Lament for the Makaris

The title of this piece is borrowed from a famous poem of the same title written by William Dunbar (1459-1630). The poem, in the Scots dialect, laments the passing of famous poets (makars or makaris) and, more generally, the fact of human mortality. Part of the attractiveness of the poem is the archaic language, but the subject matter, too, is something that is never far from our own experiences and, therefore, of interest to us. Below is an extract, with my rough translation (parts only) into modern English;

I that in heill was and glaidness                       I that was healthy and glad

Am trublit now with great seikness       Am troubled now with great sickness

And feblit with infirmitie:—                    And weakened by infirmity

    Timor Mortis conturbat me.                The fear of death disturbs me


Our plesance heir is all vain glory,                 Our presence here

  This fals world is but transitory,                    This false world

The flesh is brukle, the Feynd is slee:—     The flesh is weak, the Devil is sly

    Timor Mortis conturbat me.                         The fear of death disturbs me


The state of man does change and vary,

Now sound, now sick, now blyth, now sary,     … now happy, now sad

 Now dansand mirry, now like to die:—                       Now dancing merrily …

    Timor Mortis conturbat me.


No state in Erd heir standis sicker;                  No state on earth here stands sicker

As with the wynd wavis the wicker                   As with the wind waving the reed

So wavis this world’s vanitie:—                          So waves this world’s vanity

Timor Mortis conturbat me.


Unto the Deid gois all Estatis,                         Uno death go all classes

Princis, Prelattis, and Potestatis,                     Princes, Prelates, Potentates

Baith rich and poor of all degre:—                  Both …

    Timor Mortis conturbat me

This brings us to a very interesting question: why does sad poetry or sad music attract us? After all, we strive to be happy and Aristotle tells us that happiness is our one true telos or goal. Sad songs or music or poetry seems to be a feature of most cultures, but it is particularly evident in Gaelic cultures. Recall all of those sad songs of Thomas More (written, alas, for a mainly English Music Hall audience).  How often have I seen grown men weep as they listened to these songs! And how right was Chesterton when he said of the Gaels “For the great Gaels of Ireland/Are the men that God made mad/For all their wars are merry/And all their songs are sad”.

It is difficult to find an answer to the question posed above, but there is certainly something in the very process of longing for better things that appeals to us. No-one has put the business better than C.S. Lewis.  In his autobiography, Surprised by Joy, Lewis recounts certain boyhood experiences where he is stricken by an intense longing and then attempts to explain the feeling:

For those who are still disposed to proceed I will only underline the quality common to the three experiences; it is that of an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction. I call it Joy, which is here a technical term and must be sharply distinguished both from Happiness and from Pleasure. Joy (in my sense) has indeed one characteristic, and one only, in common with them; the fact that anyone who has experienced it will want it again. Apart from that, and considered only in its quality, it might almost equally well be called a particular kind of unhappiness or grief. But then it is a kind we want. I doubt whether anyone who has tasted it would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasures in the world. But then Joy is never in our power and pleasure often is.

In the course of his own Life, Lewis was eventually drawn to what he considered to be the ultimate source of those childhood experiences and they then took on a wholly new character. They were, in some strange way, an expression of joy. As he says himself, at the end of his book:

But what, in conclusion, of Joy? For that, after all, is what the story has mainly been about. To tell you the truth, the subject has lost nearly all interest for me since I became a Christian. I cannot, indeed, complain, like Wordsworth, that the visionary gleam has passed away. I believe (if the thing were at all worth recording) that the old stab, the old bitter-sweet, has come to me as often and as sharply since my conversion as at any time of my life whatever. But I now know that the experience, considered as a state of my own mind, had never had the kind of importance I once gave it. It was valuable only as a pointer to something other and outer. While that other was in doubt, the pointer naturally loomed large in my thoughts. When we are lost in the woods the sight of a signpost is a great matter. He who first sees it cries ‘Look!’ The whole party gathers round and stares. But when we have found the road and are passing signposts every few miles, we shall not stop and stare. They will encourage us and we shall be grateful to the authority that set them up. But we shall not stop and stare, or not much; not on this road, though their pillars are of silver and their lettering of gold. ‘We would be at Jerusalem.’ Not, of course, that I don’t often catch myself stopping to stare at roadside objects of even less importance.

Perhaps, then, this is why we listen to sad songs or read sad poetry. In Platonic terms, it is the operation of the intellect, seeking out its true home.

