A Lecture on Lectures: a study

The Central Theme

Anyone approaching A Lecture On Lectures with modest knowledge of Q will assume the material it contains to be lofty, worthy and dull, the standard product of a literary patrician jousting at university windmills with the lance of received opinion. Some will have their apprehensions swiftly confirmed: so many names, known and obscure, so many references, even more obscure, so many obscure quotations, one of inordinate length and from an unnamed and completely obscure German professor.

Q, however, was no Don Quixote jousting at academic fantasies, although he loved the character and based Sir John Constantine, in the novel of that name, partly upon him. A Lecture On Lectures is no satire, other than where it is intended to be, but a well directed attack. It employs an approach perfected by John Henry Newman of using feints and sidesteps to mask the fatal lunge. The danger for the inattentive reader or listener is in being too dazzled by the swordplay to perceive the final thrust. The danger is magnified for the modern reader in that the feints employ classical and literary allusions no longer in common use. Yet the target of Q's attack is all too contemporary. What was a cloud on the horizon no bigger than a man's hand has today grown to virtually cover the sky, and with deleterious consequences.

What Q saw and feared was a tendency in post-war university education, and first identified by the philosopher Henry Sidgwick as far back as 1890, for students to see learning as the absorption of information, often improperly understood, through passive attendance at lectures; and for lecturers to pander to this tendency by delivering ever more of them. The good lecturer (of which Q was one) seduced his student audience, while the bad destroyed it with tedium. All too often the best academics were the worst lecturers, and vice versa, resulting in an inversion of quality; while the student saw passive attendance as the main avenue to progress; with the result that lectures tended to be but academic water flowing through a pipe, leaving little but sediment in the listener's mind.

While Q, in 1927, was centring his attack on passive learning at the university level, the contemporary reader will quickly see its relevance to the schooling system of today and the 'exam-cram' or modern 'exam-factory' institutions; where children are enclosed in intellectual cages from which they may not stray and force fed with academic opinions from which they may not dissent. At regular intervals they are tested to ensure conformity, with the original and dissenting declared as failures. The passive attendance at lectures which Q observed has become passive learning throughout the educational system.

In many of his writings, whatever the apparent subject, Q is endeavouring to explore the basic nature of the child and the child's relationship to learning, how learning is best developed through adolescence and the place of the educated adult in democratic society. Q draws a clear line through the rationality of the universe to an 'explore and investigate' method of teaching, otherwise known as liberal education, and to stable liberal democracy based on rational discussion and rational decision. Today we see that line of argument under threat at every level; yet only Q gets us to the roots of our present malaise.


A Lecture On Lectures was published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf at The Hogarth Press, in 1927, as the introductory volume of the Hogarth Lectures on Literature Series. Three other volumes immediately followed, with four following later. The publication gives the impression of having been based on a lecture given by Q in 1926. In Section VIII, Q reveals problems with his sight which he was hoping to have solved. This occurred in 1926, with 1927 as the year of improvement.

In 1926 Q was 63 years old, having been Professor of English Literature at Cambridge since 1912. In those 14 years he had two major successes. Firstly, in having guided the new department through the war years and accommodated its rapid expansion after the peace. Secondly, in having established the English Tripos in the face of considerable opposition. The first exams took place in 1919. Then in preparing the ground for the Tripos to be divided into two parts, which was effected in 1928, with 140 to 150 students annually involved. Maybe there was a third, the outstanding success of his lectures, not only with his own students, but with students from the female colleges of Girton and Newnham – colleges Henry Sidgwick had originally supported. Q's contribution to equality of education must never be overlooked, even if he has been regularly satirised for beginning his lectures with 'Gentlemen'.

1927 not only saw the publication of A Lecture On Lectures, looking at university education, but also the Cornwall Education Week Handbook, a celebration of primary and secondary education, with the preface by Q, chairman of the Cornwall Education Committee. 1927 was the 25th anniversary of the Committee following its establishment after the passing of the Balfour Education Act in 1902. In the preface Q wanted to 'expose the fallacy of immediate results in the market place', education being a process of 'awakening and enlightening', the releasing of a child's instinct to learn through exploration and experimentation. Q saw happy, motivated children as the product of this – a far cry from the crisis in mental health resulting from modern educational methods.

