When I arrived at Pembroke College, Oxford, in the autumn of 1962, I had come there to study (or 'read', as it was said in those parts) Law. Why? For no very strong reason. At some point during my adolesence my Old Man had suggested it was a subject I might like to consider, and I thought 'Hmmm... sounds reasonable', and so that is what I applied to Oxford to do when the time came, and there I now was. My dad had acquired a copy for me of Learning the Law by Glanville Williams and I had taken the odd look at it, but no more than that; I certainly hadn't read it. Anyway, the first person I spoke to after standing around in the lodge for some time, in the naïve expectation that someone from the college would come over and say to me 'You need to do this and then that' - OK, so gimme a break, I was from Bulawayo; what did I know? - was Vince, and he told me where to go and what to do. Vince was one of the college friends I made in the first few days, and in due course we got to talking about what we were, respectively, there at Pembroke to read, and I told him Law, and he told me P.P.E.
'P.P.E. - what's that?' I asked, and he told me and I said, 'Oh no, that's just what I want to do.'
So I went to see the top guy in Law, telling him I wanted to change, and he wasn't happy. Did I realize I'd deprived someone else of a place? And I went to see the P.P.E. dons and they were OK with it. And in the end all was well for me; I embarked on the degree course I'd by then set my heart on. It only took a few days to get it sorted.
What did I know? I was young; I was from Bulawayo; I was reading Russell's History of Western Philosophy when I should have been reading Glanville Williams.
This story explains why I agree with what Jo Wolff has to say in the second half of this column:
One area in which we could certainly learn is flexibility of studies. Here, at the age of 17 applicants decide what to study until they reach 21. But the decision is made in varying degrees of ignorance. Students enrol in philosophy wanting to gain insight into the agonies of the human condition. Instead, we make them puzzle over whether names are really "disguised definite descriptions". A genuinely fascinating question, but not exactly what many are expecting. Economics students want to find out how to create wealth in a sustainable fashion. First, though, they are sent to the statistics class, and many never reappear. Law students – well some of them, anyway – want to learn how to fight the injustices of the system. Instead, they are taught how to pretend that inconsistent judicial decisions can be distinguished on the basis of some spurious principle.
He's for being able to change direction 'if your initial hunches haven't worked out'. (I'm now wondering: what if I'd read Law? Oy. Life, hey.)