placed some of the great modernist writers in their intellectual context, so that students read Dostoevsky or Lawrence along with Freud, Conrad or Sartre along with Marx, Thomas Mann along with Nietzsche. This course was an unforgettable intellectual adventure for several generations of students - and for their teachers.

It was indeed; it was certainly one of my greatest privileges to have taken some of it. Some of it, because at its heart was a lecture circus, as one of the faculty called it; three lectures a week throughout the year, one on each of three strands for the term. On that basis, it was estimated that, provided no more faculty wanted to join in (gloriously forlorn hope!) it would be possible to begin to repeat the sequence in five years or so. (The undergraduate programme lasted then as now three years.) Indeed, the sheer chutzpah of offering a course too big for anyone to grasp the whole of it was an academic statement in its own right.

We could not do it now. What would be the "learning outcomes"?
On completion of a glimpse of this module, students will;
  1. Have been permitted to stay up late, creep into a corner of a sometimes hushed and sometimes raucous debating room in the library and begin to participate in the "conversation across the ages" which is the glory of our culture.
  2. Have found their heads to be the battlegrounds of competing ideas on the most important (and occasionally the most trivial) topics of our time.
  3. Have realised that there are no static answers, nor should there be, and that it is our obligation to ensure that there never are ...?
Devise an assessment scheme for that!

The author of this obituary, Laurence Lerner, gave me the only A+ grade I ever got. It was for an essay on "Was Henry James a philistine?", in which I discussed "Portrait of a Lady" in the framework of Kierkegaard's "spheres of existence". Not that it mattered what grade one got, in terms of degree classification; all summative assessment was by sudden-death final exams in three weeks at the end of the third year (perhaps there are some areas in which we have made progress).

I'm not bemoaning, "where did it all go?" (even at Sussex). I'm asking if there is any chance we might get some of it back?

1 comment:

  1. Ian Farrington9:10 pm

    James With such a distinguished title and evidence to back it up with, I hesitate to ask if you remember me. We are connected, for at least two reasons: I too went to Sussex in 1972, and Tony Nuttall was one of my interviewers, who gave me a place as an 'unqualified mature student', and I was taught Poetry by Larry Lerner. You may also recall that we were colleagues for a while at Bedford College (AKA De Montfort's Southern Branch, University of Bedford, whatever). We never really connected, but the Cert Ed which I ran for while was taken over by you (and others) and under Peter Hadfield has gone on to greater things. I have huge regrets about the place, the course I was in charge of and my resignation from the academic world. I never had any trouble at all with the students, the intellectual environment, and so on, but the bureacracy and insensitivity of the management structure drove me out.

    I hope you are well, would be delighted to hear from you.

    Ian Farrington



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