Apologia How I Became an Atlantean.
Epilogue 2: A PERSONAL APOLOGIA.
This autobiographical intrusion into a work arguing a case for a more humane and effective mode of education is intended to answer two questions which, while not relevant to the theory of these Initiatives, might well occur to any reader how it was I stumbled upon this mode of teaching and why, if I had developed the essentials already by the nineteen sixties, why it is not already more widely know and practiced today. Or, to put it more bluntly, how I claim to have insights into the educational process not yet apparent to those who have devoted their professional lives to the study of educational methods and their administration. Frankly, the answer seems to be that my life since my early teens has been shapes by a series of coincidences that in my view are at least comparable to a persistent habit of winning the lottery evey time you acquire a ticket. Ruthlessly eschewing the temptation to inflict upon my patient readers the near full length autobiography that would give a more searching answer to this question, I cut to the chase.In the 1940s at the age of 13, I found myself enrolled as a new boy at King Williams College in the Isle of Man. After a year of dealing with the rough and ready tribalism of the northern boys as an intrusive southerner, a Kikuyu among the Masai as it were, I found myself a mentor, a retired doctor, Mel Saunderson, and, as it turned out, a kindly, entirely au courant intellectual way beyond any of my schoolmasters at the College, whose personal friendship I enjoyed during over five years, being able to visit him weekends at his country place just fifteen minutes bikeride from the school. Little did I know it at the time, but I had encountered the first, and in some ways the finest, of my tutors.
In 1949, through a number of seemingly quite fortuitous events, I was able to make good on an offer of a commoner's place at Magdalen College, Oxford. It turned out to be a good time to be in Oxford, and especially Magdalen. All entering students, apart from a few high flyers who had won scholarships, had had to spend a year or two in military service before entering. So we were by and large an unusually mature lot. And specifically we entering commoners had time to do some preliminary thinking about and work on whatever degree we had been admitted to read for. (I for instance was able to spend so much time reading for Modern Greats -Philosophy, Politics and Economics - that I decided I'd get a get a more fulfilling education if I switched to a degree in English Literature. PPE, I intuited, for all its breadth, would provide a narrower picture of life than literary studies, since it fails to give sustained attention to the mythic dimensions of our experience, from which I felt all rational studies must emerge if they are to be based on an adequately comprehensive observation of reality.) I was also particularly fortunate to be studying at Magdalen at that time in that the college boasted two of the best tutors in English at Oxford, C. S. Lewis and J. A. W. Bennett. Best not only as scholars, but in their particular quality of treating one as an interesting young colleague rather than mere student salary fodder. Sometimes it seemed to me like some kind of trick. In the tutorials your tutor would listen to you as if you really did have something interesting to say. Had he somehow confused you with some really good student? And so you started to work furiously hard to make your weekly essay as well informed and stimulating as you possibly could. As one Magdalen President, Tony Smith, put it to me "Once you come to Magdalen, it's like a marriage. It's a lifetime commitment."
A second and equally important piece of good fortune at Magdalen was my escape from the "wrong set." I happened to have enjoyed my military service in the same rather upscale light infantry unit as a bunch of definitely upscale lads many of whom were Etonians who happened also to enter Magdalen at the same time as myself. From this social elite I was lured away to a group that might have been perhaps not unkindly called the Outsiders, since they did not belong in obvious way to any other cast or group in the college, social, politically, or sportively. Ironically, in view of my German name that my father had never got round to anglicizing, I was really the token Englishman, apart from its most brilliant member, a 40 year old miner from Northumberland of Irish background. And so there were a couple of graduate students from Australia, as well as undergraduates from India and the Levant, Yugoslavia and South Africa. Oh yes, and a Londoner who was actually an undergraduate at Trinity College who was as regular a participant as any of us, claiming (rather plausibly) there was no one at Trinity to talk to. It did not take me long to realize that I had escaped the attractions of a marginal role in a social elite to an genial and tolerant acceptance into an intellectual elite. Mostly we were reading philosophy or literature, but I was treated to some three years of continuous scintillating conversation ranging from the current Oxford furor over logical positivistic scepticism to the iniquities of having to get acquainted with Gothic vowel sounds just to get the chance to indulge in Wordsworth or Keats for a real university degree. One day I walked in on the gang just as they were in the middle of a heated discussion on what contemporary conductor really knew how to deal with the opening bars of Beethoven's fifth symphony.
