The Uses of a Liberal Education

On September 1, 1939, an Englishman named Harry Hinsley, walking between two lines of Nazi soldiers, crossed slowly and nervously the bridge connecting Kehl in Germany with Strasbourg in France.  He made it to the French side before the border was closed.  He had been warned to leave.  It was none too soon; German troops had already invaded Poland, and Great Britain would declare war on Germany on September 3.  Hinsley, an undergraduate at Cambridge, had spent his vacation across the Rhine learning some German.  His field of study at Cambridge was medieval history; he worked on charts and other documents.  What does one do with a history degree?  Take up a teaching post immediately, or stay and get a postgraduate degree and then go teach, or remain forever within the college walls?  Or seek other career opportunities—scholarly editing, journalism, publishing, museum or library work, a life in the clergy?

Hinsley did not yet need to choose.  That autumn, he was interviewed and hired by representatives of what became Bletchley Park—the headquarters of the Government Code and Cypher School.  He was only 20 years old.  Some of his colleagues in the campaign to break Germany’s Enigma codes were similarly young: an Oxford mathematics graduate named Peter Twinn, aged 23, and an 18-year-old, Richard Pendered, who, after studies at Winchester, had been about to enroll at Cambridge. ...

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