As a poetic form, the lament is very ancient, probably as old as human history, for it is part of the human condition to experience the gulf between human aspiration and human achievement.  One very famous example comes to us from the Old Testament, David’s lament for Saul (2 Samuel). But, let me end with a particularly beautiful lament – one which seeks to implicate not just the writer himself, but the whole world of matter. It is reminiscent of those famous words of St Paul in Romans 8: For we know that the whole creation groaneth and travaileth in pain together until now. And not only they, but ourselves also, which have the first fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption, to wit, the redemption of our body (KJV).  The writer in the translated extract given below was a student of the ancient poet, Bion of Smyrna (circa 100BC). The lovely word, waly, an exclamation of grief, is now lost to our language.

Cry me waly upon him, you glades of the woods, and waly, sweet Dorian water; you rivers, weep I pray you for the lovely and delightful Bion. Lament you now, good orchards; gentle groves, make you your moan; be your breathing clusters, ye flowers, dishevelled for grief. Pray roses, now be your redness sorrow, and yours sorrow, windflowers; speak now thy writing, dear flower-de-luce, loud let thy blossoms babble ay; the beautiful musician is dead. …

Bunyips and the World of Cryptozoology

The great thing about life is that you can discover something new every day.  Today I discovered cryptids.  Rather, I should say that I discovered the word, not what it signifies. For what it signifies is certain strange animals – Bigfoot, the Yowie, the Bunyip – and these are by no means new. Everyone has heard of them. As you might have guessed, there is now a special discipline called cryptozoology (there may be a uni degree to be had here, I must check it out) and lots of people with time on their hands but not much on their minds call themselves cryptozoologists. The main habitat of the cryptozoologists seems to be the world- wide web.

Cryptids are a species of strange natural phenomena awaiting full scientific description and the whole delicious experience for the cryptozoologists and students of the paranormal is in putting forward theories of explanation. In fact, a good working description of a cryptid would be of an animal that is often seen but never captured or quantified in any way.  Alternatively, you could think of cryptids in Aristotelian terms as ‘potentiality without actuality’ or, as the Schoolmen might put it, materia signata non quantitate.

The cryptids, of course, are not a modern phenomenon.  They have been around for millennia.  If you want a good account of early cryptifauna (if I may drop a neologism here) then you cannot go past Aelian’s On the Characteristics of Animals.  He wrote his treatise circa 200 AD and, in addition to straightforward descriptions of quite ordinary animals, there are some very interesting cryptids.  In fact, Aelian was a sort of forerunner to Ripley’s Believe it or Not and his book is a marvellous read. He has a very good account of fly fishing by the way and it appears that, in this sport, nothing much has changed over the last two thousand years.

Of all the ancient cryptifauna, my personal favourite is the halcyon bird.  In fact this bird, mentioned by both Pliny and Aelian, is a small kingfisher.  What makes the ancient halcyon something of a cryptid though is the early description of its nesting habits.  The bird was reputed to nest on the ocean during a period of calm weather around the winter solstice.  Here is Pliny’s description:

They breed at midwinter, on what are called ‘the kingfisher days’, during which the sea is calm and navigable, especially in the neighbourhood of Sicily.  They make their nests a week before the shortest day, and lay a week after it.  Their nests are admired for their shape, that of a ball slightly projecting with a very narrow mouth, resembling a very large sponge; they cannot be cut with a knife, but break at a strong blow, like dry sea foam; and it cannot be discovered of what they are constructed …  They lay five eggs.

What is intriguing is Pliny’s very full description of the nest.  It has an authentic ring about it.  Our Sacred Kingfisher used to be called Halcyon sancta after the fabled bird mentioned by Pliny and Aelian, but the taxonomists changed it some years ago.  The account of the nesting habits has given us the term ‘halcyon days’ as describing calm and settled times. The origin of halcyon is in Greek mythology. Alcyone [Halcyon] was the daughter of Aeolus (king of the winds) who found her husband, Ceyx, [See –ix] drowned and, overcome with grief, cast herself into the sea where she too drowned. The gods rewarded her devotion by turning her into a kingfisher, and Aeolus (or, perhaps, Zeus) forbade the winds to blow during the “halcyon days”, the seven days before and the seven after the winter solstice, when legend has it that the kingfisher lays its eggs.  Ceyx was also changed into a bird, but the love between the two remained.  This is why both species of bird were commonly supposed to fly together. In Australia, our Azure Kingfisher used to be called Ceyx azurea but I think the taxonomists changed that too. You cannot really blame them though.  If they did not keep changing species names they would be out of a job. Anyway, it’s a pity we no longer have Halcyon because the link to mythology is lost. There were other connections too.  For instance, the original Greek account of the bird led both Henry Purcell and Eric Coates to write musical pieces (Halcyon Days) on the theme.

