The Amy Winehouse exam
I mentioned in passing last week that Cambridge Classics students had been honing their language skills by translating Milan Kundera and Barack Obama into Latin and Greek
It didn’t create quite the surge of interest that the Cambridge English practical critical question has -- asking students to comparing Walter Ralegh and Amy Winehouse. Bob Dylan and Billie Holiday were in the question too, but no-one got so steamed up about them. Perhaps the “Dylan is the greatest poet since Shakespeare” campaign, by the eminent Christopher Ricks has made him fair game for an exam.
But it is all part of the same phenomenon – which pace the Daily Mail is nothing to do with dumbing down.
When you teach a load of very bright students at Cambridge, one thing you want them to do is to be able to make connections, to think – cliché coming up, folks –‘ out of the box’. That can sometimes mean encouraging them to use the critical rigour they have learned reading Tacitus, Shakespeare or whatever, in thinking about analogous, but unexpected phenomena of the here and now.
One of the most successful courses I ever ran was over fifteen years ago now. It was for third year classicists and historians in Cambridge, and was called “The Roman emperor: construction and deconstruction of an image”. This was about the time of the protracted break up of the marriage of Charles and Diana, enlivened for the world by the Squidgy- and Camilla-gate-tapes. Remember?
The students read the tabloids, and the transcripts of the tapes, and the various biographies as they emerged. In at least one of the exams (the course ran for 3 years), a section of the paper was a gobbet test on part of the Camilla-gate tapes (all very carefully labelled “An extract from the alleged conversation between HRH The Prince of Wales and Mrs Andrew Parker-Bowles…”)
No-one from the Daily Mail complained (or noticed, I imagine). But some of the more staid members of the History Faculty were a bit dubious about getting their brightest and best to read Andrew Morton’s biography of Di, let alone having a pirated phone conversation reprinted in the exam paper.. The staid Classicists were more broad-minded I should say.
But the result was explosive. . .and enlightening.
There turned out to be all kinds of trade-offs in thinking about the tittle-tattle of ancient and modern monarchies. Why, we asked, was there such general interest in the eating (or non-eating) habits of the monarchs and royals? To what extent is that cross-cultural .. to what extent a narrowly particular western tradition? Could thinking harder about our own obsessions throw light on antiquity, or not?
Then again, what counts as the words of the monarch, and how do we judge them? If we eavesdrop on a king/emperor, do we expect him to sound like us – or different. What are conventions of royal speeh? When (the alleged) “Charles” used the word “calumny” almost next to the word ‘Tampax” (the only man in the history of the world ever to do so I imagine) what did that tell us about the rhetoric of autocrats? How did Tacitus decide to invent the speech of emperors?
And, more the point, could we explain how and why the internal goings on of a royal court actually mattered.
It wasn’t dumbing down. There were no good marks for those who just squealed about the Charles and Di. This was a course about putting together the ancient and modern. You needed to know your Tacitus and your Suetonius and your Scriptores Historiae Augustae backwards – and then to ask if there was any useful connection between them and the representation of the Windsors. One possible answer was “no”.
As for that question in the English Tripos. It looks like a tough one to me:
"The Oxford English Dictionary defines 'lyric' as 'Of or pertaining to the lyre; adapted to the lyre, meant to be sung'. It also quotes Ruskin's maxim 'lyric poetry is the expression by the poet of his own feelings'.
Compare poem (a) on the separate sheet [a lyric by Sir Walter Ralegh, written 1592] with one or two of the song-lyrics (b)-(d) with reference to these diverse senses of 'lyric'."
If anyone can imagine that this was a dumbed down question, they should think again.. Marks were not going to be given here for ranting on about AW and her troubles. This was about “lyric”, Ruskin, Ralegh... and whichever modern star you chose. The kind of question that weak students know to avoid.
And if anyone thinks that Ms Winehouse is the most disreputable of the lot, they should go and take a closer look at the life of Sir Walter.