Dr. Natalia Nowakowska is a Tutor & Lecturer in Early Modern History at Somerville College, University of Oxford.

Tuesday, 4 June 2013

Educating for what?

The Oxford spires
Photo by Tejvan Pettinger 
 Last week, the academic Fellows at Somerville College were asked to think about the qualities they believe that we as an institution should be nurturing in our undergraduate students. With Finals season drawing to a close, and another generation of students about to graduate, this seemed an apt time to be asked.

            We are used to talking about the skills which students should possess – there is an official list of the skills we are looking for in potential History students at admissions stage, e.g. historical imagination, enthusiasm, originality of thought. When dons sit with big piles of exam scripts before them, there is also a Faculty mark scheme which lists the skills which a good script will show evidence of – precision, originality, analytical power, range of issues addressed etc. Skills and qualities overlap, but not completely. So what I jotted down in my response to the survey of college tutors, on a train whizzing through the Chilterns, was this… When my students graduate from Oxford, I would like them to have, or aspire to, these qualities:

·        -   imaginative & innovative thinking
questioning, iconoclastic mindset
·         -  ability to formulate new ideas, insights & visions.
·         -  ability to really hear & take on board alternative viewpoints
·         -  thoughtful about the wider implications of their ideas/actions on society, & thoughtful more generally about -      their engagement with society
·        -  committed to the pursuit of excellence
·         - ambitious to make the most of their talent
·         - thought leadership, seeing things other people don't see & explaining them in a compelling way
·         - clarity of thought & expression, as a way of inspiring others

Maybe that list is simply the Finals mark scheme rewritten in more general terms, or interpolated with implicit moral and social concerns. The question of what we are educating our young people for has always been a political one. In the Renaissance republics, which constantly looked to the ancient world, education was preparation for active, responsible citizenship; in Renaissance principalities, it was there to equip you to serve the prince and /or commonweal. Oxford humanities education is risky in so far as it doesn’t seek to teach specific values, loyalties or beliefs (which might helpfully hold a society together), but rather encourages their rigorous challenge – a society testing itself.

Brainstorming that list of qualities on the train, I wondered what kind of job it might be a description for. Strategy consultant, army officer, school teacher, politician, academic? Do Oxford dons themselves, as a professional group, live up to these same aspirations? I await with interest to learn what my Somerville colleagues put in their lists.


  1. As we were asked for 5 words (or, alternatively, 5 sentences), I decided to take the assignment literally. (Also, I think it's important to note that the e-mail we received didn't quite ask the same question you put in your post --- and my answer to your question would not have been exactly the same as my answer to the question were asked.)

    Here is my exact text:

    Here are five words:

    creative, intelligent, independent, diligent, integrity (well, the
    adjective form of integrity)

    The question I tried to answer is the academic (and related) qualities a leader should have. Certain types of leaders also need other qualities --- e.g. some also need to be "charismatic", but I would object very strongly to that being one of the criteria in the advertisement.

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