That Was Teaching

Picture by John R. RifkinHistorian Tony Judt passed away last week nearly two years to the month since he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS).  He was 62.

Apart from his magnificent Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, Judt is perhaps best remembered for his controversial positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  Judt, who was born in England to Jewish parents, volunteered for the IDF during the Six Day War.  The experience, however, led Judt to abandon his Zionism and in 2003 he publicly advocated a one-state solution which brought him not a little notoriety and disparagement.  More recently he had continued to lecture and write as his body deteriorated.  In January, he began writing a series of short reflections on the progress of his disease for The New York Review of Books.  “In effect,” he noted, “A.L.S. constitutes progressive imprisonment without parole.”

This month, also in the pages of The New York Review of Books, Judt published an essay recalling his years at King’s College Cambridge where he read History as an undergraduate and later returned to complete his doctorate in the same.  In “Meritocrats,” Judt judges his generation at King’s to have been

perhaps the—transitional generation. We were past the midpoint of the 1960s—the Mods had come and gone and the Beatles were about to record Sgt. Pepper—but the King’s into which I was matriculated was still strikingly traditional. Dinner in Hall was formal, begowned—and required. Undergraduates took their seats, awaited the arrival of the Fellows, then rose to watch a long line of elderly gentlemen shuffle past them on their way to High Table.

“The old men,” he continued, “seemed to blend seamlessly into the fading portraits on the walls above: without anyone making a point of it, continuity was all about us.”  And yet the times, they were indeed changing.  “By the time we graduated,” Judt recalls, “gowns, caps, gate hours, and a whole rulebook of minor regulations—all of them in place when we arrived—were the object of amused nostalgia.”

For Judt and his contemporaries this milieu offered the best of two worlds:  “Promoted on merit into a class and culture that were on their way out, we experienced Oxbridge just before the fall.” They enjoyed the stability and cultural self-confidence afforded by an education still grounded in the traditions of the fading Victorian order, while enjoying the energy and exhilaration of dissent in pursuit of egalitarian ideals.  On this score the passage of time has equaled something less than progress.

Institutions need substantive traditions and I fear that King’s—like Oxbridge at large—has lost touch with its own. I suspect that all this began precisely in those transitional years of the mid-1960s. We, of course, understood nothing of that. We got both the traditions and the transgressions; the continuities and the change.

Judt’s analysis of the course and consequences of well-intentioned reforms to the British educational system apply in some respects to the American case as well, and his lament for a passing, if not already lost, educational ideal strikes me as justified.  But it was Judt’s praise for his teachers that most impressed me.  Surrounded by the likes of E. M . Forster and John Maynard Keynes, it is to his lesser known supervisors that Judt pays tribute:

Most of my supervisors . . . were obscure, published little, and known only to generations of Kingsmen. Thanks to them I acquired not just a patina of intellectual self-confidence, but abiding respect for teachers who are indifferent to fame (and fortune) and to any consideration outside the supervision armchair.

And contrasted with present educational culture fixated on assessment and measurement the following strikes one as nearly mythical:

We were never taught with the specific aim of performing well on the Tripos—the Cambridge final examinations. My supervisors were supremely uninterested in public performance of any sort. It was not that they were indifferent to exam results; they simply took it for granted that our natural talent would carry us through.

But it was to one John Dunn, at the time a young Research Fellow at King’s, that Judt reserved his highest praise:

It was John who—in the course of one extended conversation on the political thought of John Locke—broke through my well-armored adolescent Marxism and first introduced me to the challenges of intellectual history. He managed this by the simple device of listening very intently to everything I said, taking it with extraordinary seriousness on its own terms, and then picking it gently and firmly apart in a way that I could both accept and respect.

That is teaching.

That was teaching, let us hope it will be once more.

One thought on “That Was Teaching

  1. Odd, I just had to read the New York Review of Books’ issue that came out just after Judt’s passing and contained their tribute to him/obituary. He was an amazing writer; many of his articles in the NYRB were very provocative. This is a great post about teaching. And I agree – this is the sort of teaching one should strive toward. Especially if one wants to break through adolescent “-isms,” which is a big part of what I think college is about (or should be about, at least).

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