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The Great Educators

The history of academic life is studded with colourful characters and memorable individuals. The structure of contemporary institutions are no longer compatible with such free expressions of intellectual spirit as they once were; however, the encounter between an established academic and a young researcher ought to be an opportunity to learn in a personal and relational way.

One of the most famous, if not infamous, teachers of the twentieth century in this regard was the classical scholar Sir Maurice Bowra, who served as the warden of Wadham College in Oxford for over thirty years, between 1938 and 1970. The poet Sir John Betjeman, an eccentric character in his own right, once wrote of Bowra as follows: “I wandered back to Magdalen, certain then,/ As now, that Maurice Bowra’s company / Taught me far more than all my tutors did.”  Betjeman’s verse gets to the heart of why Bowra was seen as such an exceptional educator, able to inculcate understanding through a lens of amiable good nature. During his long career at Oxford, Bowra taught such luminaries as the author Anthony Powell, the literary critic Cyril Connolly, and the art historian Kenneth Clarke (who called him ‘the strongest influence on my life’). Many others, such as Betjeman, claimed to have learned more from Bowra as a peer than as an instructor, including J.B.S. Haldane, Lord David Cecil, and L. P. Hartley.

Of course, Bowra was as famous for his colourful private life as for his pedagogical talents. One famous story recounts him being encountered by some undergraduates whilst bathing naked in the River Cherwell; when asked, in the following morning’s supervision, why he had covered his face rather than his privates, he responded ‘gentlemen, I would like to think that in Oxford I am best known by my face!’

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