What I Learned at Cambridge

By Geoffrey Bodkin, 22/4/2014

At Cambridge University in England the professors follow a system of teaching which has produced leaders for eight centuries. Last month I visited Cambridge and two questions have haunted me since then. How does Cambridge continue this impressive tradition? Why do other universities insist on following methods that produce weak followers, and not strong leaders?

The Cambridge method of teaching is easy to describe. In a word, it’s old fashioned discipleship. The method requires time. It demands personal supervision from the professors and lecturers, who must get to know individual students. It would be easy enough for other universities to employ this method if they could allocate time and wisdom to the process. But it is easier, cheaper, and more politically correct to line up masses of students to sit in rows, silently listening to a lecturer, regurgitating course notes, than it is to teach students how to think and how to defend what they think.

For the traditional undergrad at Cambridge, there are no class roll calls, no required numbers of credit hours to collect, or typical grade point averages.  Lectures are optional.1

Where did this system come from? About eight centuries before it became internationally fashionable to give tenure to Marxist professors, Cambridge followed a Christian/Hebraic model of teaching, and has not departed from it, even though it is a much more expensive way to teach. It requires giving a small number of students a vast amount of an academic’s time. Cambridge does not pay exorbitant salaries to superstar professors as some US colleges do, yet Cambridge continues to be the one of the most influential universities in the world.

The Christian/Hebraic model is simple. It involves intelligent, face-to-face conversation. It works for little children sitting at their parents’ knees, and it works with college freshmen who think they’re big stuff because they were accepted into Cambridge. Here’s what old fashioned discipleship2 looks like at Cambridge: The incoming student gets a personal Director of Studies, who will take a personal interest in the learning of the student. That Director of Studies will appoint a Supervisor who will assign an essay to the student – an essay about which the student knows nothing. It’s up to the student to steward his time, choose lectures, find resources, hunt down books, form conclusions and prepare for something very difficult. At the appointed hour, he will defend his work, and his entire process of thought, to the Supervisor.

The Supervision meeting is usually held between one Supervisor and only two or three students, and lasts for an hour, so there is nowhere for an unprepared student to hide. The meeting forces the students to verbally defend every idea and concept in their papers, exposing the gaps in the students’ knowledge and identifying the weaknesses in their argumentation. And then, while the student is trying to recover from the experience of debating as a novice with a master in the field, it’s on to the next demanding assignment, the next round of exploratory research, the writing of a new essay and a new argument or the tackling of a new set of questions, and preparation to meet with the Supervisor the next week. The Supervisor will carefully read his new paper, and force him again to defend his every thought with a solid apologia and sound arguments. It is these sound arguments that begin building a mind capable of sound learning.

The Art of Thinking
This ancient discipleship method is highly effective because of the way thinking is stimulated and then guided, primarily through conversation with the supervisors. The best Supervisors can be highly demanding. One student said his Supervisor invested “twenty hours exploring the vast wildernesses of my ignorance.”3 The process is not that complex. The supervisor reads the student’s essay, and says, “Why in the world did you say that?” After dozens of these supervisory encounters, answering the demand to “Think about what you just said,” the student is forced to confront his own ignorance, his weak analytical skills, his inadequate arguing abilities, and his lack of resourcefulness in studying. He also has to quickly improve on his communication, the intelligent defence of his ideas, and grasp how little he truly yet understands about the world. But as he continues to be informed and sharpened by his far superior supervisors, he learns. As he learns to assimilate large amounts of new learning in time for the essay deadline, the closer he gets to knowledge, wisdom, precise communication and what is known as “sound learning.”

One Cheap Imitation
Isn’t this exactly what American home educators have been doing to produce academically superior teenagers?   Doesn’t this supervisory method describe the parent-student relationship?  Well, in most American families, no.  It is certainly true that homeschooled children have been getting lots of academic freedom, and vastly superior scores than their government-educated peers.   But let’s be honest about the depth of learning.  Comparisons with the average American high school or college grad cannot be a benchmark for learning, because there isn’t much real learning in most government schools.  In public schools there are pressures of conformity and compliance with political correctness, but that falls into a category of indoctrination, not learning.  It is not difficult for a homeschool mommy to do enough to make her child seem a little smarter than a public school grad. Any child can teach himself to learn advanced things if you just give the child some freedom and some material to read.  Scientists Nicolas Negroponte4 and Sugata Mitra5 have proven that a kid doesn’t need a university classroom to learn molecular biology.  Minimally invasive education can give a child enormous academic advantages.  Even the most disadvantaged students can use computers to learn university-level material. But education without wisdom and values, as C.S. Lewis observed, “as useful as it is, seems rather to make man a more clever devil.” C.S. Lewis was an Oxford Supervisor.

