Reflections on Cambridge


Mr. Macfarlane trained as a historian at Oxford from where he holds an M.A. and D.Phil. He also holds an M.Phil and Ph.D. from the University of London in anthropology. He is a Fellow of the British Academy and of King’s College, Cambridge and is Emeritus Professor of Anthropological Science at the University of Cambridge. He is the author of seventeen published books on history and anthropology.

    Cambridge University is one of the oldest and greatest educational and research institutions in the world. Founded by teachers from Oxford University, who had fled the wrath of the townsmen of Oxford after a murder, or so it is believed, it celebrates its 800th birthday in 2009, which offers an appropriate time to reflect on its nature. For its continuation and creativity is a mystery.

   Cambridge is currently second only to Harvard in the league of universities in the world, with half of Harvard's endowment and twice as high a teaching commitment for the staff, this is a considerable achievement. In terms of its total history, of course, it is unrivalled. It has won more Nobel prizes than all other British universities combined, more than France, more than any other university in the world. And many of its greatest thinkers, Bacon, Newton, Darwin, Hawking, amongst them, were in a time before, or in subjects for which there is no Nobel prize. Its great poets, from Spenser, Donne and Milton, to Wordsworth, Coleridge and Tennyson, constitute three quarters of the greatest poets in the English language.

    So how did Cambridge persist for so many centuries, not merely as a political and legal institution, but also as a training center and source of great discovery and creativity? How did it so continuously evolve over the centuries, changing all the time yet maintaining something mysterious and medieval at its heart? How can it remain such a beautiful and enchanted landscape in the midst of the largest cyber-park, Silicone Fen, outside America?

    The answers to these and other questions lie at various levels. There are the historical and political explanations, the combination of national politics and the subtle distribution and balance of power, all of which makes change continuous but regulated. F.M.Cornford's famous analysis of the University in Academica Microcosmographica turns out to be too pessimistic. Change is possible, but it has to be disguised through techniques such as the invention of traditions.

    There are cultural reasons for the persistence and productivity. An inspiringly beautiful environment combines with a set of linguistic codes, patterns of behaviour and sociality, sporting and artistic activities, which preserve yet change with the times and provide an exhilarating setting for education and thought.

    There are certain educational practices which are crucial. There is an unusual system of intensive and confrontational teaching which stimulates debate, leads to the questioning of received wisdom and tolerates eccentric and speculative thought.

    There are social arrangements, especially the combination of Community in the College system and Association in the University and its many clubs and associations, which creates a mixture of freedom with commitment. In particular the work of the historian and lawyer F.W. Maitland on trusts provides a model for how Cambridge works. It is a world that Maitland experienced as Downing Professor at Cambridge and which combines people in enduring and meaningful groups, while retaining their individual freedoms - a balance of Status and Contract in the sense of Maitland's predecessor at Cambridge, Sir Henry Maine.

     There have been many books on both Oxford and Cambridge, particularly documenting their history, but also sometimes trying to understand how they work today. Most of them are written by outsiders, who are interested observers, or by insiders who find it difficult to detach themselves from their life within the system. Because Cambridge is a largely oral culture, based on semi-secret practices, outsiders would find it impossible to penetrate far beneath the surface. My own experience of forty years in the University and Colleges, teaching and acting in several capacities and trying to achieve various goals, has given me an insider’s sense of the forces and conventions by which the place works. This is the anthropological participant fieldwork.

   Yet I am also an observer and outsider. I was trained for twelve years in Oxford at school and the University and went to two London Colleges (LSE and SOAS) after Oxford. I spend much time in Asia, in Nepal, Japan and China, both in universities and elsewhere. So Cambridge has retained its otherness, its strangeness. I still try to fit it within a wider world, as well as a deeper history.

   As a historian as well as an anthropologist I know that Cambridge cannot be understood by either one of these disciplines on its own - but only by a combination. Furthermore, Cambridge can only be understood as a part of English or British culture. It is an extreme example of a certain kind of Englishness, both reflecting and also generating what has been termed by James Bennett as the "Anglo-sphere." My long-term interest in the peculiarity of the English has informed the book in many ways.

   Using Tocqueville's idea of the "point of origin" as determining what we are, we can see many ways in which this University has been the point of origin, in science, in arts, in politics and in the education of many of those who would come to rule an Empire, of the modern world. Harvard itself was a product of Cambridge, with almost all of its founders coming from Cambridge.

    My own experience of Cambridge is a personal one and everyone's Cambridge is different. To make it more universally based, I have made long film interviews with over 100 Cambridge academics, in particular asking them about their experience of Cambridge as a place to think in.

   It is impossible to grasp the essence of Cambridge in a few words, for it is filled with contradictions and never-resolved tensions. I tried to summarize this at the end of the book as follows.

"Cambridge stands for curiosity, openness, fellowship, wonder, humour, playfulness, awe, delight, argument, competitiveness, modesty, subversion, ceremonial, kindness, tolerance, beauty, utility, liberty, conformity and a whole bundle of often colliding and clashing values...Combined with its charm and a feeling of otherworldly magic, it seldom fails to make a deep impression, even if a person appears to forget or reject it. Like any powerful parent, it affects the rest of their lives, whether they like it or not. It evokes strong emotions."

   As I retire from my University job I feel that balanced pull of attachment and detachment which many thinkers such as Tocqueville suggest is the pre-requisite for the objective-subjective study of a complex civilization. We have to be inside and outside, understand with the head and with the heart. So this is my tribute to "a small fenland city and university which has been one of the bridges into the twenty-first century world."

comments powered by Disqus