Sunday, April 19, 2009

Who will be the Master?

In a lecture on C.S. Lewis and scientism, Fritz Schaefer recommends reading the novel The Masters, by C.P. Snow for insights into the internal politics within Oxbridge colleges. I finally read it on my most recent holiday. The novel is part of a series, Strangers and Brothers, chronicling the life experience of Lewis Eliot as over course of several decades he moves from law office to university to industry to government. Some of the series parallels Snow’s own diverse life experience: he began his professional life as a molecular physicist, turned to writing novels, and eventually became a Baron and held high positions in the U.K. government. He is probably best known for his 1950 Rede lectures: The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution. ( A book I really want to re-read).
The novel, the Masters, describes the political struggle amongst Fellows in a Cambridge College as they position, posture, and politic in anticipation of the election of the next Master of the college, while they wait for the current Master to die, after being diagnosed with a terminal illness. Snow is perceptive about human nature and paints an intimate portrait of his characters. Here is a random selection (page numbers are from the Penguin 1983 edition):
“I had known for miutes past, that this was coming: I had not wanted to talk of it that nigh. Jago was longing for me to say that he ought to be the next Master, that my own mind was made up, that I should vote from him. Had had longed for me to say it without promopting. It was anguish to him to make the faintiest hint without repsonde. Yet he was impelled to go on, he could not spotp. It haradssed me to see this proud man humiliating himself.” (p. 15)
The Master says, “Do you remember the trouble we had getting him [Calvert] elected [as a Fellow of the College], Eliot? Some of our friends show a singular instinct for preferring mediocrity. Like elects like of course. Or between me and you,” he whispered, “dull men elect dull men.” (p. 20)
Nightingale “was intensely suspicious, certain that there was a web of plans from which he would lose and others gain….. He had once possessed great promise. That was his bitterness. … By twenty-three he had written two good papers on molecular structure… but the spark burnt out… Often he had new conceptions: but the power to execute them had escaped from him. ……It would have been bitter to the most generous heart. In Nightingales’s it made him fester with envy…. Each job in the college for which he was passed over, he saw with intense suscpicion as a sign of the conspiracy directed against him…… as March came round each year, he waited for the announcement of the Royal Society elections in expectation, in anguish, in bitter suspicousness…” (p.46,47)
“Chrystal wanted to be no more than Dean, but he wanted the Dean, in this little empire of the college, to be known as a man of poer. Less subltle, less freflective, more immediate than his friend [Brown], he needed the moment-by-moment sensation of power. He needed to feel that he was listened to, ……, that his word was obeyed.” (p.61)
This is both comical and tragic. It shows the vanities and trivialities that academics (and maybe anyone in any close community) can become so absorbed with. Unfortunately, it also portrays accurately how often administrative decisions (including some very important ones) in universities are often not made with the same rational detached objectivity and impartiality that we would like to claim we apply in our scholarship.

Who will be the next Master?

"Sin is crouching at the door; it desires to have you, but you must master it” Genesis 4:6

"For sin shall not be your master, because you are not under lawy, but under grace.” Romans 6:14

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