In old Cambridge burial grounds, and in others of the 17th century, the words, “a man of sound learning” appears on grave markers along with testimonies to good character.  But good character doesn’t necessarily come with deep learning.6

On arrival at Cambridge, each student is assigned a Tutor, who is responsible for the student’s pastoral care. A good Tutor makes it his business to get to know his students personally, to keep track of their other achievements outside study at the university, and to become involved if the student needs support. The modern-day Tutor is a vestige of the former system in which the age of majority was higher, and the age at which young men would enter the university was much lower. In those conditions, the Tutor was legally in loco parentis,7 and entrusted by parents with the care of their son. Even in the 17th century, the weakness of this method of subcontracting parental duties was obvious,8 and some parents decided that the best way to secure the development of good character in their sons, as well as the best means to secure their bodily health, was to accompany their sons to the University and oversee their Tutors and their sons’ physical and spiritual well-being themselves.9 The goal was to ensure the student gained the good character needed to become a man of sound learning.  Unfortunately, this is a part of training sometimes missing in even the best home learning environments.

Most American home-educated kids should be doing a lot better, and could be doing more than drifting along, wading through boring, shallow workbooks with an ever-more lazy attitude to learning.  Too many parents just want it to be over with, and eight years, or twelve, seems like an eternity to “do school.”  But Cambridge has been at this for eight centuries.  And Cambridge is turning out leaders because Cambridge doesn’t “do school.”

Finished With School
So how does a student at Cambridge graduate?  There are fearsome end-of-year examinations to be tackled. But he student needs no GPA, or credit hours. All he needs to graduate is one understated endorsement which is given to the Vice Chancellor.  It’s traditionally in Latin, and goes something like this: “Here is a man I know to be of sound learning and good character, suitable to receive his degree…”

You Don’t Have to be a Cambridge Professor to Impart Sound Learning
Parents the world over should take a lesson. Here is a centuries-old method based on the original idea of real discipleship: Impart good character, and stimulate sound learning. This very simple approach has produced great leaders, free nations, and civil society.  But it takes time. It is very expensive because time is so valuable. I learned this when I tried the method on my daughter Anna Sofia10 when she was nine. I gave her an assignment: write a paper on the Industrial Revolution. She pulled the encyclopaedia volume “I” and rewrote some the sentences in the article, learning some good things about punctuation, editing, a few things about steam and machines, and the politically correct version of Industrialization. I read it and realized how little I had taught her about thinking morally about history, and how little she knew about finding a writer’s bias, digging for true facts, identifying a thesis, challenging a thesis, constructing a thesis and defending a thesis. That day I started really teaching her by telling her, gently, that her paper was not acceptable. Every point in her paper was dead wrong. She was not communicating truth. Her paper was teaching anyone who read it untrue things about the family, history, work, politics, money, business, jobs, trade and Protestant America. There was no wisdom in the paper. Then I began showing her how and where to learn wisdom about that particular topic. She grew fascinated with history, theology, science, and even economics. What she learned was that writing was an exercise of moral discernment which requires work. Learning is work. But it’s fun work. All I did was reveal that to her, by doing a lot of digging of my own, along with her. It required a lot of character growth and learning on my part to be able to help her go wider and deeper into truth.

Parents should expect more from themselves, and then expect a lot more from their children. Cambridge has preserved high standards and a big vision for education. Cambridge fully intends to take novice learners and turn them into world leaders.

Here’s a suggestion: Try the Cambridge method at home. Give your child an assignment.  It should be something your child knows little about. “The Dark Ages.”  “Airborne Diseases.”  “How South Sudan Should Form a New Government.” “How and Why Cambridge University is Dangerously Wobbly on the ‘Good Character’ Requirement in a Sound Education.”

Then give some real supervision to what happens next.  Help your child see the weaknesses in his first attempts to understand it.  Guide him into a deeper appreciation of the issues surrounding his topic.  Help him navigate the moral implications of each issue.  Have him write better drafts of his paper.  Have him defend his conclusions verbally.  Help him communicate using concepts of right and wrong.  Point him to the Bible to find his ethical standard. Point him toward responsible experts he can interview for help. Help your child think in a more mature manner.  And don’t settle for unsound, lazy, shallow performance or he will become an unsound adult, both in learning and character.

