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Thursday, 25 July 2013

Apologia Pro Via Sua

Blessed John Henry Newman (d.1890) was among the most brilliant intellects of his generation, and certainly the greatest theologian the British Isles ever produced. His autobiographical Apologia Pro Vita Sua (A Defence of One's Life) was first published in 1864. Notable among his other works is The Idea of a University Defined and Illustrated,
"...the basis of a characteristic British belief that education should aim at producing generalists rather than narrow specialists, and that non-vocational subjects - in arts or pure science - could train the mind in ways applicable to a wide range of jobs"*.
Whether this work was uppermost in the minds of the grands fromages at the University of St Andrews in the early 1990s, however, is a moot point. You see, when i enrolled at St Andrews in the autumn of 1993, the academic year consisted of three terms, broadly unchanged from the way it had been in the early 15th century, when the university was founded (this year marks its 600th anniversary; 1413-2013). There was Michaelmas, starting around the feast of the Archangel Michael on the 29th of September; Martinmas (St Martin's Day, 11th November), and Candlemas (2nd February, also known as the Feast of the Presentation). You studied your subjects, obviously, and you submitted essays; but if they weren't quite up to scratch, or if they were marked down for being a bit late, it didn't matter - one took exams at the end of the year, in order to qualify for the next year's study. Like the vast majority of my peers, i cleared this first hurdle, after the first year, without any difficulty. For a number of decades however, St Andrews has put a particular emphasis on optimising its contingent of wealthy North American students. 'Semesterisation' was one of the key outcomes of this drive, motivated by the prospect of more dosh. So my second year was divided into two semesters, and you picked up a certain number of credits for the essays that you produced, which would be totted up at the end of the year, to see if you qualified, in my case, for Honours Level study. The end-of-year exams were replaced by more 'life or death', and more demanding, 'retakes', for which you had to come back to St Andrews during the summer. In other words, without any consultation, and for reasons other than academic, the system changed. Most students were able to adjust, but a few, including myself, were not. There was now a much greater emphasis on 'coursework' - effectively, you only took exams if you 'failed' the coursework element. Leaving to one side the suspicion that coursework is the academic equivalent of the 'high heel shoe', lending an artficially contrived semblance of intellectual parity between men and women - i've always been a slow writer, and a bit of a perfectionist. As during my first year, my essays were invariably late, by a few days or even weeks. That meant they were marked down. The upshot is that i don't have an honours degree. One of my tutors in the Mediaeval History department, who knew how good my essays were, was disgusted when i told her about this, but there it is. It's like having a certificate to say that you've passed your cycling proficiency test, rather than a full driving licence. Later on it meant, for instance, that i was seen as expendable when i studied to become a history teacher on a failing PGCE course. But i was very fortunate in the sense that, having dropped out of university altogether, i could go back and complete my 'general' Arts degree. In that year i became a Catholic, taking for my confirmation the name 'James', in St James's Church, St Andrews. In the last few days, here on the Camino (in Latin Via = Way) de Santiago, i have clarified for myself that my Christian name, James, is from the Apostle St James 'the Less', whose feast is celebrated with St Philip on the 3rd of May. My confirmation name however is from St James 'the Greater', the 'brother of Our Lord', patron saint of pilgrims, to whose tomb, God-willing, i am now making my way, in order to pay him homage. I hope to make this pilgrimage useful for Mary's Meals, and i also hope, with God's help, to write about it afterwards, under the title;
The Very Last Crusade.
25th July 2013, Feast of SS James and Christopher; Burgos, España.
 *Robert Anderson, quoted in Wikipedia. John Henry Newman incidentally, acutely anxious to do well, broke down in his final examination at Oxford University, and was awarded only a third class honours degree.

This year's commemoration of Santiago has sadly been turned into a day of mourning, as a result of the appalling rail accident, near Santiago de Compostela itself, yesterday. To any readers who are so inclined, please say a prayer for the victims of this tragedy and for their families. 

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