Vital Signs

Eccentricity as Education

"Sir, it is a great thing to dine with the Canons of Christ Church." Samuel Johnson, Boswell's Life.

Though perhaps not with Canon Jenkins.

Universities are, or should be, the last refuge of great eccentrics who emphasize our humdrum norms. Such I discovered when I went up to Henry VIII's 1545 refounding of Wolsey's Cardinal College. The monarch's action established Christ Church as an Oxford college, its Cathedral diocesan. There were thus a plethora of Canons about, who had no particular duties at all. These included in my time Claude Jenkins, Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History, who used to pour soda water into his coffee, rimming his sleeves with a corrosive snuff that produced paroxysms in the Senior Common Room. The dons who descended to mere teaching were termed "students." This occasioned me some minor embarrassment when applying to the philosophy department at Columbia University, whose dean of admissions (the late Hans Rosenhaupt) informed me that a letter of recommendation from a mere student wouldn't do. My tutor, Frank Taylor, was well into his 70's when he signed himself "Student" on mv behalf.

Aside from terminology, that Oxford came back to haunt me when my American students became infected with a vogue for J.R.R. Tolkien, author of Lord of the Rings, my language tutor whom I hoped to have forgotten forever. For, frankly,...

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