Off the shelf

29th November 1996 at 00:00
Warwick University has wonderful green playing fields, and I am pleased to see that the tradition of Wednesday afternoon sport is alive and well. But if games have always been popular in universities, the sports have changed.

Graham Midgley tells us, in University Life in Eighteenth Century Oxford (Yale University Press Pounds 16.95) that in 1767 there were "foot races, wrestling, leaping, sack races and catching a loose pig by its tail". This splendid book is an object lesson in how to bring history to life. Even the index is promising: I turned quickly to "freaks (human)". They included a mermaid who appeared at the Dancing Room in Ship Lane, and "the Original Stone Eater from Germany".

The freaks in Elisabeth Leedham-Green's Concise History of the University of Cambridge (Cambridge University Press Pounds 9.95) are the usual ones you find in any senior common room. I was lost in admiration for the way Leedham-Green has constructed a coherent narrative, within 250 pages, from what must have been the most enormous mass of source material spanning most of the millennium.

Even more ambitious is A History of the University in Europe, which is being produced in four volumes by an international team under the general editorship of Professor Walter Ruegg, Emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Berne. The second volume, covering the early modern era (1500 to 1800) appeared in October (CUP Pounds 65) edited by Hilde de Ridder-Symoens of the Free Univeristy of Amsterdam, and is exactly the erudite, scholarly and comprehensive work you would expect.

Still in higher education, but slightly more down to earth is Beg, Borrow or Starve? by Anthony Hesketh (School of Independent Studies, Lancaster University, in association with The Times Higher Education Supplement Pounds 7.95). It tackles what for most students is the biggest problem: how to keep afloat financially. As well as giving lots of information - about student loans and overdrafts for example - it draws heavily on the experience of students themselves.

The ones who are going to university are generally confident and able to cope. In every school, however, there are quiet, withdrawn souls who under-perform. The Quiet Child by Janet Collins (Cassell Pounds 14.99) is about children in whom "the quietness is sometimes the visible product of a more severe problem". It draws on case studies and offers practical advice. One reason why quiet children fall through the net is because many teachers just want children to be that way - and yet, as we all know, we need to talk if we are to learn.

In Rules, Routines and Regimentation by Ann Sherman (Educational Heretics Press Pounds 7.95) children, including some very young ones, say how they perceive school life, and many of them comment on not being allowed to talk. If you do, says one, "You get told off . . . and told that you might not get to come to school one day." Another little soul sums up the whole business of schooling very well. "Mrs H. wants us to be kind to each other; that's why she yells at us." I am a fan of the Educational Heretics Press because it asks necessary questions about the fundamental purposes of schooling. As Ann Sherman puts it: "When talk becomes dangerous we are definitely not educating for a democratic society."

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