Friday, March 22, 2013


A Bachelor Don of the Old School

Roger Scruton, England: An Elegy (2000; rpt. London: Continuum, 2006), pp. 167-168:
My first discussion with my tutor, Dr Laurence Picken — a bachelor don of the old school, an established scholar in the fields of biochemistry, cytology, musicology, Chinese, Slavonic studies and ethnomusicology, world expert on Turkish musical instruments, Bach cantatas, ancient Chinese science and the reproduction of cells — concerned my course of study. Under Dr Picken's influence I opted for philosophy (then called 'moral sciences'). And so I discovered my vocation.

Dr Picken typified the osmotic process whereby a cultural and intellectual influence was transmitted within college walls. You could pick up from him an amount of knowledge on any number of subjects — from Baroque keyboard ornamentation to the vinification of burgundy, from the wave structure of the benzene ring to the translation of the Confucian Odes, from Frazer’s theory of magic to the chronology of Cavalcanti — and the very irrelevance to the surrounding world of everything he knew made the learning of it all the more rewarding.

This irrelevance characterised the curriculum as it developed in England during the great years of the public school. Although the natural sciences gradually came into their own as subjects of study, they were taught not for their practical but for their theoretical content. Pure mathematics was expressly separated from 'applied mathematics', and given the higher standing proper to a true intellectual pursuit. Latin, Greek and ancient history were at the heart of the old curriculum, literature was studied through classical texts and national history was assumed to have stopped some hundred years earlier than the time of study. You learned poetry by rote, and even at the lowest level of study you were taught to read Chaucer in the original. The further the subject seemed from the day-to-day concerns of the student, the more worthy of study it was held to be.
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