|A Rhodes Scholar and the Founder's Hopes|
THE LIFE OF A RHODES SCHOLAR AND THE FOUNDER’S HOPESJacques Beaulieu
Québec and Corpus Christi, 1969
July 3rd, 2008
It is through good luck that I became a Rhodes Scholar. It is also through luck that Corpus Christi College took me in while the College was not on my list of choices. (1)
What did I achieve through my stay in Oxford? How was my life shaped by that stay? Did I fulfil the Founder’s hopes? This is what I will try to answer in this short piece.
I. What I gained from the Scholarship
Let me start by saying that I had never been to Europe before and probably would not have otherwhise. So it is because of my scholarship that I visited some parts of France and of England. I was able to appreciate a sense of history that a country as young as Canada cannot give you. Québec City celebrates its 400th Anniversary this very day. This is as long as the French have been living in my country.
During and just before my three years in Oxford, I was able to visit cathedrals that go back to the Middle Ages, and Roman ruins that go back nearly 20 centuries and, of course, Stonehenge. My room in College (2) was built in 1517, before the French even discovered Canada in 1534. This to me was something important. This continuity in the occupation of a building, this conservation of something build so long ago and so well as to withstand centuries, this was something I found in huge contrast with the obliteration of the past to build something new that was – and still is - so much the norm in my part of the world. I experienced a reverence for the accomplishments of past generations; this reverence was not just found in the remembrance of the accomplishments of a few important individuals but also in what was build by ordinary people.
One of the things that really struck me in England was the civility of the British. When I arrived at Corpus, the secretary knew who I was before I said a word. I was also amazed by how more mature the students were, how more they were expected to take charge of their own life. There was a different atmosphere, where there seem to be real respect between people. This sense of hospitality and equality is something that has stayed with me for life.
In Paris, I had little trouble with the language but the architecture and the people felt alien. I noticed how true were the gesticulations drawn in Spirou or Tintin. French Canadians are not like that; we are less extraverted, more reserved. When I got to London, I felt at home: the architecture, even the smells, the way people dressed, it was so much closer to home. And so were the people.
But there is much more than that. Of course, some of this feeling also came with time and with age. But Canada and Québec’s institutions are British, not French. Our Criminal Code is British, not French. Our country is a Kingdom, not a Republic. Elizabeth is my Queen, the Queen of Québec and of Canada. I am proud to be British. I am proud of my great-grand-father who was so versed in British Criminal Law. I am proud to speak English as well as French. I am proud of both my grand-fathers who pleaded all the way to the Privy Council. I am very pleased that this same Privy Council accepted Québec’s interpretation of the BNA Act.
I arrived at Oxford a separatist (3). While in Oxford, far from all the brouhaha, I was able to see that one can be at the same time a “Québécois” and a “Canadien”, and also “British”: that these are my roots. They define who I am. And so I now understand that I am a British Canadien Québécois...
I am not British out of sentimentality for a long gone past; I am British because of my family’ antecedents, because of the history of my country, because of its institutions, because of my people’s ways of thinking. It is a question of being defined by one’s roots. Of course, most would not agree with me, but facts are facts while opinions are just that.
Of course, there is much more than that in my particular case. While in Oxford, I met a Bodlean Library Clerk, an ex-student of St Anne’s College with an Oxford B.A. in English Litterature. We married in Oxford one year after my going down, with the Warden of Rhodes House among the guests. She has been my better half ever since. (4) We have three boys all brought up in English thanks to Bill 101.
So because of my scholarship I became part of an English Family, enjoying the alas! too short company of my English uncles and aunts as well as of my two brothers-in-law and my nieces. My mother-in-law stayed with us in Montréal for extended periods to my great pleasure. I suppose that on this point at least, the Founder might had been pleased with me...
