From an article on the changes in King’s College, Cambridge, and more generally in Oxbridge, since the 60s generation. The author, the recently deceased historian Tony Judt, remembers the 60s fondly as a time when things seemed balanced between tradition and change, but winds up in a pretty conservative position of thinking that a return to that kind of balance would be better than what he sees as the uncontrolled and insubstantiated idealism of the present. He backs this position up with evidence, looking at the various problems caused by an endless program of educational reform in England, including the ironic ascendancy of public schools at a time when the official stance is supposed to be equality of opportunity. As Judt points out, “It does seem curious to curse the private schools for thriving in a market while enthusiastically rewarding bankers for doing so.”

The following quote, however, is not about the state of education as a political issue, but about Judt’s encounter with what he calls “real teaching,” which he connects with the idea of intellectual liberalism. Observe:

But what Leach did stand for—more than Annan and certainly more than the intellectually undistinguished John Shepherd—was pure smarts: an emphasis further accentuated when Leach was succeeded by the incomparable Bernard Williams. I served for a while as a very junior member on the College Fellowship Electors with Williams, John Dunn, Sydney Brenner (the Nobel Prize winner in medicine), Sir Frank Kermode, Geoffrey Lloyd (the historian of ancient science), and Sir Martin Rees (the Astronomer Royal). I have never lost the sense that this was learning: wit, range, and above all the ability (as Forster put it in another context) to connect.

My greatest debt, though I did not fully appreciate it at the time, was to Dunn, then a very young college Research Fellow, now a distinguished professor emeritus. It was John who—in the course of one extended conversation on the political thought of John Locke—broke through my well-armored adolescent Marxism and first introduced me to the challenges of intellectual history. He managed this by the simple device of listening very intently to everything I said, taking it with extraordinary seriousness on its own terms, and then picking it gently and firmly apart in a way that I could both accept and respect.

That is teaching. It is also a certain sort of liberalism: the kind that engages in good faith with dissenting (or simply mistaken) opinions across a broad political spectrum. No doubt such tolerant intellectual breadth was not confined to King’s. But listening to friends and contemporaries describe their experiences elsewhere, I sometimes wonder. Lecturers in other establishments often sounded disengaged and busy, or else professionally self-absorbed in the manner of American academic departments at their least impressive.

Perhaps the reform we need is a genuine and sustained engagement with other ideas. That’s not a reform that has to be hammered out against the opposition of state legislatures, but can begin right in the classroom. I come back once again to the example of Socrates, who always treats the ideas of others seriously. After all, if an idea is held–and still more if it becomes widespread–then clearly it has the power to persuade and inform the actual lives of real people. And thus an idea deserves serious treatment, even if that treatment is disagreement and refutation, and not just contempt. And if a real person holds that idea, it seems better to treat the idea seriously and disagree gently, as in the example above of Judt and Dunn, where Dunn treats the youthful Judt with great respect instead of holding him in contempt for what might be termed a simple mistake.

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