This study of A Lecture On Lectures is based on a first edition of the text, dated to 1927. Inside the cover is written:

                        F. Brittain

                          Jesus College



This must have been a book Q gave to his friend and later biographer Freddie Brittain. On the next page is written:


Arthur Quiller-Couch

            Jesus College               Nov. 21st 1933


A Lecture On Lectures was the first of eight volumes edited by George Rylands and Leonard Woolf and published by Leonard and Virginia Woolf at The Hogarth Press. Q's work consisted of 48 pages divided into twelve sections of varying length. The text would have taken just under an hour to deliver orally. Why Q was chosen for the introductory volume is not stated.

Q as Lecturer

Brittain has much to say of Q as a lecturer at Cambridge in his biography of 1947 (p. 60). Firstly, he claims Q to have initially been 'a shy man and not having lectured for a quarter of a century'. Maybe this enables us to understand the quotation Q trawls up from a criticism of his inaugural lecture in 1912, that his voice was 'harsh and immelodious'. In the over-crowded lecture theatre at the Arts School, before the Vice-Chancellor and other dignitaries, he was suffering from nerves. It rarely happened again. Before a major speech Lloyd George was invariably soaked in sweat, something true of various preachers. Q was frequently nervous but not over nervous.

Brittain seems unaware of Q as having been one of the best prepared speakers to be elected to a professorship. This shows how private a man Q was, even with his closest associates. For 25 years Q had addressed audiences, friendly and hostile, on Liberal politics, Boer War pacifism, education and mercantile concerns. A perusal of old Cornish newspapers shows his name appearing time and time again, either as a speaker or a fearless letter writer. And he came from a family of speakers. His grandfather, Dr Jonathan Couch, spoke regularly on scientific and religious issues. The published scientific lectures of Dr Richard Quiller Couch, Q's uncle, can be found in various journals.

Lloyd George prepared his speeches down to the finest detail. The Welsh preacher, Evan Roberts, who Lloyd George knew personally, spoke extempore, as the spirit moved, and when the spirit ceased to move he never preached again. J.H. Newman spoke from a prepared text, barely raising his eyes from it. Wesley invariably spoke extempore, but without inner prompting, and wrote his sermons up afterwards. Asquith frequently attended sermons to study technique and was at one time the finest speaker in the House of Commons. Q spoke from a prepared text, but a text that carried his own speech rhythms, thus giving the impression of lecturing extempore, with the audience feeling they were being spoken to rather than lectured. Q's magic was in the relationship he had with his audience, which can never really come across from the reading of the text. Q's written lectures have to be read and reread before they begin to give up their secrets.

Q might well have been nervous at his inaugural lecture in 1912, because so much was expected and the post had only recently been created. There were even imputations at the time of a political appointment, fears of a political radical and criticisms of a lack of academic qualifications. Brittain describes Q's subsequent lectures (VIII, 101-2) as attracting and continuing to attract 'big crowds', even to the point of them being satirised in the Old Cambridge Magazine. After the war Q received 'many pressing invitations to lecture away from Cambridge' (VIII, 104). His overtly political lecture on Byron was delivered at the University College of Nottingham in 1918. Part of the reason for his continuing popularity, as can be seen from the lectures on Byron and Shelley, was his ability of making them relevant and challenging. At times he showed a fearlessness deserving of respect. In this he was probably assisted by having an income from his published works which made him independent of establishment opinion. At Cambridge Q possessed a unique authority.

The Introductory Quotations 

A Lecture On Lectures opens, rather perversely, with two lengthy quotations from Augustine Birrell's edition of James Boswell's Life of Johnson. In the index to R.W. Chapman's Life of Johnson,revised by J.D. Fleeman for The World's Classic series of 1980, there are two index references to 'lectures'. Johnson gave a somewhat negative opinion in February 1766 (p. 356) and a second negative opinion on Sunday, April 15, 1781 (p. 1137). There are slight differences between Birrell and Chapman. Johnson experienced lectures when he entered Pembroke College, Oxford, in 1728. He actually appears to have attended more than he claimed. On financial grounds he left without a degree in 1731. 