But do not be fooled into thinking that belief in cryptids has waned since the scientific revolution and the Enlightenment.  On the contrary, it is flourishing as never before.  It seems that as the ability of modern science to ‘explain’ the natural world around us increases, so too does our need for the inexplicable.  To put it another way, a world in which everything is ‘explained’ and familiarised becomes very boring, and people cast about for an experience of ‘strangeness’.

The other thing to notice about modern belief in this sort of stuff is the seemingly inverse relationship between education and credulity.  That is to say, as universal education has become a reality and university degrees for all is just around the corner, irrational beliefs seem to flourish as never before.  Think of witchcraft, for instance.  Recent television shows like Bewitched, Charmed, and Sabrina the Teenage Witch were hugely popular and I’m told that covens are springing up all over the place.  Then there are the old comic book heroes – Batman, Superman, etc. – now turning up in serious movies for adults.

I suspect that if you studied the matter closely, you would find that nearly every country has its own endemic cryptifauna.  North America has Bigfoot.  In the Himalayas they have the Yeti. Australia is particularly well endowed because in addition to the yowie and the bunyip, we have the black panther, sometimes simply referred to as the ‘giant cat’. Again, there remains the last lingering hope for rediscovery of the thylacine in Tasmania and this animal has actually taken on the status of a cryptid.  Recent discussion of the possibility of ‘reconstituting’ the animal (so to speak) via genetic engineering technology only serves to add to interest in the beast.

Without question, the black panther or giant cat is now the most keenly discussed cryptid in Australia.  The poor old bunyip is only a memory, kept alive by a few ‘older Australians’ (there are no elderly folk these days) of the sort that wear peaked caps, sit on park benches, and menace passers-by with their walking sticks and other prosthetic devices.  The demise of the bunyip is particularly sad, made all the more so by the fact that its heritage is a very ancient one.  The Aborigines knew the bunyip long before Europeans came.  For a time after European settlement, the animal was an important part of our folk history.   John Shaw Nielson has a beautiful little reference to the Bunyip in the final stanza of The Sundowner:

Mid the dry leaves and silvery bark

Often at nightfall he will park

Close to a homeless creek, and hear

The Bunyip paddling in the dark.


I read somewhere that the boffins have recently decided that the bunyip of Aboriginal legend is merely the common seal which sometimes makes its way far inland along the waterways.  I’m not sure that I would trust this explanation.  Think what would happen if the platypus had remained undiscovered until just yesterday and you or I phoned up the boffins with a description of what we had seen. They would immediately send around a padded van with a couple of muscular gentleman to assist us to the nearest mental health facility.


But the Bunyip is a has-been. The cryptids of the moment are the giant cats. Of course, some of them have been around for a while too. The Tantanoola tiger, for instance, must be getting a bit grey around the chops now.  Perhaps he (or she) found a mate and brought up a family because these animals definitely seem to be on the increase. And not just down Tantanoola way.  The big cats are turning up all over the continent in increasing numbers.  I have even come across reports of giant cats with offspring in tow. The story of their origin is almost as well known as the Book of Genesis.  While there are some variant accounts, the main explanations lie with either the escape of a circus panther in the dim past, or of a straying Armed Forces mascot which fled its masters and ‘went bush’. The US Air Force (here during WW2) is commonly held responsible and, in this case, the animal in question is termed a cougar or mountain lion.


The way in which these animals operate is somewhat akin to the old ‘spontaneous generation’ theory. There is one important difference though. Our remote ancestors supposed that you needed the right conditions to generate say, mice – plenty of food and a nice pile of rubbish in the corner. With the giant cats though, the question of habitat suitability seems not to arise.  In my part of the world (north-central Victoria) for instance, the big cats show up in some pretty harsh bushland. It’s the type of country where even the lizards always carry a cut lunch and all the crows are just skin and bone. And yet, these very large felids, each requiring a kilo or more of good tucker daily, can live and breed quite happily.  What is even more remarkable, they can do so without leaving any hard evidence behind except the odd, indistinct footprint.


