Our universities suffer from a lack of attention to an ancient artby Hilary Rubinstein / November 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
Earlier this year, I took a cruise around some of the Hellenic ruins on the Aegean coast of Turkey. An Oxford lecturer on classical history accompanied us. I had a marvellous holiday, only slightly marred by the fact that the tour lecturer, a young man who doubtless knew a lot about the religions of the ancient world, lacked lecturing skills. Both in content and in delivery, he failed to engage his audience.
This defect was borne home to me the more forcefully because one of our fellow cruisers, a retired professor of philosophy at Trinity College, Dublin, volunteered to give a talk at the great theatre at Miletus. It was on the three Milesian pre-Socratic philosophers of the 6th century BC, who were, in effect, the forerunners of Greek philosophy. Few of us had heard before of Thales, Anaximander or Anaximenes, but we were all enthralled by his lecture, and asked him to tell us more. Before the tour was over, we had enjoyed his discourse on Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, on the Epicureans and finally one on the Stoics. I had read philosophy at Oxford, but none of the lectures I had attended as an undergraduate, including those by Isaiah Berlin, were as intellectually stimulating as these.
Perhaps because we were in the ancient world, I began to wonder what had happened to rhetoric. Since then, I have asked several academics how much importance is given to lecturing ability when filling vacancies. They agree that it helps if an applicant is known to lecture well, but much greater importance is attached to a candidate’s research record and publications. Once an academic has tenure, no one questions his or her shortcomings as a lecturer. In Oxford, almost all lectures are voluntary. In my day, most of us abstained after a brief taster. Inspiring lectures were rarely encountered. I doubt much has changed. Higher education would surely gain if lecturers were tested on their skills in imparting knowledge and, if found lacking, were required to improve.
Schoolteachers are not released into a classroom until they have demonstrated that they can both master their subject and hold their pupils’ attention. Barristers won’t get many briefs if they lack courtroom skills. Aspiring broadcasters can count on expert advice on presentation and the techniques of interviewing. And, in industry, there are consultants standing by to instruct executives in the art of persuasion. I…