Johnson's Quotations in a Wider Context

It is interesting to put Johnson's quotations into a wider context. Between 1766 and 1781, Q's great great grandfather, John Quiller, although illiterate and signing his name with a cross, built up a considerable seafaring business in smuggling, privateering and legitimate trading from the Cornish coastal port of Polperro. 1781 proved to be a profitable year. While on a smuggling trip to Lisbon, the Swallow, part owned by John Quiller and Zephaniah Job, a character appearing in a number of Q's stories, captured the French merchantman La Rusee, laden with military stores bound for the rebel colonists in America. John Quiller would have approved of Johnson's definition, as found in his famous dictionary, of Excise as 'A hateful tax levied upon commodities and adjudged not by the common judges of property, but wretches hired by those to whom Excise is paid'. The Quillers might have lived in a narrower intellectual world than Johnson, but a much wider one in other respects. In being a lifelong Liberal freetrader, Q was doing no more than follow a family tradition, one stretching back to the 18th century.

Analysis of the Argument

In Johnson's conversation of 1781, recorded by Boswell, lectures are presented as being inferior to book work because the details of a lecture cannot be checked or even accurately recalled. Q must have realised that the complexity of some of his lectures gave credence to the point. He lightens the moment by quoting Birrell's footnote to a negative statement  by Johnson: 'Lecturers are very fond of this quotation – but they go on lecturing.' However, Q makes the riposte that it is Johnson's spoken not written work, his conversation recorded by Boswell, that we remember. He supports this emphasis on the oral by pointing to Socrates and Jesus, neither of whom appear to have written anything.

In Section II of the printed lecture Q endeavours to confront the central question of lectures or books. As with Newman, Q liked to confront and challenge an opponent's argument at its most convincing, sometimes improving on its actual presentation. Reason is always the foundation of his task and he wanted his opponent to speak – and not be shouted down as so often today, particularly on university campuses.

Q considered one of the most effective attacks on lecturing to have been Henry Sidgwick's Lecture against Lecturing, which appeared in printed form in the New Review of May 1890. Henry Sidgwick (1839–1900) was a Cambridge philosopher who advocated women's rights, university admission through examinations and the provision of lectures for women.

Sidgwick regarded lectures for 'the elite of academic students' as 'an antiquated survival; a relic of the times before the printing-press was invented; maintained partly by the mere conservatism of habit and prestige of ancient tradition, partly by the difficulty – which I quite admit – of finding a right substitute for it'. Sidgwick continues with the problem of those who have 'never acquired a thorough mastery of the art of reading books' – a problem growing ever more acute today.

Q must have relished the opportunity of crossing swords with a writer as accomplished as himself; and one whose spoken voice is so palpable. Q counters Sidgwick's argument by pointing out its inherent elitism, in that it applies to 'the elite of academic students' and not to those who require, Sidgwick maintains, 'compulsion … since it is difficult to find amusement during a lecture which will distract one's attention completely from the lecturer...'. The accusation of 'elitism' was probably more evident in 1927, following the Balfour Education Act of 1902 and the Fisher Education Act of 1918, than it had been in 1890 when Sidgwick was writing. However, it enabled Q to play the democratic card, virtually a trump.

In Section IV, Q temporarily leaves Sidgwick while making some concession to the substance of his case. Q acknowledges that a reader, unlike an attender of a lecture, can work at a personal pace, with back-referencing possible. Reading also facilitates 'visualising' – clearly suggesting that Q's encyclopedic knowledge of texts was the product of what we now call the photographic memory.

At this point Q begins to marshall the case for the defence by pointing to a distinguished line of lecturers beginning with Parmenides who lived in the 5th century BC. Even in Europe's darkest years there were students who sought lectures and lecturers prepared to deliver them. Thanks to works such as The Rise of Western Christendom (1995) by Peter Brown, we now see the Dark Ages as less dark than previously thought. The point Q is making illustrates another of his educational ideas: the young have an instinct to learn unless suffocated by oppressive circumstances, an instinct grounded in the very rationality of the universe itself.