And so, typically, there is a single sighting reported in the local paper, followed in the matter of days by a whole rash of such events.  Sometimes, photos of indistinct footprints accompany the news items.  Invariably, the cats turn up when other news is scarce.  I can speak with some authority here because, as a former government zoologist, I was often approached by reporters and ‘cryptozoologists’ in search of a ‘scientific comment’.  Sadly, my comments rarely impressed and the enquirers moved on to that much more reliable and reasonable commentator, Mr A. Spokesman.


When we move away from the animal kingdom to the much more general area of ‘paranormal happenings’ the situation is somewhat more complex.  In Australia, at any rate, paranormal events seem to be on the wane.  It is decades since I’ve read of a flying saucer abduction or of crop circles.  However, judging by the volume of overseas material on the net, I’d say that paranormal happenings are in quite a healthy state in many countries.  Sadly, one of the victims of the situation in Australia is the Min Min Light(s).  You rarely hear of it these days, even though its credentials are far better than those of the Panthers.  To make matters worse, the boffins now think they have explained the phenomenon and this will mean that another venerable Australian legend, dating back to pre-European settlement, will become a mere fact and lose all its intrigue.  The people up Boulia way in central Queensland will be hit the hardest. Not long ago, they set up a ‘multimedia experience’, the Min Min Encounter, at considerable expense.

Apparently, it’s all down to refraction of light (vehicle headlights usually) from layers of air at different temperatures. ‘A cold, dense layer of air next to the ground carries light far over the horizon to a distant observer without the usual dissipation and radiation, to produce a vivid mirage that baffles and enchants because of its unfamiliar optical properties’. According to Pettigrew, who has reproduced the phenomenon using car headlights and observers at some distance, the unusual terrain of the Channel Country ‘makes the favourable atmospheric conditions more likely, while its isolation increase the impact of a single light source since the observer knows that it cannot be produced locally but sees it apparently there in front’.

I have to say that, as a result of this, I have lost interest in the Min Min Lights. Nothing so quickly reduces us to boredom than the recapitulation of solved mysteries.  Take the moon, for instance. There was a time when the very sight of it moved us in the most extraordinary ways – it was something at the same time totally familiar yet totally alien, totally beyond knowledge.  Nowadays, such a sight is likely to bring to the inward eye the vision of space junk strewn across some stony plain.  One expects to see empty Coke bottles and McDonald’s wrappers.

I used to enjoy listening to old timers recount their own experiences of the Min Min Lights and offer their own explanation (I know people from the outback who had seen it).  The explanation I liked most had the phenomenon down to owls!  This has been investigated to some extent, and it’s not as silly as you might think. Many years ago an article on this subject appeared in a journal called Australian Raptor Studies. Apparently, there have been many overseas reports – how reliable I know not – of luminosity in Barn Owls, the cause of which is unknown.  A common theory is that the owls roost in tree hollows where luminous bacteria or fungi grow. The birds are (supposedly) accidentally contaminated with this material and hence ‘glow’ at night.  There are those old timers who swear that the birds light themselves up deliberately to attract insects.  It’s a nice theory, but I’m afraid that Professor Pettigrew has blown it apart.  Or has he?  If it’s all down to the refraction of man-made lights (as he supposes) how come the sightings date back to well before the time of the motor car and the electric light?  It’s difficult to believe that firesticks, kero lamps, or candles could produce light of a sufficient intensity.  Despite this, Pettigrew’s explanation seems to be pretty generally accepted.  I note that even Pravda ran the story, so it must be true.

I think that we have probably not heard the end of this matter, nor of flying saucers, crop circles, giant cats, and alien abductions. Which is probably just as well.  Try to imagine yourself as a media reporter faced with the task of producing interesting copy each day!  In times of peace, economic prosperity, and relative social calm, what do you write about!  There comes a time when even the leadership blues in the Labour/Liberal Party die down for a period and the younger Royals take a break from their scandal-making activities. There are times when even pop stars behave like rational human beings.  It’s then that the cryptids come in handy. Everything under Heaven has its purpose.


