Headmaster’s Thoughts February 2019

The first day (a Thursday) I arrived at my college at Oxford, I was standing in the porter’s lodge, which is effectively the entrance hall, and a tall (and, to me, huge) man stopped me and gave me a sheet. On it was a list of articles and chapters of books to be read, and an essay topic. It was my tutor, Peter Carter, and he told me to write the essay and see him the following Tuesday at 10.00am when I would read it to him.

I thought I was a good student and was anxious to show how thorough I could be as a new undergraduate in law. So I prepared for that essay by reading all the materials (and even some more that were not on the sheet) and writing a comprehensive essay on the topic. At 10.00am promptly, I presented myself at Mr. Carter’s rooms in the College. In Oxford, in those days, tutorials for “Scholars” were one on one. I suspect this is rarely now the case. Anyway, I read my essay. It covered all the bases. It summed up arguments for and against the proposition (which, for the life of me, I cannot now remember). I vividly remember, however, the end of the tutorial. Mr. Carter looked at me and said one word: “Boring!”

I was stunned. I had worked on this essay. It gave all the facts. What could he mean? He repeated the dreaded word: “Boring!” I spluttered. I explained that I had given all the detail I could. I asked him what I did wrong?

He explained that there were seven students in my first-year law class and he would have to listen to the same essay six more times. I went first because I had won the scholarship which entitled me to individual tutorials (as well as wear a long gown instead of a short one as most students wore). So he would be bored six more times. I had said nothing original, I had given no opinions. I had just told him what he already knew.

I think I was devastated. Truly humiliated at the beginning of a relationship that was going to last for years since he was my “don”. I asked what I could do and he answered: “tell me something that I do not know and that does not come from the reading!” I think I then got the idea. “You want me to tell you my opinion?” And he answered that if it were different and interesting, then yes. To merely repeat in some slightly altered way what I had read, was going to result in many more years of boredom for him.

From then on, I took him at his word. I came every week and attempted (not always with any success at all) to present a new slant or theory on the subject. Peter Carter effectively, and successfully, argued back. Life became interesting for me (and I hope for him). We would have a tutorial for what was supposed to be an hour, and we sometimes would keep arguing through lunch. Once I even said that maybe we should go to the college hall for lunch, and he waved me off and attacked me again. He always won the arguments. He always demolished my crazy ideas. But never in a mean way; it was just that he knew so much more than I did. And to make an argument, one had to really study. For him, I worked hard. Only once, in all the time he was my “don”, did he acknowledge that I had a good point. Once! The high point of my four years.

I should explain that a law degree as an undergraduate at Oxford takes three years. When I got my degree, he rang me up and asked me what I was going to do. I was going to the bar, but I could not be “called” until November because I had only started the three-year process of becoming a barrister in November of my first year. He suggested I return to Oxford to read for an advanced degree; the Bachelor of Civil Law, then reputed to be the most difficult law degree in England for a new graduate student. When I explained that I had no money for this, he told me that he already had arranged for me to be awarded a State Studentship, which would give me the money I would need. I was even more in awe of the man than I had ever been and, of course, agreed. The B.C.L. is normally a two-year degree but you can do it in one year if you have graduated from Oxford in Law. So we had another year of arguing. By now, it was really fun. Years later, at a college reunion, he sat next to Jayme and told her how much he enjoyed arguing with me. Unquestionably he was the teacher I hero-worshipped the most.

This year, we have a new 6th grader whose father was a Rhodes Scholar at the same college (Wadham) as I went to. When he visited York Prep, we started talking about Oxford and I discovered that he too read law and had Mr. Carter as his “don”. I should say that this father is brilliant and has deservedly achieved fame, and, as everyone knows, Rhodes Scholarships are given to the very best and brightest. He too was given a sheet of reading material when he went to Oxford on his first day. He too thought the man who gave it to him seemed large and impressive. So he too prepared for his first essay in a thorough and comprehensive manner. At the end of his reading of the essay, Mr. Carter said to him “Is that all?” He too spluttered. He had given it his best shot. But Mr. Carter wanted more. “Is that all?” Peter Carter wanted his opinion.

When we both realized that we had the same experience, we equally understood what a brilliant motivating maneuver had been played to ensure that we would study and be challenged to think. We realized that Mr. Carter probably did this to all of his students. It certainly worked on both of us. We were pushed to reflect and try to come up with something new, not just to replay.

That is the way inspiring teachers teach.

Ronald P. Stewart
York Prep