Section V develops the case that lectures continued to be valued even when books became more available. In Q's young day lectures became widely available outside of universities thanks to such bodies as the Workers' Educational Association. He then explores some of the advantages of the lecture in a section that looks directly back to Chapter XII of his novel Shining Ferry, where the new board school is being opened. Q lifts some of the words and phrases from the first paragraph of the chapter. Nothing shows more clearly the inter-relatedness of Q's fictional and non-fictional works. Section V concludes with Hazlitt's account of having listened to Coleridge's preaching '...for there was a spirit of hope and youth in all nature that turned everything into good'.

Section VI is the least satisfactory as it renews the altercation with Sidgwick in a somewhat confused way.

Q analyses a lecture into its component parts:

use - public or university according to intention;

intention  - to direct, enthuse or inform;

subject  - various;

method  - as appropriate to subject.

We learn that in his Lecture Against Lecturing Sidgwick rules out discussion of dialectical lectures, exhibitory lectures, presumably such as those given by Sir Humphry Davy at the Royal Institution, and lectures on art and literature. This leaves expository lectures, explained as 'to impart instruction by reading or saying a series of words that might be written or printed', illustrated with a lengthy account given by Sidgwick of his first experience of a lecture, which was in Germany and by a German professor of philosophy. The relevance of this to the central argument of A Lecture on Lectures is difficult to discern.

However, we appear to return to more solid ground with Q's explanation of the expository lecture. He sees the expository lecture as the original form of tutoring before the development of the collegiate tutorial system at Oxford and Cambridge. He believed the tutorial system, peculiar to Oxford and Cambridge, to be the highest form of instruction, although being endangered by Commissions. Q then explores his early experience of tutorials, with reference to Memories and Opinions Chapter IV, Section II, those given by Franklin Richards.

Section VIII of A Lecture On Lectures centres itself on the expository or class lecture for which he now claims to be making a defence against the attacks of Johnson and Sidgwick. Curiously, he commences his defence by deploring the number of such lectures and the avidity with which they are attended – no one was more guilty than Q of attracting large audiences! He regarded students as having neglected reading and the practice of writing. The introduction of the Faculty System into Cambridge enables students to attend up to 20 lectures a week, resulting in the lecturers' ideas taking precedence over those of the student and leading to intellectual slackness. Attendance at lectures has become a vice parading as a virtue.

Intellectual slackness in the student is paralleled by intellectual dissipation in the lecturer, as ever more lectures are demanded to the detriment of research. At this point Q makes a rare personal interjection, saying how indebted he is to Cambridge for accommodating his eye trouble, which happened at its worst in 1926. He then returns to his argument by claiming to be speaking in defence of professors of the highest quality, and who are presumably dependent upon their university salaries, which Q was not, who are having to sacrifice quality for quantity. The multitude of demands on professors in post-war Cambridge are self-defeating. Present professors will sympathise, as far more is demanded of them than of professors in 1927. Q's point is more relevant today than ever before. It is noticeable that many of the best books and articles written today are the product of those outside of the university system.

At this point he demands of his audience to know whether their increasing attendance at lectures does them any good. This is typical Q wit because it includes the lecture the students are presently attending. He then attacks the Union Society for preferring passive listening to the politicians of the day, some of whom Q would have had a low opinion of, to actively debating the issues themselves. There is nothing like attacking your audience!

In Section IX, Q gets his retaliation in first by replying to the criticism of the number of lectures in the English Tripos he established. His reply is that as the English examination offers a wide range of subjects for questioning, desiring to know what the student actually knows rather than what is not known, students can choose which lectures to attend and which not to attend.

After the cut and thrust of debate Q now comes to the central point of the lecture, the real purpose of university education in general and the English Tripos in particular. The purpose is not simply to impart information to passive listeners but to encourage original and independent thinking. Independent thinking is not a licence to anarchy, but the mastery of one's own mind. The end is not wealth, power or privilege but service to the community. This is supported by reference to the four Platonic virtues: Justice, Wisdom, Manliness and the untranslatable but important 'Sophrosyne'.  Q endeavours to explain the meaning of 'Sophrosyne' at considerable length.

