Sunday, October 21, 2012


Cambridge Lectures in Classics

A.S.F. Gow, Letters from Cambridge, 1939-1944 (London: Jonathan Cape, 1945), pp. 239-240 (extract from Letter 61, dated 15.9.44):
Cambridge life had a certain colour and amplitude which I fear it may since have lost. Still, I do venture to think that Dons have grown less eccentric in the course of time and that none of my generation would, for instance, perform such exploits as those recorded long ago in the answers to a Quiz (no. 26), or, like Peter Mason, President of St John's, publish a Hebrew Grammar in the form of letters to a Duchess ('Your Grace having, I doubt not, committed to memory the Personal Pronouns given in one of my former letters, I now beg permission to go through their respective Declensions' — and so on). And if you counter this by arguing that our eccentricities, though of a different character, are no less absurd than theirs, I shall reply from my last ditch that in one particular at any rate I know we have improved. We cannot lecture as badly as some of them did or our lecture-rooms would be empty.

I do not mean, I hasten to add, that all the instructors of my youth were bad lecturers. On the contrary most of the younger and some of the older were competent, and a few more than competent; but there were also some whose lectures were a disgrace. I do not think Classics were worse off than other subjects for I have heard a similar tale from other faculties, but I take example from the Professors of Greek and Latin for I had the misfortune or imprudence to attend them both. Jebb was not an eccentric; he was a Knight, an M.P., a friend of Tennyson, and, as a scholar, not so distinguished as his contemporaries thought but still distinguished. His idea of lecturing was to read out in a monotonous inaudible voice from a notebook or proofsheets strings of references which nobody would look up and which would not have profited them if they had. Mayor, Professor of Latin, was very learned, perhaps fifteen years older than Jebb, and much odder. His method was to ramble from theme to theme as they came into his head — the names of the Greek letters, the Old Catholics, vegetarianism, and what not — none of them remotely connected with the subject on which he was supposed to be discoursing; then when the members of his scanty audience all chanced to absent themselves on the same day the course stopped. (This, incidentally, was an improvement on Jebb from our point of view, for Jebb took offence if we were absent and wrote angry letters to our Tutors.) The only course of Mayor's I attended was, I think, on Plautus — not that Plautus had been mentioned except accidentally by the time, some weeks later, when the lectures came to their predestined end. The only other attendant was an elderly clergyman with a game leg whom I conjecturally identified with a scholar of notoriously homicidal tendencies then resident in a neighbouring College. As he sat between me and the door and was reputedly apt to knife anyone who coughed or sneezed in his presence this added a spice of adventitious interest to the lectures since it was not until long after the course had ceased that I discovered him to be not after all the homicide but a harmless retired schoolmaster. Mayor's lectures were less boring than Jebb's, and as an occasional experience they might even have been called entertaining, but both alike were practically useless and it is extraordinary that Jebb, at any rate, should not have seen this, or if he did see it, should not have done better. Nobody by exercising thought can lecture brilliantly, but to lecture with reasonable competence I maintain to be within the powers of anyone who has no natural impediment and is willing to take pains. And when you moderns complain of your lectures in my hearing, or if you complain of mine out of my hearing, I should like to plant you for an hour or two in some of the lecture-rooms where I sat in my youth and hear what you would say of them.
Hat tip: Alan Crease.

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