Education can’t be approached in an irresponsible way by any teacher or any student.  Yes, students can teach themselves anything.  But they will need to work to combine sound learning with the wisdom that will give them good character.  British educator Sir Ken Robinson did not go to Cambridge, and he learned that typical, modern schooling kills. It kills imagination, creativity and the educational process. “For most of us,” he wrote, the problem isn’t that we aim too high and fail – it’s just the opposite – we aim too low and succeed.”11

  • 1. A complete list of lectures for all subjects is published before term starts, so that any student can attend any lecture for any subject which interests him.
  • 2. When the disciple is fully trained, Cambridge presents him a traditional Bachelor’s degree “in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”
  • 3. The student was Alastair Fowler; the Supervisor was C.S. Lewis, at Oxford. Student Peter Bayley described Lewis’ supervision in this way: “Even more alarming was his ceaselessly active, almost aggressive conduct of the tutorial. There was something unintentionally rebuffing about Lewis’s intellectual supremacy.” John Lawlor wrote, “One quickly felt that for [Lewis] dialectic supplied the place of conversation.” After some time, Lawlor came to appreciate “the weekly bout in which no quarter was asked or given.”
  • 4. In the isolated Ethiopian village of Wonchi, on the rim of a volcanic crater at 11,000 feet, young children have grown up without schools, printed materials, road signs, or even printed packaging. As an experiment, MIT Professor Nicholas Negroponte dropped off closed boxes containing new computer tablets, taped shut, with no instruction. “I thought the kids would play with the boxes. Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, found the on-off switch … powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child, per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs in the village, and within five months, they had hacked Android,” Negroponte said. “Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera, and they figured out the camera, and had hacked Android.” Another researcher said, “The kids had completely customized the desktop—so every kids’ tablet looked different. We had installed software to prevent them from doing that, and the fact they worked around it was clearly the kind of creativity, the kind of inquiry, the kind of discovery that we think is essential to learning.”
  • 5. Sugata Mitra, Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University, has been documenting similar research findings in experiments he calls “Minimally Invasive Education.” In one study, he loaded a computer with molecular biology materials, in English, and set it up in Kalikuppam, a village in southern India. He selected a small group of 10- to 14-year-olds, and invited them to take a look at “some interesting stuff” on that computer. And then he left. Over the next 75 days, the children worked out how to use the computer and began to learn English, then molecular biology. When Mitra returned, he gave a written test. The kids answered about one in four questions correctly. After another 75 days, they were getting every other question right.
  • 6. The issue of addressing “good character” to the same degree as “sound learning” has been noted as a perennial problem for several centuries.
  • 7. Standing in the place of the parent
  • 8. “The common fault of Tutors, is, altogether to neglect their Pupils. Many think a Tutor to be a mere titular matter; no more to be required of them, but to bear the very name; & to undertake that the College be discharged for their Pupils’ diet. This conceit, & the practice answerable thereunto, is the blemish& bane of the Universities. Many children well trained up in schools, utterly lose the benefit of all their former education, when they are sent to the University, because their Tutors altogether leave them to themselves; and so they are made a prey to idle & lewd companions. By reason hereof many parents are utterly discouraged to send their children to the University.” William Gouge, Of Domestical Duties, Treatise 6, §. 79, Of the negligence of Schoolmasters and Tutors. London, 1626
  • 9. “Of course, among the nobility, tutors were chosen with great care, especially for the heirs. Then parents couldbe easier in their minds about their sons’ diet and morals and manners as well as about their intellectual progress. In the middle of the sixteenth century, however, the Duchess of Suffolk had not fully trusted tutors even of her own choosing, but went to Cambridge with her boys. There she secured a cottage close to the university that she might supervise the diet of her sons, and see that they had the proper physical care…In manners and moral and intellectual training she relied a great deal on the tutor, but she had her sons with her for dinner and at night. At table her instruction under the tutor was strict, one of them reading from the Bible a “chapter of the Greek Testament,” which he translated into English, and each of them taking turns in saying grace. During the meal the two boys propounded and expounded questions in philosophy or divinity, “and so spent all the time at meat in Latin disputations.” The older boy was fourteen at and the other “some years younger,” yet both attended public disputations, and every morning read and translated from Plato in Greek and at supper “presented their labors.” All their time not occupied during the day with private lectures or disputation was accounted for to mother and tutor.” Elizabethans at Home, pp. 198-199, Lu Emily Pearson, Stanford, 1957
  • 10.http://westernconservatory.com/products/its-not-complicated
  • 11. Ken Robinson, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything