Higher education postcard: Microcosmographia Academica

This week’s card from Hugh Jones’s postbag tells of a book you should probably put on your reading list

Hugh Jones is a freelance HE consultant. You’ll find a daily #HigherEducationPostcard if you follow him on Twitter.

You may have come across Microcosmographia Academica before. If you have, then I recommend that you re-read it – there’s an online, public-domain edition here, if you don’t own a copy. And if you haven’t come across it before, read on.

Microcosmographia Academica (the Latin roughly translates to A character sketch of the academic) was written in 1908, and initially published anonymously. It relates to the politics of the University of Cambridge which, if you read my piece on Girton College and the 1897 vote to not allow women to proceed to degrees, could at that time fairly be described as masculine, maybe even antediluvian.

It was written by FM Cornford, classicist, and translator of Plato for generations of students. And erstwhile university reformer, radical, Fabian socialist, musketry instructor and defender of freedom of speech (leading efforts to have pacifist Bertrand Russell reinstated as a lecturer at Trinity College Cambridge during the first world war). There’s a brass plaque commemorating him in Trinity College (of which he was an alumnus, hence the postcard), and a brief biography on the college’s website too.

The book is subtitled “being a guide for the young academic politician” and although it is now over one hundred years old, it is still a very sharp satire of a dominant strand of the culture and politics of (in particular) research intensive universities – Cambridge and Oxford, yes, and I’ve seen strong echoes at other research-focused universities. I was introduced to it in the final decade of the last millennium by a very kind and eminent professor of physics at one of the colleges of the University of London who, correctly, thought I needed educating.

It is funny. In part, laugh out loud funny. I do not recommend reading it on public transport unless you don’t mind being stared at. Nor should you read it whilst drinking tea.

And, a very admirable quality in a book, it is short. 32 pages in the print edition.

If I tell you much more, I’ll spoil it for you. But a warning note: unless you are a more learned person than I, there are parts where you’ll have to look things up to get the references. And, as noted, it was written in 1908 Cambridge. Its characters are all chaps, and the reader is assumed to be one as well.

If you can get past this, then read it, I urge you.

Let me finally quote from the frontispiece:

If you are young, do not read this book; it is not fit for you;

If you are old, throw it away; you have nothing to learn from it;

If you are unambitious, light the fire with it; you do not need its guidance.

But, if you are neither less than twenty-five years old, nor more than thirty;

And if you are ambitious withal, and your spirit hankers after academic politics;

Read, and may your soul (if you have a soul) find mercy!

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