Cambridge University reaches 800
Today is the 'official' 800th birthday of the University of Cambridge (that's 'official' in the sense that the queen has an 'official' birthday). I'm dead keen on the Senate House illuminations, which you see in the picture. But one of the consequences is that those of us who work here have to listen politely to people praising us, very sincerely -- but in terms that we would never choose ourselves.
This morning's Today programme was a case in point. The final item had David Starkey (who read history at Fitzwilliam College) and Jim Al-Khalili (a physicist from the University of Surrey) waxing lyrical on the achievements of the last 800 years.
To be fair, Starkey made some really good points about Cambridge's excellence being dependent on money, and that goes for Arts subjects as much as for Science. It's easy to see how much modern science equipment costs, but think of the many centuries of investment in the University Library, on which my kind of work depends.
And he had a great peroration on 'access'. Cambridge is about 'excellence for everybody'...'the Marks and Spencers of universities' (only more successful)...and it's 'the place you go if you're bright'. Nothing else matters.
Hear, hear, I was thinking.
So why did I cringe?
Well for a start -- the facts, dear boy
Starkey may be a good Tudor historian, but he's a bit ropey on the nineteenth century and later. When discussing the scientific base of modern Cambridge, he claimed that 'until quite late in the nineteenth century', the only written exam that Cambridge offered was in Mathematics. Well, no actually. From the mid nineteenth century, there was a written Classics exam too. The point he should have made was that you could only get a degree by passing in Maths.
And his view of classical scholarship is, to say the least, idiosyncratic. When lauding the cultural achievements of Trinity College, he claimed that at one period (in the first half of the twentieth century), you could meet at Trinity High Table, not only Wittgenstein and Russell, but also "Cornford, the world's greatest classicist'. Francis Cornford may have his admirers, but few of them would go that far. Was Starkey (as I suspect) really thinking of A. E. Housman? And were the trio ever at High Table together, Russell having lost his fellowship in 1916 (after a conviction under the Defence of the Realm Act), returning only in the 1940s when Cornford (and Housman) were already dead.
OK, anyone is allowed a slip or two on live radio. But what was more seriously irritating was the assumption on all sides that Cambridge's excellence was really to be defined in terms of scientific discovery, by (of course) big-hitting, heroic, white male scientists (and out came the usual suspects, Crick and Watson, J J. Thomson, Newton and, of course, Darwin (of whose achievements I've already, in January, heard quite enough this year -- the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species).
Obviously all these are crucially important to the university's image and reputation. But, I found myself asking, where are the women? (Rosalind Franklin, being a good candidate). And where are all those who made our academic community what it is -- and helped Cambridge become a teaching as well as a research power house (Henry Jackson, for example).
Part of the trouble about our excellent university is that it still tends to see academic excellence in terms of totting up the Nobel prizes.
Meanwhile, as I mentioned before, we have all been given little '800 anniversary' lapel badges to wear (the kind of thing sported by priests in mufti)... to help us get in the anniversary spirit. I may be being a real curmudgeon here... and in fact someone tonight accused me of just that, saying that the great thing about the distribution of these badges was its democratic reach. Everyone was a recipient, junior lecturers, cleaners, technicians, pro-Vice Chancellors.
True. All the same, so far, I haven't actually seen anyone wearing one. And I am told that they go for £10 on e-bay. I wondered if 800 of us clubbed together and sold them as a job lot, we might to offer a (part-)scholarship to a graduate student.
Anyone got any better ideas?