Ironically, in our last year we suddenly became fashionable, and erstwhile friends from the social elite started hinting they would be quite happy to accept an invitation to drop by at our meetings. And not infrequently a junior fellow would join us to share his more extensive insights into the mysteries of Magdalen ambiance that held us so fascinated.What really struck me though was how much better one's academic work went, with the backup of the Outsiders to try out ideas with for your tutorials as well as using them as informal tutors for preparation for major exams. And I felt sorry for those undergraduates who had not managed to find such a group of supportive friends. In fact isolation and loneliness have always represented a kind of dark side to the exhilarating freedom one enjoys as an undergraduate at Oxford or Cambridge. Thus, when designing the Atlantis teaching program a few years later I was able to draw on memories of those happy days among the Outsiders to structure things so that no student would have to turn up to a tutorial lacking the advice and support of his or her group. And the very variety of our group helped to inspire the notion of Atlantis foreign language and interfaith/international tutorials. It was the end of my third year, a few days before the end of the summer term and the ordeal of the final exams. There would be no Outcast group next autumn, too many of us would be graduating and going our separate ways.We were taking a parting stroll round Addison's Walk round the water meadows, (just one pleasaunce within our 100 acre college grounds designed, consciously or unconsciously, as a surprisingly successful earthly version of a medieval dream vision)
I recollect when one of us, catching the mood of the moment, a mood of an almost excessively absolute satisfaction with our three year experiences, commented that the only really adequate conclusion to it all would be for us to leap off the Magdalen Bell Tower, the highest and handsomest that Oxford boasts, as a simple expression of the obvious fact that we had all reached a point beyond which no greater life experience could be expected. None of our incessantly argumentative Outsiders ventured a disagreement. Well, that would have been one way of marking the end of this sojourn in Tir Na N'Ogue, these Gardens Beyond the Sun. Not that I lacked interesting prospects after going down. I had just made the choice of accepting a joint appointment at the Swedish College of Economics and the University of Helsinki, Finland. Language and literature classes. In doing so I had to turn down an offer of a fellowship to study at the University of Bonn, Germany, much to the dismay of certain experienced advisers. (As all too characteristic, I had obviously made the weaker career decision.) It was only when I came to teach in American universities, that I realized how strange that seemingly banal and typical Oxford career choice was. I could not conceive of a middle performance student like myself, even at Harvard or Princeton, in the last weeks of his junior year, being faced with offers of this type. And the post in Helsinki was offered to me without my even having taken the trouble of applying for it!After a couple of years of enjoying Finland, (a true Scandinavian utopia even at that time, when the Finns had just finished paying off the Soviet Union war reparations) I returned to Oxford with my Finnish bride to look for further academic employment elsewhere.
In 1954, there seemed few opportunities anywhere, until I one day found in my found in my mail an attractive brochure from a private school in Palm Beach, Florida, forwarded to us from the Oxford Appointments Board, where there was a position open for an English teacher. After a Finnish winter and the less than favorable weather of that English summer, we felt extremely ready to spend the winter in Florida and applied forthwith, only to get an anguished phone call from the Appointments Board apologizing for sending us this job opening, since it was not at all intended for someone of my academic status. But once more I made a career choice despite the quite strongly voiced opinions of my advisers, and we were off to the very different world of Palm Beach on a two year teacher exchange visa. Happening to browse through an academic journal cryptically entitled PMLA I came across in the school library I noticed an equally cryptic reference to the annual MLA "slave market" in New York that year. Fortunately, colleagues in the school were quickly able to enlighten me as to what kind of slavery was on offer after Christmas in New York, and as a result of contacts made there, I was offered admission to the graduate school and an instructorship at Columbia for the following fall, not only as result of sending references and copies of my plan for a dissertation, but also after driving up to New York for the "essential" interview.
