Wednesday 25 February 2015

An enquiry into civilisation: remembering lectures

In my clinical practice, although some researchers had claimed that traumatic amnesia was common, I found that my patients had vivid memories, often ones they wished to forget. I consulted memory man Prof John Morton, FRS, him of Logogens and Headed Records fame, and we were able to show that in a dreadful ferry disaster where almost half of the people drowned, survivors had almost perfect memory for who they were with immediately before, during, and after the terrifying event. The imminent prospect of death did not cloud their recall. Given the unusual fact that I had personally interviewed a large number of survivors, we were able to test their memories against the accounts of other survivors, and cross-validate them, a rare test of the accuracy of traumatic memories.

Thompson, J., Morton, J., Fraser, L. (1997). Memories for the Marchioness. Memory 5(5), 615-638doi:10.1080/741941482. Author URL

In one of our many conversations John Morton told me about an interesting memory experiment, in which participants were asked to read out the letters of a foreign language text, presented to them upside down. I hope you will agree that this denies them the usual contextual and linguistic cues which make ordinary text potentially easier to remember, because you can get some sense out of it, but you are denied the search for meaning in this task. A year later, without having been previously warned that this would happen, they were given the same task again. They completed it faster the second time. So, John Morton noted, perhaps almost everything can be remembered, even if it is hard to retrieve. The trace is always there. 

I can’t remember the reference, despite having written it down somewhere. Can anyone help me?

If traces remain of all events then it follows that I ought to be able to remember my first year university lectures, that is, remember them in the sense of having traces that should be easily summoned up by looking at the titles again. Perhaps it also means that I have always been guided by their content, without knowing it was happening, merely assuming that what I heard in those lectures was known to everyone, or at least to most people I knew. Common currency, and no big deal, but a point of unacknowledged reference, a scaffold on which conjectures and refutations can be sustained.

So, I decided to ask those who had sat through the same lectures to let me see their copies of the program. I can only find 1965 which was the year after mine, kindly sent by Marshall Colman. The Foundation Year course changed slowly, so it is probably an almost perfect match, and I can recognise most of it.








In matters of detail, I think I had forgotten Prof Gemmell’s lectures on natural selection and inheritance though I may have been guided by the content, and remember his aphorism (from the Chinese): “One mountain, one tiger”; vividly remembered some of Prof Ingram on Physics (because of the practical demonstrations); and partly remembered Prof Ian Hunter on Psychology; Prof MacKay on computation and the measurement of information; and, to my surprise, had forgotten or rejected recalling the Christian farewell.

In the matter of surveying the broad picture 51 years after the event, recalling that year fills me with emotion. The founding Professors did their very best to educate me, and even though I took notes diligently, I wonder if I appreciated at the time what I was being given. After all, this was my only experience of university teaching, and I half-assumed it was the norm.  The Foundation Year was an enquiry into civilisation, a confident exposition of the Western heritage,  sufficient to let students read more widely, and provide them with reference points so that they knew how to ask questions on many subjects, and a framework to understand the scale if not detail of subsequent advances. It was a starting point on a journey which allowed them to speak as easily to Carl Sagan as to Douglas Adams.

Very belatedly, I’d like to thank Prof Lindsay for founding the University of Keele, where this course was taught to all undergraduates. Five years after I graduated it was deemed too expensive, since the bold experiment took up a whole year extra year, and required not only Heads of Department to prepare and give many lectures, but a much larger number of Lecturers to run weekly tutorials and mark all our essays. It became just an option, and continues only in reduced form.

Which universities still teach all undergraduates a course like the Foundation Year? Would you like to design a one suitable for the current time?


  1. "a confident exposition of the Western heritage"

    Unfortunately an interdisciplinary syllabus today would be the very opposite of that.

  2. That's a great set of lectures - a real liberal education.

    I don't like to speculate on what proportion of today's students might graduate with that breadth of knowledge.

  3. Apparently, Harvard was one of the inspirations, but the main one was years spent in adult workers education. Locals called it The Kremlin on the Hill.

  4. Kremlin? Not by today's standards if this was the man who did the sociology section

    1. Sammy Finer was a great teacher, a star with an incisive mind, a good turn of phrase and a self-deprecating wit. I associated him with The Man on Horseback, which he had just written. His lectures were energetic, and required a knowledge of history well beyond us first year undergraduates He astounded a more stuffy professor by finishing a common room argument with the phrase: "Those are my views, but I'm just a Yid on the make."
      What was great was how easy it was to talk to all the professors, or at least stand in a group and listen to them. I could stop Prof Ian Hunter on his walk back home and have long chats with him, partly about psychology, but also on a wide range of subjects.

  5. If you take the view that the triumphs of western civilisation are her mathematics, music, science and technology, too much is omitted from that syllabus. And most freshers couldn't remotely cope with the syllabus that "ought" to be taught. Still, not a bad shot given the constraints.

    1. It embraced the Two Cultures. Foundation Year was just the start. In Principal 1 my main subjects were Psychology and Philosopy which I continued for 3 years, but I also did a year of Physics and English.

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  7. In this new global era, the best we can hope for is a comparative history of civilization, emphasizing the emergence of liberal institutions. Needless to say, the West would come out looking good.

  8. Belatedly: Finer was I think the creator of the subject Comparative Political Institutions. His great achievement, completed much later than Keele, was a history of them from ancient times. I defected from Philosophy, to Prof Flew's relief, and was welcomed by Prof Finer. When I retire I will read his magnum opus.