two articles “reviewing” university lectures in the Oxford student magazine Isis have aroused considerable and much publicised controversy. The University Proctors (a special disciplinary body peculiar to Oxford and Cambridge) banned further lecture reviews, and the Isis editor’s indignant, but gleeful protests won a considerable sympathetic response, and brought his case to the television cameras.
The incident might seem of little importance. Oxford has always been an annoyingly rich source for newspaper gossip, and the elements of journalistic superficiality in the Isis review project have to be noted. But the response to the incident suggests that deeper frustrations are finding expression than those of a few student journalists, and if they are not once again to be trivialised and abused out of existence, it is important to try and state what they are.
The lecture reviews disturbed a university untroubled by criticism of its education or teaching methods. The Oxford Magazine in an editorial on the incident, made a highly qualified plea for toleration of student criticisms—“as far as possible undergraduates should be treated as responsible adults, rather than as delinquent schoolchildren” —and suggested conditions under which the lecture reviews might be permitted again. These, it thought, “gave ample scope for discussion within the University, but less opportunity for irresponsible muck-raking by the national press.” Sensible as some of its suggestions were, the impression the Oxford Magazine gave was that it regarded “discussion” as undergraduates letting off steam, rather than something that should seriously concern students and university teachers, and to which a don’s magazine itself has a major responsibility. In fact there is very little published discussion by Oxford dons on syllabuses, teaching methods or university policy, and what there is is rarely directed towards any sort of action. The rate at which changes come about in the University is therefore phenomenally slow, and the exchange of ideas with students negligible. In addition student criticism tends to be treated as rebellion. It is no wonder that when criticism does occur it generates violent conflict.
Two major issues are touched by this controversy. One is the inadequacy of teaching methods —not only lectures, but tutorials as well; and the other the whole gulf of understanding between students and dons in Oxford.
The tutorial is the mainspring of the Oxford system. In theory, the one or two hours per week bring the student and don into a uniquely close and personal contact, in which the direction, purpose, and substance of learning can be subject to continuous discussion. Through his reading and lectures in the week, the student acquires a growing mastery of his subject, and in each tutorial the connections are explained, and the curriculum related to the specific interests of the student.
In fact, there is frequently no contact at all. The essay becomes, not a step in increasing knowledge and understanding, but a weekly drudge, for both student and don—the acquisition and recital of standard facts and ideas, from standard sources, and the tutor making sure that the student at least gets these right. The subject matter of the course has probably never been explained or justified to the student, so the progression from week to week is a blind and uncomprehending one. The student is not normally interested enough, for two years at least, to do more than the minimum of work; the teacher has often neither time nor inclination to really understand him and thus win a more active participation. Above all else, the pressure of the Final Examinations, inflexible and unsuitable courses, and the fragmented unconducive atmosphere of the rest of the university, impose a pattern that even exceptional tutors and students find it hard to transcend. There are of course many excellent and conscientious tutors, whose teaching is a rewarding experience, but individual tutors cannot carry the weight of a whole university education.
Lectures do not have such a key function, in the arts faculties at least, though perhaps they could and should do. The lecture list given to the student at the beginning of the term is a great mystifying pamphlet of names, subjects and times, with no more instructions as to use than “Graduates only” for certain classes. Most students probably, roam through this blindly, going to what lectures (if any) they please, and no doubt with a polite enquiry from their tutor midway through the term as to “how the lectures