The late Victor Borge, musician, entertainer and comic genius, died in the year 2000.  He was ninety one years old.  Among his many creations was an account of a domestic situation in which he ‘inflated’ each mention of a number so that ‘once’ became ‘twice’ and so on.  Here is an excerpt:

Twice upon a time there lived in sunny Califivenia a young man named Bob. He was a third lieutelevenant in the U.S. Air Fiveces. Bob had been fond of Anna, his one and a half sister ever since she saw the light of day five the second time. And they were both proud of the fact that two of his fivefathers had been among the creninetors of the U.S. Constithreetion.


I sometimes think that the Danes gave us the irrepressible, inflationary, Victor Borge to make up for having earlier given us the melancholic, deflationary, Søren Kierkegaard.  It’s just a theory!

I was reminded of Borge’s account just a couple of days ago when an ambulance went past our door, siren screeching and lights flashing.  On the side was written the word ‘Paramedic’.  Here, I reflected, is inflationary language of another sort.  People who operated ambulances were once called ambulance drivers or ambulance officers.  Now they are paramedics. It sounds so much more technical and important.  Likewise, there are no farmers these days, only people in agribusiness or agrotechnologists (like that marvellous Peter Simple character, Seth Roentgen). There are no septic tank desludgers only businesses in environmental services, no knackeries only organic recyclers, and no pawnshops only cash converters.  Hack writers like me are no doubt called ‘freelance literary practitioners’ or some such. Actually, I am a retired rabbit poisoner, so my correct modern title is probably Animal Damage Control Operator.  And, of course, I didn’t kill things – I ‘managed populations’.

While this trend is a general one, it is most noticeable in the education industry. There are very few schools left nowadays.  They have all been converted to colleges and their physical locations, once simply called ‘grounds’ are now ‘campuses’.  This means, of course, that those institutions that were once colleges have found it necessary to move up in the pecking order so as to avoid being identified with their once lowlier cousins.  They become ‘senior secondary colleges’. Meanwhile, the old trade schools have become institutes and the institutes have become universities.  Even the kindergartens are involved in this inflationary language stuff.  A while back, our local rag carried a story of a ‘graduation ceremony’ from a local kindergarten (now called ‘pre-school centres’ of course).  The tiny tots were all decked out in gowns and mortar boards and each received that all important roll of paper.  This is all true and I have not exaggerated in any way.

But, of course, this trend is not an open-ended business – you cannot inflate to infinity. The buck has to stop somewhere. In the education industry, the endpoint is reached with the universities. They have nowhere higher to go. The inevitable consequence is a sort of vocational traffic jam with a huge range of human activities all mixed up at the end of the road and milling about with nowhere to go.  Thus courses in medicine or in analytical philosophy will be jostling against courses in podiatry, outdoor education (this is not a ‘hedge school’), and business studies.  At this stage, certain enraged readers will have already picked up their pens to protest, in the strongest possible terms, against my obvious showing of elitism, chauvinism, etc. etc.  Let me ease their troubled minds.  I am not suggesting that a PhD in say, podiatry, is less worthy than a PhD in nuclear physics.  I have no way of measuring such worth.  That’s part of the problem. What I am suggesting is that the term ‘university degree’ has now changed so utterly as to be devoid of virtually any meaning at all.  If we can have degrees in nature tourism, podiatry, and nursing, why not in plumbing, cabinet making, taxidermy, and home birthing?  Do the nature tourists and nurses consider themselves a cut above the plumbers?  I hope not, because if so, I will be picking up my pen to protest against their elitism.  Do they want to tell me that the business of nature tourism, for instance, is far more intellectually demanding than that of plumbing?  If so, they might like to come and talk to my plumber mates who are trying to keep up with the latest building code regulations, instruction sheets for solar-assisted hot water units, etc.  Getting approval for a new septic tank system is now of the same order of difficulty as writing a treatise upon, say, the doctrine of the Trinity, or the half-life of  quarks.

The whole thing has reached the point of madness.  Unless we can agree on some set of criteria for the demarcation of educational responsibilities, the farce can only get more pronounced.  One possible solution is for those areas of study traditionally associated with universities for the last five hundred years or more to demote themselves and form separate institutions called ‘schools’.  Their staff would, of course, have to accept lower wages, lower general status, and the loss of brightly coloured academic dress (gowns, mortarboards, and associated paraphernalia). They would also have to attract full fee-paying students because, initially at any rate, no government would touch them with a twenty-foot pole. In other words, this might not be a goer, to put it rather mildly.  And yet, some move will be necessary if we are to avoid a situation where every human occupation requires a university degree.  Of course, it might be possible to get the current holders of the title ‘university’ to move up to ‘duoversity’ (páce Victor Borge) so as to free-up the old name. ‘Diversity’ has already been spoken for, unfortunately. Indeed, there’s probably a uni course with that name.