My three years of Oxford undergraduate tutorials were assessed by the Columbia Admissions Office as the equivalent of three years of graduate work, with option of taking the courses for following year by examination, dispensing with the course work, the assessment to be reviewed at the end of the first year of study. Columbia College offered me a course in Comparative Medieval Literature, as well as the inevitable Freshman English courses, happily a topic I had covered in C S Lewis' famous lectures published later as The Discarded Image. This happy outcome of our transatlantic venture almost came to an abrupt and unwelcome conclusion however, after the first year at Columbia. Our two year exchange visa had run out, so we found ourselves returning to the UK in order to get the Greencard necessary to continue teaching in New York. We obtained the visas in London without undue difficulty, though with the warning that such visas merely entitled us to present ourselves for admission to the US at Immigration in New York, where the final decision on entry would be made. Debarking from the Mauretania we were directed into an enormous hall filled with wouldbe immigrants and dominated by a high platform on which was seated at a grand desk an important looking official who was evidently to decide our fates. Finally our number was called, and we approached the platform in some trepidation, with my wife bearing our sixth month old daughter in her arms. We produced our passports and visas but these documents in no way impressed the immigration inspector. "Can't imagine what they were thinking of in London," he growled. "You were just here for two years on an exchange visa, and the rules state very clearly that anyone so privileged to enjoy that exchange cannot apply to enter the United States again until he has been back in his own country for at least five years! Sorry folks, " he was continuing, but then he paused and gazed attentively at my wife and infant daughter. "One moment, though, did that little lady you're holding there happen to be born right here in the United States?" We nodded, nervously. "Now I see what this is all about! Welcome Home, folks," and with that he picked up his stamp and with a couple of emphatic thuds on our documents, we were free to enter once more the promised land.
Reflecting on all this today, I began to understand the connection between some seemingly quite isolated events. First, that both I and Columbia seemed quite happy with the idea that my three years in Oxford were worth seven or more years at Columbia, for they confirmed my status as an advanced PhD student at the end of my first year of graduate studies. This extraordinary variance existed, nonetheless, although I shortly became quite convinced that both the faculty at large, as well as the students at Columbia College where I taught, were fully up to the level of Oxford students in inherent abilities, diligence, and accomplishments. The graduate teaching at Oxford had nothing to compare, I am sure, with Columbia's scintillating Barzun-Trilling cross-disciplinary seminars in history and literature in the Romantic period, an irresistible introduction to the pleasures of sustained intellectual intercourse. The difference must lie in the undergraduate teaching. And then there was the curious but not at all unrelated fact that in all my teaching years at Columbia, Dartmouth, Berkeley, and McGill, I just about never came across a colleague who had experienced Oxford tutorials.1 The reason evidently was not the lack of qualified applicants, but rather that you could hardly get a job without an interview, and you couldn't get an interview until you had the job as prerequisite to entitle you to a visa. Thus the one way for a foreigner to get into some place like Columbia would be to get a job at some school on an exchange visa, thus be available for the interview which would give you access to a US university, and somewhere along the lines have yourself or your spouse give birth to a child who would then become an American citizen, which would entitle you to a regular Greencard as the parent of a citizen! So far as I know, I am the only person who ever entered by this route! But, you may say, what about all those Rhodes and Marshall scholars, all those American students who round off their academic careers by taking a D Phil or such at Oxford or Cambridge? The problem there of course, is that none of these transatlantic students ever seem to take tutorials. Why would they, when they are simply a requirement for the undergraduate degree, which they are under the impression they have already taken. So they enjoy the OxBridge ambiance, but to paraphrase Eliot, they have the experience, but they miss the meaning, or at least the essence of the experience.
And therefore, it would seem, I had, and still have the lonely duty of informing America about the extraordinary merits of the tutorial. A seemingly impossible task, a bit like trying to persuade medieval barons of the virtues of democracy, a Yankee at the Court of King Arthur, or should we say, Benjamin Franklin attempting to enlighten George III on notion that Taxation implies Representation. If you've been brought up on a more authoritarian system, you are very likely to find the idea of an increase in the liberties, and responsibilities, of your subjects alarming, and certainly bothersome.The rest of my adventures in this not especially heroic but certainly picaresque journey, taking me from Columbia to Dartmouth, Berkeley, and McGill, always the outsider pursuing the near impossible dream I have already related elsewhere in this book. My point in this section is simply to explain how I came to acquire insights that seem so crushingly obvious and yet have largely escaped those who control our educational methods and practices.?