Of course, Oxford provided much more. Being naturally interested in most things, I was able to exchange on every subject under the sun with many students in College. I was able to take advantage of the proximity to London to take in some marvelous concerts. (5) I was able to take advantage of College Evensong to get some knowledge of Anglicanism and of the Liturgy of Hours which were both unknown to me. I took part in the Oxford Christian Union meetings at College, which I found very interesting. I was able to go to daily Mass at the Roman Catholic Chaplaincy. I was able to hear high caliber sermons and talks, both there and at Blackfriars. I was able to meet many clerics who later wrote some books I read with great interest, like Geoffrey Preston, O.P., Simon Tugwell, O.P., Michael Hollings, and John Austin Baker, Corpus’ Chaplain – the one book I read twice. With Father Simon Tugwell and others, I shared the experience of Pentecostalism at Denton, a hamlet not too far from Oxford.
All these people and events were very influencial in my life from then onwards. Not that I suddenly became more interested in my religion: I had been rather devout from my youth.
Another thing that I really enjoyed were walks in Christ Church Meadow, usually discussing a topic or another with friends.
A thing I unfortunately missed on was one I really was looking forward to: row for my College. I started practicing at the beginning of Michaelmas, but some choices precluded my continuing. I must say that this was no loss to the College: I was rather bad at it.
There is definitely something mystical about Oxford. I do not know quite how to define it, but its memories are for ever present in my mind and in my heart, and my experience of its reality has fashioned me for ever. Not that going back there would recapture the experience as one cannot relive the past.The stones, the spires, the buildings may be the same, but my Oxford is long gone.
When I arrived at Oxford, I was dismayed to find out that before starting a D. Phil. in Plasma Physics, I first had to take a Diploma in the Science and Application of Electric Plasmas, a course having three terms of lectures with examinations at Schools and a little research thesis. This I found a stumbling block for two reasons: I thought I had finished with lectures and so was mentally unprepared to sit through these; and I wondered how I could produce a D. Phil thesis in the little time left.
I also had to make a choice concerning the research to be undertaken for the Diploma. It was understood that this could be a first step in a D. Phil. Thesis, so I took it as such. Among the possible topics, some meant doing experimental work at the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Plasma Physics Laboratory at Culham, about ten miles from Oxford. This meant working in one of the world’s best laboratories on the subject, one that was also undertaking work on plasma fusion, the subject I was hoping to work on after my thesis.
So I decided to do experimental work at Culham on the Nimbus Apparatus under construction there. Its aim was first to replicate some newly published results, and then follow up with a more detailed analysis of this newly discovered effect. This project had the backing of the Authority and of my Supervisor at Oxford.
Of course, doing experimental work at Culham came with big drawbacks as the only way to get there without a car was to get on the Authority’s buses. That meant having fixed hours of the day when I would not be at Oxford, first a few days a week, and then l ater, everyday of the work week, from early in the morning to about 5 p.m. On the other hand, there was very little there to distract me from doing the work, which was a good thing. But that made rowing impossible.
I do think I learned quite a few things working at Culham. I enjoyed learning how to make parts under the guidance of the technicians there. I was happy to work with qualified people who knew what they were doing. I was happy talking to them at tea time. But unfortunately I was quite content to follow orders, and just get the work done. Which meant that I did not question the stated aim of the experiment.
I also found some rather interesting things about the pervading culture of the scientific community. As it became apparent that we could not replicate the experimental results that had been published, I suggested we write to the authors of the published work to find out why that was. This, I was told, is just not done. Nor was publishing that their work could not be replicated. (6)
The experimental apparatus was then modified to try to produce shock waves in small magnetic fields to no avail. So the entire work brought no new discovery or interesting data
Of course, this meant writing a D. Phil. thesis all the more difficult. I produced something in time and under the direction of my Supervisor. (7) I must say that the Chapter he most insisted upon was deemed useless by the examiners, who considered the thesis unsatisfactory but gave me a chance to do some rewrite.
