Robert Fulford's column about Oxford and Cambridge dons

(The National Post, May 2, 2000)

In the 19th century the dons of Oxford and Cambridge emerged as a distinct social class, with their own peculiar and privileged way of life, mysterious to the outside world. Dons were professors, but being a professor didn't necessarily make you a don. The term arose as facetious slang and retains a certain vagueness. The Oxford English Dictionary says it literally means a distinguished man, so "in the colloquial language of the English universities" it signified a head, fellow or tutor of a college.

Noel Annan, who died in March at the age of 83, spent more than half a century living this life and writing about it. His last book, The Dons: Mentors, Eccentrics, and Geniuses (University of Chicago Press), is an affectionate elegy for a class that has largely expired. Annan was a student, fellow and then provost of King's College, Cambridge. Later he headed London University while serving on Royal Commissions and the boards of the National Gallery, the British Museum and the Royal Opera. In 1965 he was made a life peer. In Who's Who he gave his recreation as "writing English prose."

He enjoyed the cosy world of dons until Margaret Thatcher rudely expelled them from paradise. Today, England still has dons, even Thatcher-loving dons, but an old-fashioned don can best be defined as one who spits when he hears the word "Thatcher."

No doubt universities needed reform long before her time; people thought them out of touch and perhaps culpable in Britain's decline. Still, the dons were surprised and horrified in the 1980s when Thatcher began poking about in the colleges, cutting grants and demanding explanations of what was being done. She despised donnish amateurishness and arrogance, and thought their Royal Commissions useless.

In the end she didn't have the decency to provide the equivalent of a game preserve where they might have wandered freely for the indefinite future, enjoying their ancient perks. And the end of Conservative government brought no euphoria. Labour has not been notably more generous, perhaps because Harold Wilson's Labour government (1964 to 1970), stuffed with dons, did not leave happy memories.

As Annan explains, the flowering of the dons in the 19th century set a certain style of British thinking, beloved by some, despised by others. They were generalist, genial (to a point), clubby and highly civilized. On one subject, religion, they were fiercely contentious. In fact, it might be said that the fall of religion was especially hard on them; it robbed them of their righteous Christian anger and their exalted sense of wrestling with the crucial questions of eternity.

As ordained Church of England clergy, late-19th-century dons were immersed in an endless series of vicious battles. While some Anglicans enthusiastically revived mediaeval ritual in the Roman Catholic style, others vigorously proclaimed themselves plain, godly Protestants. Meanwhile, Charles Darwin's On the Origin of Species had upset everyone, and something still more devastating was pouring in from Germany -- ''the higher criticism," which applied nasty, detailed scholarship to Biblical texts and showed many to be dead wrong or, at best, cunning metaphors.

This made the reign of Benjamin Jowett, classical scholar and master of Balliol College at Oxford from 1870 to 1893, difficult. The don of dons, he appears on the jacket of Annan's book, looking appropriately worried. As Annan says, "The years of Jowett's maturity were marked by a series of rows, disputes, accusations of treachery and reproaches for bigotry."

While helping create a magnificent tradition of elite education, Jowett was also the centre of contention and often a cause of it. He rather doubted church doctrine, but he was no radical, so both conservative and liberal zealots distrusted him, the conservatives sometimes helpfully suggesting that he resolve his spiritual doubts by leaving the church. Jowett soldiered on, turning into a legend (a don is nothing if not legendary) and inspiring a contemporary to satirize him in four lines that Annan, for some reason, neglects to quote:

First come I; my name is Jowett.
There's no knowledge but I know it.
I am Master of this college:
What I don't know isn't knowledge.

Annan's cast of characters ranges from John Henry Newman (1801-90), a pious Oxford don before he created a sensation by becoming a Roman Catholic, to Maurice Bowra (1898-1971), the undoubtedly brilliant classical scholar and warden of Wadham College, Oxford, whose renowned wit unfortunately does not survive translation to paper.

Annan lingers over John Sparrow, a lawyer of undoubted brilliance who was elected warden of All Souls College at Oxford in the 1950s and then distinguished himself by doing nothing whatever of academic interest for the rest of his life. A homosexual who liked to cruise in London, he opposed the bill to decriminalize homosexual relations. Some considered that perverse of him, but he feared the bill would spoil (in Annan's words) "the two things essential to homosexual pleasure -- the sense of guilt and the dangers of disgrace and imprisonment." Sparrow was anti-sodomy. In his most famous article, a careful reading of Lady Chatterley's Lover, he proved to his satisfaction that the text shows Mellors was buggering her ladyship.

The rise of the don coincided with a period when the merit system was still highly suspect. Annan includes as an appendix his best-known essay, "The Intellectual Aristocracy," which shows the web of kinship that united British intellectuals (the Darwins, Huxleys, Macaulays, etc.) in the 19th and early 20th centuries. University life was a world of cousins, people from what Annan calls "impeccable academic stock."

That system hasn't altogether died: Scholars can now rise on their own merits but, as he says, many still succeed because of family connections. Annan quotes a few lines from the golden age of patronage, the 1830s, when the master of Christ Church College remarked: "I don't know what we're coming to ... I've given studentships to my sons, and to my nephews, and to my nephew's children, and there are no more of my family left. I shall have to give them by merit one of these days."

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