Thursday, September 04, 2008

Michael Oakeshott

On Arriving at a University

This I fear may be the last straw.

You have been talked to by the Director, by the Registrar, by the Librarian, by your tutors; you have been prematurely advised about your careers; you have been told where the lavatories are and what time the bar opens; you have been received, paraded, welcomed, registered, and given a free tea. Some of you have attended a week-end party designed to prepare you for what is to come. You must be beginning to think that that, after all, there may be something in being a student at a university. But the worst of all this for me is that I am left with nothing to say but what you've already heard, probably three times over.

However, I said I would talk to you; and the best thing I can do is try to entertain you for a few minutes by letting my imagination play around the experience of being a first-year undergraduate. And if what I have to say is not quite in line with what you've already been told, this will be a good experience for you. Here you will have to get used to being told different things by different people and having o make up your minds for yourselves.

But before I begin, let me say two things to you.

First, a great deal of the propaganda which has been directed upon you before you got here has been designed to make you believe that you are here to learn how to be a more efficient cog in a social machine. Forget it. You are here to educate yourselves, and education is not learning how to perform a social function. 'Society', no doubt, will make demands upon you soon enough, and you may find yourself (like the rest of us) a wretched cog in some vast machine which asks only that you preform what is called your function. But that is not what you have come here to learn; you have come here to get acquainted with truth and error, and not merely with what is and what is not serviceable to a lunatic productivist society.

Secondly, almost everything that has happened to you since you arrived here, and much of what you were told beforehand, has tended to turn you into self-conscious 'Students', people with many rights, a few duties, and a special status in society. Indeed, some people seem to think that being a 'student' is a sort of profession. Forget it.

You are certainly card-carrying members of something- but of what? The cards are certainly useful; they let you into the Tate for half-price, and they give you the run of the Youth Hostels of Europe. But I hope you will not let them make you feel that you have joined something like a trade union. What the cards signify is that you are members of something much more like a confraternity of strolling players- to which I, also, am glad to belong. The police sometimes move us on; but we are tolerated, and to live in an area of toleration is much pleasanter than having a niche in society. Half of the people in the world pray that they may be forgotten by the system that surrounds them; we are the happy few who are more nearly forgotten than anyone else. Let us enjoy it.

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