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Speaka Da Eengleesh

The criteria by which universities are judged to be in the top 200 in the world are mysterious to most of us (Times Higher Education explains its methodology here http://bit.ly/1mUdagx ‑ good luck with it). Being American certainly helps (fifteen of the top twenty, twenty-eight of the top fifty), while being French, or Dutch, or Italian or Spanish doesn’t (none in the top fifty). The Chinese, who seem to make everything we buy, sneak in at forty-eight and forty-nine – good work, chaps, and keep trying. Having a big reputation already will also help you: “The ability of a university to attract undergraduates and postgraduates from all over the planet is key to its success on the world stage ...” and is therefore rewarded in the scoring.

Whatever one makes of these criteria it is scarcely good news to hear that the university one attended oneself – so long ago that I’m sure nothing as vulgar as rankings had been heard of ‑ has slipped out of the top 200 (“UCD drops out of world’s top 200 league table”) Irish Times report, October 1st). Certainly, in practice, these things probably do count, whether they should or not.

It strikes me, however, that a person’s experience of education, and his or her relationship with teachers and tutors, can often be too individual ‑ and too delicate ‑ to be measured by a supposedly scientific set of criteria, particularly one based on assessments of prestige and “excellence” (“undergraduates and postgraduates from all over the planet”). One could perhaps be forgiven too for being a little suspicious of a system which finds so much of this excellence in the United States ‑ and to a lesser degree the United Kingdom ‑ and so little in many other places.

When I attended UCD the biggest star (by far) was our professor of English and American Literature, Denis Donoghue, whose lecturing style was unapologetically lordly. There is in retrospect something quite comic about it all: two hundred ignoramuses barely emerged from childhood and fed on a diet of Kavanagh, a few scraps of Keats and Charles Lamb’s essays, being referred to Walter Pater and Wallace Stevens, and introduced to such exotic and puzzling concepts as “the malady of the quotidian” and, a great favourite, “the inexorable drip of Mondays into Tuesdays”. For three per cent of us perhaps it was an inspiration; for the rest, it was above our heads. Small wonder that we sometimes thought it all (unfairly) to be “nonsense in the dungarees of sense”.

Soon afterwards I was fortunate enough to stumble into the obscure corner of Old and Middle English, where, the subject being very much a minority one, the classes were very small and the teaching intensive. There was even, shockingly, an element of “pastoral care” as my tutor made it clear to me that he was disinclined to accept my natural laziness as being just the way I was and expected more effort. None of the teachers in that department had the international reputation that Denis Donoghue had (most of them, indeed, apart from the professors, Father Tom Dunning and Alan Bliss, were still very young), but they certainly all knew how to teach and how to communicate enthusiasm for subjects that at first seemed strange, difficult or obscure. And I expect that process is taking place quietly all the time – in spite of greatly increased bureaucratic demands ‑in many universities that do not feature strongly in the excellence hit parade.

On the train last week I overheard a conversation between a young man, ethnically Chinese, American(ish) of accent and almost certainly on his way into town from Maynooth University, and his companion, who was Irish and also a student. The young Chinese man had recently visited the Iberian peninsula. What I overheard was something like this: “Yeah, in Lisbon and in Barcelona. But do you know, a lot of them don’t speak English? You talk to them in English and they can’t reply to you. Why is that? Really, I mean, they should speak English.” His companion, I thought, seemed less convinced of the logic of this position.

I am sure that in the top universities in the world, or in the Anglosphere, which for many is the same thing, everyone can and does speak English. In the old days in my unfashionable university, however, one of the lessons we learned, through teaching and through osmosis, was to value the splendid multiplicity of the world.