5 June 2020

Dorothy L Sayers and the Murder of the Master of Pentecost (1)

When  Dr Greeby, the Master of Pentecost College in this University, was murdered in (note this date) 1933, an undergraduate summarised the actualite thus:

" ... he was returning to his house from delivering his too-well-known lecture on Plato's use of the Enclitics. The whole school of Litterae Humaniores will naturally be under suspicion, but ... I really didn't murder the Master. His lectures were -- if I may say so -- dull, but not to that point exasperating."

"That is a very impudent observation, Mr Radcott," said the Professor severely, "and in execrable taste ... Poor dear Greeby! Such a loss to classical scholarship!".

The dry-as-dust tedium of some Oxford Classics changed very soon after this date; we ... rightly ... attribute much of the transformation to the influx into English academe of the cream of German Jewish scholarship in the secessio doctorum  from Hitlerite Germany; a secessio which the great Eduard Fraenkel himself compared to the flight of the scholars from the Library at Alexandria under Ptolemy VIII Euergetes II.

But I feel there might, in more recent years, have been an additional factor.

When I was in teaching, it fascinated me to be told how boring, according, at least, to the students, the teaching had been in those other subjects which they had been compelled to study ... mainly, the sciences. I put this tedium down to the fact that those who taught such subjects were under no pressure to make their subjects alluring or even entertaining. Their subjects were compulsory. They had no Darwinian self-interest in seducing the young people into enjoying scientific studies. So, once the students were given the luxury of opting for their three favourite subjects, the labs didn't see many of them for dust, dry or otherwise.

Tedium is the ultimately unforgivable sin in Education.

We Classicists, on the other hand, knew that, unless we displayed our subject with unashamed meretriciousness, cavorting outrageously and ultra-vulgar in our showmanship, the customers would  decline to opt for Latin and Greek, and we would be out of a job. After all, even in 1933 Radcott had 'cut' Dr Greeby's last ante mortem lecture in favour of an engagement with a punt. No wonder Mgr Knox when schoolmastering at Shrewsbury composed his witty piece on The Greek Particles and devised neat little tricks to lure his fascinated pupils into composing Alcaic stanzas without even realising they were doing so.

I still get former pupils reminding me "Father, do you remember when you ..." (I usually don't).

This is what comes into my mind whenever there are yet more calls, since "this country so badly needs more scientists and engineers", for the Young to be peremptorily volentes nolentes compelled to study such subjects.

My Plans For Educational Reform? Sack tedious paedagogues in whatever subjects they are flaunting their disgusting and shameless tedium. Employ even more Greatsmen and Greatswomen in the Treasury and the Foreign Office. Start the tinies on Latin at the age of six; Greek at seven. Close down the PPE Faculty.

Then Britain will be great and glorious again. Rule, Britannia ...


Adrian Furse said...

It's worth remembering that Mr Cummings read Ancient and Modern History at Exeter in the early 90s. I wonder if he's a Lane Fox protegé?

PM said...

Amen to the final paragraph. The national budget was in much better shape when Greats men ran the Treasury and the Cabinet Office.

vetusta ecclesia said...

One of the most loved, respected and academically successful of my colleagues would declare “ teaching is the art of seduction”.

John F. Kennedy said...

Then Britain will be great and glorious again...


Alas, the "powers that be" have rigged the game so that ALL of the West will not only fail but to never have a chance to be great or even 'pretty good" again.

Thomas said...

"We Classicists, on the other hand, knew that, unless we displayed our subject with unashamed meretriciousness, cavorting outrageously and ultra-vulgar in our showmanship, the customers would decline to opt for Latin and Greek, and we would be out of a job."

Unfortunately, my own experience was quite the opposite. Compulsory Latin teaching at grammar school was nothing but rote learning without context or explanation, with the result that it simply never felt like a language to me nor anything that real people might think and converse in. When we were asked to engage with text passages, I quite often either did not understand what they were about in the first place or had no interest in what they were saying even when a correct translation was revealed. Our classics masters were widely perceived as the driest old sticks on the staff with no apparent interest in their pupils nor any evident enthusiasm for their subject. So your image of a Latin teacher "cavorting" and actively entertaining a class struck me as quite strange and highly novel. Not surprisingly, I gave up Latin as soon as there was any choice about the matter (after four years), and given the further option to study Greek or another modern language, I chose the latter without hesitation. All of this is now a matter of regret, I must add (and some basic stuff did stick, of course), but it left what St. John Henry Newman called "a stain upon the imagination" which has lasted many years. This only goes to reinforce the point that good teachers do indeed make a vast the difference to their pupils lives; tragically so do lifeless and boring ones too. I don't think any subject has a monopoly on one or the other.