This I did one back in Montréal. It took me all the allowed time to do so as I discovered more and more what I took as errors in my thesis. And so it was a complete rewrite that I submitted. Of course, this was much later than the examiners had hoped for. But I was then married and working full-time. What developped during this time is a sharp esprit critique: I discovered that there were at least three scientific papers whose conclusions to me were false and I said so in my thesis. (8)
So the examiners decided rightly that as 1) there was no positive contribution to the field and 2) my knowledge of Physics in general was nothing to write home about, a D. Phil. could not be granted. On the other hand, the work provided made for a decent M. Sc. Research, which I was awarded. I must state categorically that I consider the examiners’ decision totally fair and just.
Now from all this I learned not to trust the judgment of others but to examine the facts for myself, and to reason on them by myself. This was a very great and wonderful lesson. (9) Whether I would have learned it under other circomstances, I cannot tell. But I learned it through my scholarship at Oxford.
I was also very pleased to see that the examiners, with definite standards to uphold, made sure they were kept. I salute their honesty.
I also learned in Oxford how superficial my knowledge of Physics was, how little I really understood it. So I spent the rest of my life trying to improve it, with limited success I must say, but not from a lack of trying.
II. What I Made of My Scholarship
This being said, I must know examine what the experience of my time at Oxford has meant to others, what I did with that wonderful experience.
The Christmas of my second year, I had gone home and took a look at many Research Centers. I was not impressed by those in Québec. They had nice carpets, but their equipment was not as good as Culham’s. I also visited my old Dean of Study at Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf, who offered me a job teaching physics there.
When I came back from Oxford without a D. Phil. in my pocket, I was under no illusion about getting it through a rewrite: I considered my chances poor at best. But I was going to give it a try.
As I had already decided I wanted to marry the girl I had met in Oxford, I needed a paying job. So I decided to take the offer to teach at Brébeuf, at least for the time being. But as I settled down in this job, I found it to be a vocation. I enjoyed teaching, and I enjoyed my subject. I tried to get a better grasp of the subject, and this came with time.
I was able to refer to things I had learned at Culham. Having been part of the Engineering Department at Oxford, I insisted as much as possible on the concrete aspect of Physics, its Engineering side. This meant for instance teaching the use of alternative current, of transmission lines, step-up and step-down transformers, rather than stopping with direct current. (10)
Physics here is normally taught here as a set of Laws that seemed to have come down from Heaven and that, through mathematical manipulations, can bring some solution to problems given at the end of each Chapter. Physics is basically seen as applied Mathematics (11) rather than what I took it to be, an Experimental Science. After all, it was experimental, not theoritical work, that I had done at Oxford.
In England, textbooks insist on the discoverers, often of British origin, and the equipment that permitted them to find such a Law or Effect. This was a very different approach, a more complete, a more human one, where apparatus and experimentalist take a real importance. This approach I followed as much as I could.
Of course all these idiosyncraties meant that I had to write my own textbooks. I would revise the one just used at the end of each term, to take into account the questions asked and so improve the text. I ended up writing three different textbooks on the subject of Electricity and three on the subject of Optics and Modern Physics, the two subjects I ended up specializing in during my years as a teacher at Brébeuf.
Their third versions were the most daring: I decided to introduce the subjects from a completely historical standpoint, describing every experiment and every apparatus used to bring about this or that discovery. (12) This was the culmination of my understanding of these subjects. (13) I think that I finally produced a text which showed a real grasp of the subject I had been teaching for so long. I managed to set down in writing all the insights I had painstakingly worked out.
On the other hand, these books were my undoing. Writing them on my own spare time was extra work for me. And teaching and insisting on things that my students considered extra as the other teachers were not doing so became harder and harder. Furthermore, students were less and less willing to put in the effort required as the standards were going down everywhere in Québec. All this meant that teaching, which had been something I really enjoyed, became more and more a burden.
