November 15, 2009

University Studies

Isaiah Berlin wrote in June 1937 to Alfred Zimmern, then Professor of International Relations at Oxford. The letter is interesting because it lays out Berlin's thoughts about the then PPE course at Oxford: PPE is a course which still survives to this day in which undergraduates study politics, philosophy and economics together. What interests me about the letter is less the specifics of what should happen to the course than what it says about Berlin's ideas about what a university education should supply. Berlin was in favour of what we might call a narrow model of education: he believed that people ought to dive into one or two subjects at university and study them intensely, so for example he tells Zimmern that 'it is a widely recognised fact that practically no one can be expected to devote him or herself to three subjects and hope to be profficient in all of them'. Furthermore Berlin suggested that an extra year ought to be added to the PPE course so that people could further specialise- essentially so that they could do what was in effect a masters.

The other principle difference between some modern thinking on education and Berlin's is his view of languages. 'Languages, which ought, I think to be an integral part of the school since no one should be allowed to go down without some knowledge of at least two languages other than English, could be included..., in the form of set books in German and French.' For Berlin education in a subject was education to a certain depth and that required technical apparatus- much as historians in their first graduate years are sent on paleographic courses- so he thought students of politics and philosophy ought to be capable of mastering the technical details of languages. It is an attitude which survives: Richard Evans, the current Regius, has made clear on many occasions that he thinks all undergraduates and graduates in history ought to have a language. But we must understand this in the context of Berlin's other statements: depth in a subject is the first priority and linguistic skill is a means to achieving that depth and rigour.

Berlin's argument to Zimmern was based upon a shared culture- both men were exceptionally learned and valued the abilities of scholarship highly. For a variety of reasons that value system sometimes seems to decay- but I think what is key to retain within it is the idea that Berlin expressed in his letter to Zimmern: real depth in a subject, real understanding requires hard and intense work- work both on the techniques of scholarship- languages, paleography, analytical skills- and on the subject matter of scholarship. Such an education recognises that it has limits- Berlin as he confesses to Zimmern knew very little economics though we know he did read at least some- but it also allows expansion into other areas. Depth in one area allows the student to recognise what depth and analysis looks like, to detect it in other places and then to separate the obvious charlatan from the scholar (higher degrees of charlatanry resist all but expert analysis). Its this idea though of a quest which does not end, of a knowledge which needs to be sought for and tried hard for that I think lies at the heart of Berlin's letter and at the heart of his concept of a university education- possibly of a certain type of education itself.


James Higham said...

Naturally, coming from a languages background, I'd support the necessity for at least two foreign languages on the curriculum.

Perhaps not directly useful but how is "being educated" immediately socially useful, except in broadening the mind?