Sunday 15 December 2013


In the Middle Ages a career in the church was the best option for a young man without property. A degree in theology all but guaranteed him a well-paid job, but to get there he had to work his way through a prescribed curriculum and pass examinations based on logic and scholastic philosophy. Most students did not find those subjects appealing, and in the 1500s a revolution was on its way.  Theology was out, poetry was in. Unfortunately, poetry didn’t earn you a degree. Students don’t want to graduate, one professor complained.They all want to be poets.

In the good old timeshe said, there were four graduations of bachelors each year, and on each occasion there were fifty or sixty graduates.  The University was flourishing. When a student had been in residence for a year and a half, he was made BA, and after three years, MA. Therefore his parents were satisfied and gladly supplied money when they saw that their sons were on the way to respectable jobs. But today students feel they must attend lectures on the poet Virgil and the rest of the newfangled authors. What is more, they may listen to lectures for five years and never get a degree. And so, when they return home, their parents ask “So what are you now?” But they are nothing, because they have been studying poetry. And then the parents are displeased with the University and sorry they spent money on it. And they say to others: “Don’t send your sons to University. They’ll learn nothing and spend their nights in town, fooling around.”

The new passion for poetry and the humanities was bad news for the professors who taught the traditional courses required for the BA and MA. Their pay was proportional to the number of students registered in their classes. They also earned substantial fees for conducting the final examinations. In other words: no graduations, no fees for them.

I can’t make a living, one of the TAs lamented. Of twenty students hardly one or two intend to proceed to graduation. And if a professor gives a required course, he has no audience, whereas the poets have so many listeners that it's a miracle. This shift in interest from theology to the humanities left lecturers in traditional subjects impoverished. No wonder their sentiments were: Pray to God that all poets will die!

(Quotes are from the satire Letters of Obscure Men)

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