For the year 1977-1978,1 accepted an invitation to be the George Eastman visiting professor at Oxford. This position was established in 1930 through the philanthropy of the American manufacturer, George Eastman. It was limited to American citizens, creating a kind of inverse of Rhodes scholarships. Rhodes scholars have often been viewed in England as visitors from a relatively backward former British colony, coming to Oxford for a taste of culture and scholarship; the Eastman professorship represents the other side of the coin - as if to say that we have scholars in America, too, whose teaching can benefit Oxonian students. Oxford freely selects the recipient of this award. There is no influence from the American side. About half the appointees have been scientists, including Linus Pauling in 1948 and George Beadle in 1958. Beadle became a Nobel laureate while in residence at Oxford. Beadle's wife,
Muriel Beadle, wrote an amusing account of their year in Oxford in a book, entitled These Ruins are Inhabited.
The best known of all the holders of the Eastman chair is Felix Frankfurter, who was a professor of law at Harvard University at that time (1933), and later became a memorable justice of the American Supreme Court. He has left behind an extended description of his Oxford year, which he characterized as "rich, stimulating, exciting, affectionate.'' He also pointed out the many anomalies ingrained in Oxford tradition, small obstacles that nobody warns you about and that sometimes seem deliberately designed to prevent the visitor from ever feeling entirely at home.
Though unable to arrange for American choice of who the Eastman professor was to be, George Eastman did influence what he would do. Suspicious that the recipient might take advantage of the traditional Oxford liberal definition of professorial duties and spend his year gallivanting around Europe, Eastman specified that the Eastman professor must give 24 lectures in the course of his year. This was, of course, virtually impossible. Oxford operates on the tutorial system: students "read for a degree'' under supervision of a tutor, who must be a fellow of the college in which they are enrolled. Students may attend lectures by professors (who are appointed for the university as a whole, not limited to a single college), but there is no registration for the lectures, no record of who has attended, no examination for the course, no examination grades. No Oxford professor has ever been known to give as many as 24 lectures in one year.
With respect to the Eastman professor, I found that the Oxford authorities interpreted the statutory requirement with typical liberality: many possible circumventions had acquired validity through precedence. I personally thought that Eastman's rules should be honored, at least in spirit, and I gave 12 carefully prepared formal lectures. They were well received and I held on to my audience (which was never under any compulsion to return) better than most of my predecessors. The lectures were, of course, based on my own interests and experience - proteins, membranes, etc. - and were directed at students. I don't recall that they led to any inspired discussions with my professional peers, nor to any exciting collaborative research related to these topics. There was no resemblance to my year at Yale, where I had acquired at least a glimmer of special erudition - theoretical proficiency in this case - from my hosts and companion scholars.
In the absence of strong professional stimulation, my most vivid memories of the year are of Balliol College and the collegiate life. Not only students, but also professors, must be collegiate fellows. The Eastman professorship is attached to Balliol College, and the Eastman professor is a member of Balliol for his year of residence. He can attend college meetings, have lunch at high table, and can become as involved in collegiate affairs as he wishes. One is thereby constantly exposed to a system of education, stressing individual initiative, intrinsically elitist, which has no parallel in America. I am not even sure how closely my memories correspond to Oxford as it is today. Since coming to England as a permanent resident, I have been back to Balliol only casually: one Gaudy, one meeting that happened to be sited there. I know from reading the newspapers that changes have taken place, that there is a need to survive in what has become an increasingly egalitarian society. Balliol College has had an American master since my time (originally one of the Eastman professors), so anything is possible.
I should not fail to mention the innumerable dinner parties -a perennial feature of Oxford life - where the food and wine were superb and the seating arrangement was invariably determined by the hosts in advance, indicated by a seating chart posted on a bulletin board and by formal place cards at the table. Felix Frankfurter found that his card was always labelled "The Eastman Professor," and he thought it likely that most of his dinner partners never did discover his name :
It was a beautiful dinner. Those were still the days when there were four lovely glasses at each place, four courses of wine. It was a big party. The invitation was addressed as I was addressed the rest of the year, "The Eastman Professor." I had no name, I wasn't a person. You were known by your title.
His description remained true in my time, almost fifty years later.
Felix Frankfurter was not alone in his admiration of Oxford. Most Eastman professors were enthusiastic about the experience and marvel at the intellectual freedom that the Oxford system affords, as indeed I did myself in an article entitled "A clerk at Oxenford" published in a faculty newsletter that Duke University used to put out for its staff. In retrospect, I am not sure whether my admiration was fully justified; is the system really still viable from an educational standpoint? Freedom to excel also allows for freedom to fail and I suspect that I saw many failures. Today we are faced with an increasingly egalitarian world - a society that is more regulated, with rules spelt out to give everyone equal access. Somewhere along the line, modern teachers are supposed to tell the student exactly what he needs to do to pass exams and to fill employers' expectations. The American system and the bulk of Britain's less prestigious universities may be better suited for this task than the fabled ''Oxbridge'' of Eastman memories and English novels.
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