For the wise and otherwise
by H. R. F. KEATING
IHAVE just been meeting the 1brainless bee and pondering the case of the upturned fork. The two were chance items that struck me as I watched a preview of the first programme in the Social Science course of the Open University.
The programme goes out next Sunday on the BBC-2 wavelength, on which the initial transmissions of the television section of the Open University began this weekend. There is nothing to prevent those of us outside the 25,000 enrolled .first-year students from eavesdropping.
But eavesdropping and no more it will be. One of the first principles decided on by the TV team, lead by Peter Montagnon of "Civilisation" fame, was that the programmes would make no concessions whatever to the casual viewer. Thus the level will be as high as is needed for students who are going to end with degrees, and on occasion the programmes will be almost unwatchable without the supporting material that the students have paid for
This said, however, there will still be many opportunities for the casual viewer to benefit by, and even enjoy, the programmes. As I benefited from the brainless bee, learning for the first time that that sociable creature, prime exemplar for the moralist of yesteryear, occupies the significant point of true brainlessness on the line that runs from amoeba to man.
And later, in the course of a beautifully lucid 25 minutes, I was led to consider the implications of the notion that at table the fork should not be used up turned, commonly instilled into British children to such a point that it becomes a matter of conscience. So, plainly, there will be much for the lay person interested in man's standing here.
And there will be much for him too in the course, one of the four offered (the other two are maths and science) labelled "Humanities." This is designed "to aid the understanding of Man" and will include literature, history, music and art and religious studies.
The first programme in this course — I have deliberately avoided the word "lecture" since conventional lecture it was not — took the form of a film made at Milton Keynes. the Open University's headquarters, showing something of the 18 months and more of preparatory work that went into this complex experiment in learning by correspondence, television, radio and other aids.
And an experiment it is, a fascinating and potentially very valuable one. Even the lecturers of high calibre who joined the scheme often found that they had been landed with more than they had bargained for.
In a method partly dictated
by the media that had to be used, the courses were conceived as unified wholes. Hence the limitation to four. And they are to be taught, not by isolated dons doing pretty much what they want to do, as in conventional universities, but by teams integrating their approaches and criticising each other's assumptions.
This, I gathered, led to some pretty tense moments, as when a lecturer who had prepared a whole scheme heard it torn to shreds by colleagues with different but interacting viewpoints. But such moments were ultimately productive ones.
Another powerful factor was the need to put over part of the material through television and radio. This meant, not that a don had to learn to flick round a Design Unit model with adroitness, but that he was forced back in a way pretty unusual in ordinary universities to decide on his exact fundamental objectives. Television demands the clear aim. These tele-dons had to go back and collectively choose just what it was that they wanted their students to learn.
The result, as it was easy to see from the programmes I watched, was a notable clarity. One of the TV team who had seen some of the later maths programmes but whose own mathematical abilities were too untrained to follow properlY, found that nevertheless he derived considerable pleasure from the sheer logic and lucidity of what was being put over. And no doubt he gained a worthwhile insight into the mathematical approach.
And this clarity does not come from the obvious but external sources. such as lively diction and televisual gimmicks. At least one of the dons I saw had a monotony of voice that demanded an effort of concentration (though I have encountered worse in ordinary viewing). But this small difficulty faded away in the sheer controlled light of clarity that the programme as a whole poured out. The students who follow the courses. in which 1971 is the foundation year. will be lucky indeed, as will any of us eavesdroppers who oc casionally switch on. And one further piece of luck for the students, and valuable experience for the dons, should be recorded: as never before these programmes will be sub ject to critical feedback.
Students will be expected to point out deficiencies and to make suggestions, and this response will come potentially
from every viewer. I would not he surprised if a good many things were learnt which in time will filter through to benefit ordinary viewers glued to variety and sport on BBC-1 or ITV.
There is another benefit for all of us tau, of course, from this really heart-warming experiment. The students of the Open Univiersity will gain their degrees by a system of credits. They will need six for an ordinary degree and to gain them will have had to have responded to much of the courses beyond the foundation year. But some students, like teachers, can be granted some exemptions and so it is possible that in two years or so we shall he getting our first Open graduates.
We shall as a nation then have succeeded in tapping unused reservoirs of intellect that our present system has left lying stagnant. Increasingly into the body of our communal thinking will come people, often mature adults, who have been led to consider our whole situation both fundamentally and critically. We shall all be the better for the experiment that began this week.
Could be good
Sunday ITV (except ATV): "Catweazle." This excellent series for children about a medieval wizard time-slipped to today returns. Eminently grown-up watchable.
Tuesday, IIRC-1: "Viewpoint." Programme devoted to Francis Thompson, poet of "The Hound of Heaven."
Thursday, BBC-1: "Circle Line." Play by Stephen Gilbert, winner of contest for students. Expect an inside view of youth with no personal morality.