There are many, detailed, structural, and procedural matters which impinge upon the proper functioning of an education system and I am not qualified to suggest improvements in these areas. Come to think of it, as a retired rabbit poisoner, I am not qualified to give opinions on any matter outside the dietary preferences of Oryctolagus cuniculus and its tolerance to certain substances!  But I want to suggest that, in the matter of education and its role in society, there are certain commonsense principles and certain observations which require no great scholarly learning and no more than a very general understanding of the human past.

In fact, what fuels the current silliness is well known and it has been written about elsewhere ad nauseam. It is a preoccupation with a sort of frenzied democratisation of all aspects of human endeavour. The people involved are the modern ‘Levellers’. The old ‘Levellers’ were a Puritan sect in England during the period of the Civil War.  Cromwell suppressed them rather vigorously, but I doubt that he could even dream of the possibility of a secular version turning up a few hundred years later.   The mere suggestion that some young people may be capable of higher intellectual achievements than others sends them into fits of apoplectic rage and they reach for their tomes on equal opportunity legislation.  Mind you, they are not always consistent in this respect.  “Your levellers’, said Dr. Johnson, ‘wish to level down as far as themselves; but they cannot bear levelling up to themselves’.

The curious thing is that tradespeople and other degree-deprived workers have absolutely no thoughts along these lines.  On the contrary, they consider themselves immensely superior to the ‘eggheads’ or ‘nerds’ in every way.  They point to the fact that such people are often completely impractical and wholly reliant on others to look after them.  Why, some tradespeople will even tell you that boffins need assistance with the very simplest practical actions of human hygiene. Of course, the ‘tradies’ describe the shortcomings in more direct terms than I have been able to do here.

To my mind, the supposed need for fully democratised learning across the board and dramatic changes to some existing or earlier system of education arises, in part, from a total misunderstanding (or ignorance) of the traditional systems involved in the organisation of human work and of the way in which the natural subordination of human activities was understood in earlier times. It arises, too, from the very nature of secular democracy itself, but I will deal with that theme later.  We hear calls to ‘correct the injustices of the past’. But our past was not always unjust in the matter of education and careers.  What characterised this earlier organisation, right from medieval times, was a system of what I will call parallelism.  Questions of superiority or inferiority simply did not arise in the way that they do today.  If we take the trades, for instance, the guild system of masters, journeymen, and apprentices afforded a career path which ‘paralleled’ the university system. Indeed, in some cases, the master craftsman was deemed to have a much higher status than that of university teachers. For instance, in the massive, four volume, History of the University in Europe (ed. Walter Rüegg), the example is given of master-builders in university towns. Their responsibilities afforded them a status in society which could call forth the envy of university teachers. I wonder how many people today have reflected upon the origin of the word masterpiece?

In the modern era, of course, all that changed.  We may want to say that education and employment opportunities have changed for the better but I think it at least possible to argue that job satisfaction for many people today is hardly a matter upon which we should be congratulating ourselves. It is easy enough to see just how the changes came about. For instance, the loss of the old trade schools and the radical alteration of the traditional apprenticeship system partly accounts for the push towards some alternative system of acquiring status.  Not all that long ago, a person could take great pride in belonging to a particular trade because terms like ‘Master Builder’ or ‘Master Butcher’ really did carry weight in the community.  The trade was a vocation for which one trained long and hard under the guidance of a master.  Leaving aside the obvious impact of industrial age and the factory system, part of the blame for the destruction of this system rests with the evolution of the do-it-yourself handyperson and the supply of ever more idiot-proof or pre-fabricated products.  The expert is no longer needed. A Master Builder now spends most of his or her time on the telephone arranging for the ‘subbies’ to put all the prefabricated bits together with their pneumatic nail guns and fast-grip glue.  Let me recount a true story in order to highlight just how much our general attitudes have changed in this regard over the last sixty years.

