Education: Knowledge v. Pet Ideas

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London's arch-Tory Recorder carried the story under a six-column headline:

WILD MEN LOSE CONTROL OF LONDON SCHOOL OF ECONOMICS! What the Recorder and other London papers went on to tell their readers: the stormy London School of Economics had just appointed a new man to the chair of political science, last occupied by the late leftist, owlishly intellectual Harold Laski. And by any standard Laski's successor was no wild man.

He was mild-mannered, string-haired Michael Oakeshott, 48, longtime (1923-49) Cambridge history don, a conservative with a passion for horse races.* To many a Briton, it seemed as if L.S.E. and its 3,600 students might be headed down mid-road at last.

No Light Matter. Rightly or wrongly, for 55 years the London School of Economics has had a reputation for just the opposite—a hotbed of socialism, Tories called it, a breeder of radicals. It began one day in 1894, when Fabian Socialist Sidney Webb received an unexpected legacy of £10,000 from a fellow Fabian who had just blown his brains out. After mulling over the matter with his wife Beatrice, Sidney decided to start a new school where socialist theory would stand on an equal footing with more conventional viewpoints. "Above all," explained Beatrice Webb to her diary, "we want the ordinary citizens to feel that reforming society is no light matter, and must be undertaken by experts specially trained for the purpose . . ."

Before long, the world began to hear a good deal about L.S.E. Hundreds of students flocked to hear Philosopher Bertrand Russell, or Sidney Webb himself, lecturing on the Fabian way in his high nasal voice. In 1912 a young man named Clement Attlee joined the faculty to teach social science and administration. Former pupils remember him as a quiet, dry, sometimes boring lecturer, devoted to his subject, who inspired classes only by his meticulous sincerity. Later, other young reformers followed: Philip Noel-Baker, now Labor's Minister of Fuel and Power; onetime Chancellor of the Exchequer Hugh Dalton; and in 1926, Harold Laski.

"Diabolically Clever." For 23 years Laski seemed to overshadow everyone else at L.S.E., became in the public mind almost a synonym for the school. "My life," he once cried, "is my students!" and some of his students never forgot what he said (in the 1945 election, 67 of them were elected Labor M.P.s). A brilliant man who could read 200 pages in an hour ("diabolically clever and omniscient," said Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes), he was also a spectacular lecturer. Sometimes gesturing excitedly and sometimes staring motionless at his palm, he spoke "with a force and conviction," recalls one student, "that sent us all away determined to reshape the world."

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