22 August 2008

Attitudes to academic appointments

I think that the academics at the Society for Psychical Research were more uninhibited and less rationalised about what went on in connection with academic appointments than they would probably have been even in their own Senior Common Rooms.

For example, it was said that H.H. Price became Wykeham Professor of Logic by being the least brilliant but also the least controversial of three candidates. The other two had definite original opinions which aroused strong opposition from some of the electors. Price had bland and middle-of-the-road views which were offensive to no one; hence he got the Professorship. (*)

They brought in an American ‘professor’ of zoology for the Koestler Chair of Parapsychology at Edinburgh (‘professor’, of course, only means ‘lecturer’ in America ), treating American academic appointments as equivalent to English ones. But when American professors visited the SPR office, it was freely said (although not of course in their hearing) that an American PhD was about the equivalent of a 3rd class Oxbridge degree.

That, of course, was what was being said when I was at the SPR in the late fifties. Since then academic standards have declined apace in this country and, from all I hear, are likely to have declined in America about as fast (on account of their also wishing to apply ‘egalitarian’ principles and to deny the existence of innate ability — as evidenced by their throwing money at Professor Anders Ericsson, the academic whose research purports to show that there is no such thing as innate ability).

So it is possible that the relative rankings have shifted a bit as both American and British degrees are worth a lot less than they used to be.

But of course there is no reason anyway why degree classes should be precisely correlated with ability to fulfil the requirements of an academic position, as was much more realistically recognised, and occasionally acted upon, in the early decades of the last century. (There were anecdotes at Somerville about Professors who had got 4th class degrees but been allowed to proceed with their careers.)

* I have no opinion about the accuracy of this view of Price’s appointment, but I think it illustrates the fact that, before about 1945, there was much more recognition of the disjunction between a person’s merit and ability to fulfil a certain social role, and their possession or otherwise of that socially conferred role. Nowadays there is a stronger and almost dogmatic belief that a person who has been unable to get social status is automatically inferior to those who have it.