Many years ago, one of my work colleagues was a man who had been trained as a cabinet maker in Europe. Why he became a rabbit poisoner is another story.  He underwent a very long and difficult apprenticeship under a very stern and exacting master.  For the first year of his apprenticeship he was not allowed to use any wood working tools and was given the most menial of tasks.  Eventually, he was shown all the secrets of the trade and was allowed to build pieces of furniture on his own.  This man told me that, in his little village, the simplest little home repair job was always left to a qualified tradesperson.  No-one would think of fixing his or her own door handle for instance.  This principle of action extended right down to the provision of coffins for the dead.  It was inconceivable that the undertaker should screw down the coffin lid.  This had to be done by the person who had made the coffin.  As you might have guessed, this happened to be one of the first major responsibilities given to my cabinet-maker colleague.  The corpse in question belonged to a village dignitary who happened to be fairly rotund and my friend had underestimated in regard to height of the coffin.  When it came to screwing down the lid, he found that he had to sit on top of it and apply his screws against considerable pressure.  Being a small village, it was customary for everyone to attend the funeral.  The coffin-maker was required to walk behind the coffin during its procession from the church to the cemetery. My friend then recounted the circumstances in this fashion (I will not attempt the accent): ‘All of the others were praying for the man’s soul, but I was praying for the screws to hold’.

Our dilemma today is not just in working out just how the education of our young should be organised to maximise the potential in each and every student.  It is also how human endeavour and human achievement should be valued. The question of who should be allowed to enter a university and what should be taught at such a place is obviously not a new one.  It must have arisen at the very same time as the emergence of the universities themselves. Why were the four typical faculties of the medieval university the artes, medicine, law, and theology?  Why not the technological sciences, the artes mechanicae?  As Walter Rüegg points out, neither the demands of society, the subject itself, nor the classification of the sciences in general, can explain the persistence of the patterns of four faculties of the medieval university into the nineteenth century.  Rather, the adherence to this particular schema seems to be the result of what might be called ‘natural selection’.  As Rüegg says, ‘faculties emerged only where there were previously schools which transmitted knowledge as a public good and where attendance was basically open to everyone capable of performing at the required intellectual standard’. What gave meaning to the system was the fundamental significance of the amor sciendi – the concept of intellectual integrity, broad learning, and conceptual clarity. These qualities, rather than perceived social needs determined the structure of the university. The university was the institutional form of the amor sciendi.  The standards set themselves, as it were.

The idea of knowledge as a good in itself has, for the universities, been almost entirely obliterated.  Knowledge is good only insofar as it can contribute to the Gross National Product.  That is to say, ‘good’ is merely a contingent value, not an absolute one. This is another reason why teaching in all sorts of human occupations has gravitated towards the universities.  If the universities can make a quid out of it, or demonstrate to government that the nation will make a quid out of it, then it is ‘good’ and will be taught without any reference to its suitability as a university course.  Contrariwise, it is not very difficult to understand why the traditional subjects of the artes liberales are under the hammer today.  They do not perform well under the strict economic system of cost-benefit analysis.

It is in the word value, I think, that we come to the nub of the problem.  The push for ‘equality of outcomes’ (that weasel phrase) and university degrees for all is merely the symptom of something much deeper – the loss of meaning and of objective value. Most modern conservatives/liberal democrats (the two terms are virtually interchangeable today) say all sorts of nice things about ‘the Western Tradition’, the positive value of religious belief, the existence of Truth, and so on.  But, because they are pluralists you cannot run them to ground on these issues. If you did run them to ground, they would no longer be pluralists.  Thus, religion is good while it stays private and Truth is something of a homeless creature whom you greet fondly but at a distance, lest you are forced to declare your colours and invite it indoors. For some form of Truth standing beyond the human order, there is no room at the inn.  It is no longer even a possibility because it would entail some limits to pluralism and to the autonomy of the individual.

There is, in human affairs, a great battle of ideas. A major role of the university is to ‘adjudicate’ in this debate, as it were.  But it cannot do so without reference to unvarying principles – each argument needs to be tested against such principles.  If the principles are not in place, then the role of the university is otiose. For me, at any rate, there is no escape from what many others will see as a shocking reversion to the superstitions of the past for, in the last analysis, those principles are not derived from human experience but are revealed in religious traditions. That, at any rate was how the matter was seen in the West for something like two millennia.  And I place some value on the weight of history.  Indeed, that is precisely what the word ‘conservative’ stood for until the modern liberals took it over.


Now you can see why I was a rabbit poisoner.