I was teaching in a place where I had been a student a long time before. I had a strong attachment to the place, to its past, to its former standards. But the standards I had lived through were now totally gone. This I could accept only so far. To me, at least some lower standards had to be maintained, and when it became clear these could not be met, I gave up: I was clinically depressed for a whole year, and the end of which, considered fit to go back, I retired. I have never set foot in that place since I became ill, and just thinking about going back makes me sick in the stomach.
For me teaching meant teaching something useful. It also meant trying to show how to make sense of things. It meant putting the discoveries within their context, it meant showing why this or that discovery could not have taken place before, as the technology was not available. I was, I think, an enthousiastic teacher. And I wanted to transmit my love for Physics, for Engineering.
In Québec, classes are of roughly thirty students; sometimes we would get five over that. Rarely would we have twenty five or less. So with such size classes, teams of three or four were constituted for lab work.
As I have said already, teaching also meant keeping some standards. For me, being demanding of my students made sense only if I was demanding of myself. I made sure that tests and homeworks were corrected and a solution sheet was provided by the next class.
To me, this meant that all the calculations given in the lab reports had to be checked for accuracy. As we became able to introduce computers, I was able to devise programs that would take in the student data, perform all the calculations they were to do so that I could then check their calculations more easily, and also evaluate the data collected to see if they were accurate or not, according to the error margins I considered acceptable and according to those the students had evaluated. This way, the students as well as I were judging the accuracy of their experimental results. I checked that every student in a team could perform the basic manipulation, that these were not basically left to just one in each team. I also provided detail evaluation sheets for the lab reports themselves. (14)
In a way I was the odd one out in the Physics Department. This is why I always insisted on the teacher’s freedom to do things his/her way as long as the subject was correctly and completely covered. Freedom is a two way street. For me to do as I thought best, I had to let others do as they thought best.
All this did not mean that I was isolated in my department. I was Departmental Chair a few times and even Chair of the International Baccalaureate (15) Teachers’ Group. I quite enjoyed doing this work up to close to the end of my teaching, when things were getting more and more difficult for me.
Since I have resigned my job, I have been involved in quite a few things. The results of my research, either the one in Physics I did while working, or the ones I did on my family’s roots and the personal history of some of its members, I put on line so as to make this available to all. (16) I also transcribed or copied material that was out of print or difficult to find.
I ended up being somewhat of an “activist” in some rather unconnected fields: dog parks, gay civil marriage, the use of communion as a political weapon, etc. All my writings in theology and other subjects are available online. (17)
Again, I believe strongly that writings should stand by themselves. If they are worth reading, people will eventually find them and they will become known by word of mouth or the equivalent. I do not write for a living. I write first to try to get a real grasp on a subject, to try to express clearly some ideas I consider worthwile. Once I have written something I am satisfied with, I offer it to others. What they do with it is their problem. But this attitude towards my writings and thoughts is not something I think I got at Oxford...
So did I let the side down? I spent a great part of my life in what I consider the service of others: trying to instill in them hard work, the importance of telling the truth, of understanding Physics. I was well considered by my Deans of Study, and by my students. I told my students about Oxford, about England, about life. My opinions I did not hide. What came of it all is not for me to evaluate.
I have tried to be truthful, honest. I have tried to be of service. And I am trying still. Whether this would satisfy the Founder I do not know and, quite honestly, I do not care: the past cannot be changed, and there is no point about crying over spilt milk.
I for myself am glad to have gone to Oxford. I am proud to be a Rhodes Scholar. I am proud of my teaching. I am proud of my writings. I do not really care what others think of the ways I spent my time, like copying essays that my aunt wrote long time ago, essays whose value is definitely questionable: she wrote them; and there she expressed a small part of her. Just like the carpenter who helped build to this or that old building, she contributed in her own way to my people’s and my family’s history and so, I salute her by making her thoughts available.
From Physics I have moved to the History of Physics, and from there, to History itself. I was not trained in these other fields nor in theology. But I learned how to think, how to question, how to express my thoughts. And did, at least in part, I learned at Oxford thanks to the Founder. To him I will be eternally grateful.