The philosopher Michael Oakeshott wrote that it was “more important that we should keep ourselves unencumbered with merely parasitic opinion than we should be aware of all, or even the best, that has been thought and said.” There are several ways to parse this claim. One might be to see it as an admonition against glorifying the kind of intellectual development prized by the modern university. At its worst, tertiary education can descend into group-think, and certain kinds of intellect may actually do worse there than in another setting. This is not quite the focus of Stefan Collini’s elegant and arch series of essays on modern English intellectual life, but if you knew nothing about our beautiful city except what you read here, chances are you might send your first-born off to Yale (Collini’s own alma mater), or even Cambridge (Collini’s academic base until 2014).
Oxford looms large in the various portraits offered here, and Collini does not like what he sees. In his telling, Oxford produced a fair few oddballs, misfits and even monsters. Amongst other luminaries, he wonders how the former Warden of Wadham College, the classicist Maurice Bowra, rose to such fame in the postwar period. Bowra was known to ruminate on the dark arts of something called the “Homintern”, a gay phalanx whom he thought controlled the art scene, and also liked to recount the circumstances of his election as Warden by reminding his cronies that he got the job the same day as a wife of one of his colleagues killed herself with a “large saw”.
Collini takes a severe view as well of Kingsley Amis’ multiple deformities of character. Reading his profile of the vindictive and braying author of Lucky Jim, one senses that somehow the rot set in at St John’s College. Amis later professed his love for the Garrick Club on the grounds that it was “somewhere to get pissed in jovial not very literary bright all-male company (his emphasis)”, and one wonders if these kinds of limitations had something to do with his early career as a mendicant don.
The determinedly anti-theist journalist Christopher Hitchens also merits his own essay here, and again, Balliol College doesn’t have a huge amount to be proud of. Collini is unimpressed by Hitchens’ celebrated allegiance to George Orwell’s “power of facing”, and takes a dim view of the company he kept in the last part of his career. (Hitchens was sworn in as an American citizen by President Bush’s secretary for homeland security in 2004). After a couple of promising books, Collini wonders if he hadn’t already succumbed to the kind of “saloon-bar finality” beloved by “a no-two-ways-about-it-let’s-face-it bore” who increasingly traded on what he saw as a ‘“no bullshit” bullshit’ routine. (Collini’s profile of Isaiah Berlin should be read as a repudiation of Hitchens’ blistering indictment of Berlin as an enthusiastic pawn of the Cold War intellectuals who waded into the shambles of Vietnam, but Collini cannot quite acquit the founding president of Wolfson College of bad faith, mendacity and cowardice in his dealings with academic rivals).
His reflections on the career of the former Home Secretary, and Chancellor of the University, Roy Jenkins constitute another implied critique of poor Balliol. In this telling, Jenkins’ political radicalism was counterfeit, and when he waddled off towards the political right after 1970, he was merely following a life-long and “much-lauded distaste for general ideas.” (Were we slyly invited here to ponder the significance of the fact that Jenkins apparently got “the lowest mark in philosophy obtained by a Balliol man” since PPE was established in 1924?)
The rout continues, and Tony Judt is up next, the late fellow of St Anne’s, historian sans pareil of postwar Europe and one time ballast of the New York Review of Books. After some approving asides about Judt’s academic prowess, Collini tires of him and suggests that there was something “eerily reminiscent of the Commissar at the Party meeting” about Judt’s preoccupation with the evils of Stalinism, and with those academics like Eric Hobsbawm who “somehow slept through the terror and shame of the age.” Oxford thus fails to meet the criteria Oakeshott laid down for the pursuit of real learning which he saw as a “conversation” whose “tone is neither tyrannous nor plangent”, which has “no predetermined outcome” and which is judged at the end by “the quality of the voices which speak…[and by] the relics it leaves behind in the minds of those who participate.”