Wednesday, July 24, 2013
The Purpose of Education
John Alexander Smith, Professor of Moral Philosophy at Oxford, began a course of lectures in 1914 with the following words:For the probable source of this quotation see David Ross and C.A. Creffield, "Smith, John Alexander (1863–1939), philosopher and classical scholar," Oxford Dictionary of National Biography:
Gentlemen, you are now about to embark upon a course of studies which will occupy you for two years. Together, they form a noble adventure. But I would like to remind you of an important point. Some of you, when you go down from the University, will go into the Church, or to the Bar, or to the House of Commons, or to the Home Civil Service, or the Indian or Colonial Services, or into various professions. Some may go into the Army, some into industry and commerce; some may become country gentlemen. A few — I hope a very few — will become teachers or dons. Let me make this clear to you. Except for those in the the last category, nothing that you will learn in the course of your studies will be of the slightest possible use to you in after life — save only this — that if you work hard and intelligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot, and that, in my view, is the main, if not the sole, purpose of education.
Smith was not only a philosopher; he was an admirable classical scholar. A conspicuous instance of this is supplied by the testimony of an eminent scholar to the effect that he had often 'discovered unerringly what Pindar meant, where every one else was unconvincing'. He was deeply versed in philology (and, as became a highlander, not least in Celtic philology), and acquired with extraordinary facility at least a reading knowledge of many languages. He had a very acute feeling for the precise meaning, and the development of the meaning, of words. Many years later Harold Macmillan recalled his comment at the outset of his lectures: that undergraduates would hear nothing of practical value to their careers 'save only this, that if you work hard and intelligently you should be able to detect when a man is talking rot, and that in my view is the main if not the sole purpose of education' ('Oxford before the deluge', tape-recorded seminar, Oxford University Archives, 1973).
Ian Jackson writes:
I suspect that John Julius Norwich's quotation from J.A. Smith does not derive from the (surely obscure) 1973 tape-recording cited in the ODNB — let alone the ODNB itself, which was published 24 years after his 1980 Christmas Cracker — but rather from Jan Morris's The Oxford Book of Oxford (OUP 1978), pp.330-1, which credits "Harold Macmillan in The Times, 1965".