Sunday, 3 November 2013

What is education for? Celebrating 750 years of Balliol College Oxford

I am honoured to be speaking to you at this service of celebration. It is exactly 40 years since I left Balliol, armed with degrees in maths and philosophy, and in theology. In those far-off years, I did not give much thought to the events of the 13th century that brought our college into existence. In particular, I did not think at all about its northern origins. To me, a Londoner, the north of England was an unknown region, a distant, cold and sooty place, not blessed with the mild climate and mellow limestones of Oxford. It was not until I went to live and work there as a Northumberland parish priest that I began to appreciate its beautiful landscapes, its heritage and its genuine, hospitable communities.

Ten years ago I went back to the North East, this time as Dean of Durham. The whole world seems to love Durham Cathedral, and with good reason. My interest in the college’s North Eastern origins was awakened. The name Balliol is everywhere around Barnard Castle County Durham, for the family had large estates there. The neighbouring landowner was the Bishop of Durham whose palatine powers made him a not-so-petty monarch in the lands between the Tees and the Tyne. Somehow, these two got across each other. The story goes that in the 1250s, some of John Balliol’s retainers seized estates claimed by Bishop Walter de Kirkham. He in turn excommunicated them whereupon Balliol laid an ambush for him, subjected the kidnapped bishop to unspecified indignities and carried off part of his retinue. The bishop, supported by King Henry III, demanded reparation. So Balliol had to prostrate himself before the bishop dressed in penitential garb on the steps of my Cathedral. And here is where today comes in: the bishop required of Balliol a substantial act of charity: to endow a house for scholars at Oxford. This he did 750 years ago, in 1263.

The bishop died in 1260 and is buried under the floor of the Norman chapter house at Durham Cathedral. Several times a day, I walk across him as I process into services. I trust I do this in a spirit of piety, thankful for the penance that led to the founding of our college, one of Oxford’s oldest and, I need hardly say in this company, one of its greatest. By 1263, the year of the college’s foundation, universities in the sense we understand them had been established across Europe. But since the 11
th century, Durham Cathedral Priory was itself acquiring the reputation of being one of England’s great centres of learning with its legendary library and its large scholarly community of Benedictine monks. Bishop Kirkham himself patronised these developments. So Balliol, with its next-door neighbour which, to avoid the T-word I had better call Durham College because it was originally founded under that name by the monks of Durham, were both communities of learning that originated in the North East with links to its proud scholarly traditions.
The rest, as they say, is history, an honourable and at times glorious one. We have been right to celebrate it during this anniversary year and coming here to thank God for it today. The contribution our college has made to the intellectual life of the nation, especially since Benjamin Jowett’s mastership in the 19th century, is something I don’t need to rehearse today. Instead, I should like to ask what it means to be a ‘community of learning’ in today’s era, so different in every respect from that that of our founding father and mother (for we must not forget the vital part played in the early history of the college by Devorguilla, John Balliol’s devoted wife).

The academy is of course a community of research, and of teaching and learning. In our knowledge-based economy, these things count for a very great deal. In particular, university education in a research-led environment inculcates the values of lifelong curiosity and rigour without which learning can never make a real difference to the way communities and individuals learn how to think. If anyone asks me what use a degree in maths and philosophy has been to my chosen vocation as a priest in the church, I reply at once that it taught me how to think well, how to express myself coherently, how to be at least semi-articulate in the different thought-worlds my work has taken me into, how to show an intelligent interest in other disciplines where my actual knowledge is little or non-existent. I doubt if I have often  invoked formal logic, topology, recursive function theory or Abelian groups in my day-job. But I owe them an incalculable debt, as I do to those who did not so much instruct me in them as helped me to learn them – yes and love them - for myself.

But I believe we need to understand the academy in more holistic ways than simply the training of the intellect. The medieval disciplines of the trivium and quadrivium which Balliol scholars learned in the college’s medieval centuries, cast their net wider. The study of grammar, logic, rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy and music together imparted the perspective that human beings inhabit a large, mysterious and complex universe, and the properly educated student, on taking a degree, becomes, so to say, a grown-up citizen of that world, at home in its mystery and complexity. And one of the lessons that the study of theology in the middle ages inculcated was that to find our place in an often baffling world, what is needed is not just knowledge but wisdom. And wisdom, in the spiritual traditions of all the world faiths, is not only a matter of the mind, but of the whole person, or as the Bible speaks of it, the heart. It is about the formation of identity and character in both people and societies.

So what heart-work, as Rilke called it, do we need to do as a college and as its members, in which of course I include all of us who are proud to be alumni?  In other words, what is education ultimately for? Our founding traditions suggest that it is this cultivation of wisdom. As it says in Benjamin Jowett’s translation of his beloved Republic, ‘first among the virtues found in the state, wisdom comes into view’. Christian moral theology sees wisdom as the summation of virtue, expressed in the cardinal virtues of justice, prudence temperance and fortitude and in the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. These shape what it means to live well, for the wise understand what life requires of them and charts a course that will enhance human dignity against all the corrosive forces that would diminish it. In the New Testament, Jesus speaks about the values that belong to the kingdom of heaven and which he calls his followers to embrace now. In the Hebrew Bible, King Solomon prays at the outset of his reign for a ‘wise and understanding heart’ so that he will know how to govern ‘this great people’, discern what it means to be a guardian of all that ennobles human life. And when those same scriptures, in a classic wisdom text in the Book of Job, asks where wisdom can be found, it embarks on a long search that scans the ends of the earth before concluding: ‘the fear of the Lord is wisdom, and to depart from evil is understanding’. Find your place in creation, he says, by letting it teach you humility, reverence, worth, a good conscience, a sense of the divine.

Humanity faces huge challenges if our race is to prove capable of surviving the threats that face it. Climate change, simplistic politics, radical fundamentalisms and the terrors they spawn, the risk of collapse in our global financial systems not to mention the poor who are always with us: even far-seeing leaders like Jowett could not have glimpsed these futures, let alone John Balliol, Devorguilla and those who bequeathed us our college.  But perhaps the values of self-awareness, moral and spiritual intelligence, the ability to see into the life of things and understand the vicissitudes of human existence, in short, wisdom - perhaps these may yet save the world if we succeed in embedding it into our social, political and personal lives. As a person of faith, I believe these values to be ultimately God-given: Christ himself is called in the New Testament both 'the power of God and the wisdom of God'. Which is why, when the big storms break against the shores of our complacency, we need to cry, like the sailors at the beginning of The Tempest, ‘to prayers, to prayers!’.

In its first seven and a half centuries, Balliol College has added incalculably both to the world’s intellectual capital and its social, ethical and spiritual capital too. It has helped make it a better informed, a more deeply aware, a more compassionate, in short, a wiser place. This God-given work that builds up nations, societies and people in wisdom continues confidently as the college moves into the next three-quarters of a millennium. We gather today to celebrate the lasting achievement of our founders who came out of the north 750 years ago. On All Souls Day we remember them and our benefactors down the centuries since, and all who have helped make Balliol College the flourishing institution it is today.  More personally, we recall with gratitude all in this college who have played a part in forming and shaping us as human beings, helping to train our minds and hearts for the service of his kingdom of justice, truth and peace. It is right and good to celebrate today.

St Mary’s University Church, Oxford, 2 November 2013
1 Kings 3.3-14; Matthew 5.1-12


You can see a video recording of this sermon at
 

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