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The Dons:
Mentors, Eccentrics and Geniuses

by Noel Annan

ISBN 0226021076 / 9780226021072 / 0-226-02107-6
Publisher University Of Chicago Press
Language English
Edition Hardcover
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Book summary

Like a communication from a bygone age, The Dons records the eccentricities and enthusiasms the brain-workers at what Annan unashamedly calls "the elite institutions of higher education in this country"--by which he means Oxford, Cambridge and some of the London colleges. It is written with love and a kind of dry passion, and many of its anecdotes are indeed funny, although the funniest tend to be the ones in which the dignity of the dons themselves is undercut. William Buckland, for instance, was prepared to eat anything, and boasted that he had devoured his way through the animal kingdom and that the worst thing was a mole ("perfectly horrible"). Confronted with a dark stain on the floor of an Italian cathedral reputed to be the blood of a martyr he "dropped to his knees and licked it" declaring "I can tell you what that is: it is bat's urine". Elegant, amusing and in a way charming, this book is nonetheless more than a little difficult to like. Partly this is Annan's style, which is quaint and sometimes crabbed. For example he says that Oxbridge colleges "differed just as families do. One college might be rent with quarrels, another might be a cosy womb, a third an amorphous society devoid of any particular character. There were dim colleges, fusby places." More central is just how old-fashioned Annan's perspective is. Almost none of these dons are women, none at all are black or working class. There are times when Annan's own Senior Common Room narrowness of perspective becomes simply infuriating. Universities, he says, ought to exist for one reason only: "They exist to cultivate the intellect. Everything else is secondary. Equality of opportunity to come to the university is secondary ... the need to mix classes, nationalities and races together is secondary. Universities should hold up for admiration the intellectual life." Annan's idea seems to be that we should all sit in hushed awe, contemplating the enlarged intellects of his dons: that that is enough in itself to justify the university system. Without these apparently "secondary" considerations, the "elite" of which Annan is so proud, and to which he belongs, would continue to consist of a small group of white, upper-class men; and would become even less relevant to multicultural gender-equal Britain than they were in the past. --Adam Roberts [via]