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February 11, 2004
"Please, sir, there are Black Terns down by the river."

I recently acquired a copy of A Devil's Chaplain, which is a collection of essays by the geneticist, and scientific polemicist and populariser, Richard Dawkins. I particularly liked the one called The Joy of Living Dangerously, which is about F. W. Sanderson, who was the Headmaster of Oundle at the beginning of the last century.

Two bits I especially liked:

Sanderson’s hatred of any locked door which might stand between a boy and some worthwhile enthusiasm symbolised his whole attitude to education. Another anecdote. A certain boy was so keen on a project he was working on that he used to steal out of the dormitory at 2 am to read in the (unlocked, of course) library. The Headmaster caught him there, and roared his terrible wrath for this breach of discipline (he had a famous temper and one of his maxims was "Never punish except in anger").

Dawkins now quotes from an old boy of the Sanderson vintage:

The thunderstorm passed. "And what are you reading, my boy, at this hour?" I told him of the work that had taken possession of me, work for which the day time was all too full. Yes, yes, he understood that. He looked over the notes I had been taking and they set his mind going. He sat down beside me to read them. They dealt with the development of metallurgical processes, and he began to talk to me of discovery and the values of discovery, the incessant reaching out of men towards knowledge and power, the significance of this desire to know and make and what we in the school were doing in that process. We talked, he talked for nearly an hour in that still nocturnal room. It was one of the greatest, most formative hours in my life ... "Go back to bed, my boy. We must find some time for you in the day for this."

And I also like this, about how a similar spirit prevailed at Oundle even after Sanderson had died:

His spirit lived on at Oundle. His immediate successor, Kenneth Fisher was chairing a staff meeting when there was a timid knock on the door and a small boy came in: "Please, sir, there are Black Terns down by the river." "This can wait," said Fisher decisively to the assembled committee. He rose from the Chair, seized his binoculars from the door and cycled off in the company of the small ornithologist, and – one can’t help imagining – with the benign, ruddy-faced ghost of Sanderson beaming in their wake. Now that's education – and to hell with your league table statistics, your fact-stuffed syllabuses and your childhood-destroying, endless roster of exams.

Which reminds me, I must do a posting here some time about Mr Gradgrind. Dawkins' whole essay is a loud quarrel with Gradgrind's shade.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 07:10 PM
Category: Famous educations


On a tangent, do you get any sense from the book that Dawkins has socialistic leanings (as is sometimes said)?

Comment by: Julius on February 11, 2004 09:46 PM


Yes I do, but of a peculiar kind. It's not that he has decided to be Left Wing, but that he has not yet decided not to be, in the manner, say, of Steven Pinker. Whenever he does the reading, he comes out impeccably non-Left-Wing, as when trashing Post-Modernism for instance. He just hasn't bothered with the political arguments against state provision. That's my impression.

Also, I think he regards Mother Nature as a Right Wing Bitch and is at pains to argue that this doesn't mean we have to be Right Wing Bastards ourselves, in the sense of nasty, competitive, brutish, etc. "We are not our genes." Again, he hasn't bothered with the arguments of the likes of you and me that being nice might mean something other than favouring state support for the week and defenceless.

BUT, big caveat, I have read nothing like all of Dawkins' writings, and reserve the right to alter all of these prejudices in the light of contradicting evidence. I.e. maybe he isn't Left Wing at all. Maybe he is Left Wing, because he has read all the non Left Wing stuff and disagrees. Etc.

Someone who really knows should answer your question.

Comment by: Brian Micklethwait on February 13, 2004 05:33 PM


Comment by: Guest on February 25, 2004 01:55 PM
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