This continues in Section X. Q emphasises that the best lecturers are not necessarily the most appropriate, Plotinus choosing Ammonius Saccus before more distinguished teachers in the third century. Ammonius Saccus and Plotinus refused to commit their lectures to writing, preferring oral communication. Nor would they permit interruption. Yet the aim was to produce men of independence and responsibility. It differed from the 'commercial, oligarchial spirit of Corinth'; what today goes for getting a good education as the gateway to a good and highly paid job. It is the training of mind and character.

In Section XI, Q emphasis the need for a truly educated person to be one who listens to an argument with 'discreet self-control' so as to judge its worth and to 'expose one that is false or flimsy, thereby showing themselves to be lovers of truth'. The lecturer should restrict the performance to under an hour, with discussion to follow in a private place. In the last short section, number XII, Q identifies this way as the 'Platonic method of dialectic', which he has proved, at least to himself, as better than any other. It 'opens the minds' of students and invites their questioning, being good therefore for students and lecturers. Good books and good lectures 'conspire for a decent world'. The converse also being true!


A Lecture On Lectures is interesting to the student of Q for at least two reasons. Firstly, it provides insight into the problems Q was having with his eyes in 1926. Brittain (1947, pp. 115-18) informs us of the commencement of the problem in 1917. This encouraged Q to engage Miss Winifred Hutchinson, a Cambridge resident and a graduate of Newnham College, for secretarial work. Presumably at Fowey his daughter Foy acted as secretary. By 1924 this problem had intensified, with print being indecipherable.  Miss Hutchinson had to take on much of the responsibility for the final preparation of The Oxford Book of English Prose.

As glasses failed to correct the condition focus could not have been the problem. It was possibly psychosomatic. The period from 1917 to 1926 included the darkest months of the war, the death of his son Bevil, the disintegration of the Liberal Party and the General Strike. Maybe Q tried to push all this to the back of his mind by overworking. For no obvious reason, a steady recovery took place towards the end of 1926, with the publication of A Lecture On Lectures heralding the return of clear sight.

In 1926, Q had been a professor, with an impressive record, for 14 years. The support of the authorities at Cambridge during the most difficult years, 1924 to 1926, gave the university 18 more. Q recognised his debt to Miss Winifred Hutchinson, who no doubt provided professional and moral support. From 1927 until his death in 1944, Q had good sight. The mention of a personal problem in A Lecture On Lectures is an unusual development, indicating how problematic it was for him.

Secondly, A Lecture On Lectures is not simply about the narrow subject of lecturing. It provides an insight into Q's wider thinking about education, encompassing primary, secondary and university education. That Q ended each university term at the earliest opportunity and returned at the last possible moment was not to extend his period of leisure, but to attend to educational matters as a member of the Cornwall Education Committee. From delivering his last lecture at Cambridge he was possibly moving to a school inspection in the middle of Bodmin Moor or on the granite coast of West Penwith. Q refused to see the purpose of education as simply to provide better workers for business and industry, but to provide a foundation for democratic society in a Europe increasingly threatened by communism and fascism.

Q believed liberal democracy to be based on a liberal education system where students actively engaged in their own education, not one where passive listeners absorbed information provided by the superior wisdom of lecturers, becoming no more than clones. The job of the school was to provide the foundations in English and mathematics for reasoning and exploration and for independent and responsible thinking. As the universe is ordered and regular, not the product of a gigantic roulette wheel, human instinct drives the child to learn through rational means. Q therefore saw a direct connection between an ordered universe, a liberal education system and liberal democracy. A Lecture On Lectures is an attack upon a tendency he observed in post-war Cambridge of passivity in learning and the absorption of information which in schools today has expanded into exam-cramming and in universities into an over-reliance on the wisdom of the lecturer.


Bibliography: A Lecture on Lectures

Life of Johnson.

Boswell, J., Birrell, A. (ed.)
Life of Johnson.

Life of Johnson.

Boswell, J., Chapman, W. (ed.), Fleeman,J.D. (rvsd.)
Life of Johnson.
Oxford University Press.