Reasons I won't give to Oxford

28th November 1997 at 00:00
Hugh Nicklin explains why he has better things to do with his money than respond to his old university's appeals for cash.

Today I received an appeal from Oxford University to help it keep its tutorial system in the face of the threat to charge fees.

Oxford boasts that it is not a teaching institution. In my experience it lived down to this boast. I would write an essay, cobbling together at 4.30am a fudged sentence or two to disguise the fact that there was a point I had not understood. Upon my reading this essay to one of my two tutors, he would invariably fail to comment on the weakness. He would generally say. "Yes, very good. Now, next week..."

My other tutor was famous for his consumption of gin. It was confidentially asserted that he gave deliberately bad lect-ures in order not to have to bother with them.

Things got so bad that one week I borrowed an essay title and a reading list from someone at another college. I had a great time writing an essay on 14th-century depopulation. I read it to my tutor, and he did not realise that he had not set the essay.

The library was the Bodleian. This amazing library has all the books published in England, as of right. In those days it catalogued them by typing information about a book on a small piece of paper and gumming it into an enormous book. It could take hours to locate a book, let alone get it out of the caverns below the streets where they are stored.

In the mid-1980s I visited the library of Newcastle University. Within 10 minutes I had the complete works in translation of an obscure Chinese woman who fell victim to the Cultural Revolution. Encouraged by this, I got my local authority to fund a week's study leave to research for a GCSE history course. I went to Oxford, thinking how exciting it would be to get at the Bodleian with a computer index.

Alas, there were the same massive tomes with the fading sticky paper slips. No computer, no bibliographic service. In a week I could not find a word on a fairly well known Welsh trade union leader of the turn of the century, William Abraham. There was not even an Encylopaedia Britannica from which I could have got a reading list. A curator told me that the installation of a computer search facility is "under way".

In 1974 I obtained my first post as head of a grammar school history department. I had to have a syllabus. I spent a week in Malvern library reference section and quickly discovered that the history of the world is not at all as Oxford tells it.

In fact, from the Oxford syllabus, it would not be possible for anyone to arrive at a correct appreciation of the history of the world of which, it must be pointed out, we are all natives. The view of the world which I picked up in a week in Malvern library has stood the test of time. It is a simple story, of a number of regional civilisations giving way betwen 1450 and 1900 to a single, European civilisation. In this century the domination of Europe is being challenged in many ways.

Oxford divided history into British and foreign. This is like making a recording of an orchestra with a single microphone located in the woodwind section. You get a completely distorted idea of the whole.

History, like a piece of music, is a complete whole. You cannot get the correct picture of the rise of European civilisation from a course which is Anglocentric, because an unreal treatment of fellow European cultures as "foreign" confuses the whole issue. Oxford is economical with the truth. The well of academic authority is poisoned at its source.

Oxford teaches history teachers, some of them influential. Just look at our national curriculum in history. Not enough teachers have spent a week in their local library finding out the simple true history of the world. A huge publishing effort generates books which reflect the Oxford bias of British and foreign history. No wonder we can't talk sense about Europe.

So I shan't be sending any money to preserve your tutorial system, Oxford. The home of lost causes is a lost cause. And my advice to the students who will be paying their own "tuition" fees is to start suing now.

Hugh Nicklin is head of history at The Downs School, Malvern

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