G H Hardy and the Mathematical Tripos
In 1926 G H Hardy delivered his Presidential Address to the Mathematical Association on The Case Against the Mathematical Tripos. We give below a version of Hardy's address.
THE CASE AGAINST THE MATHEMATICAL TRIPOS
(Presidential Address to the Mathematical Association, 1926)
My address to-day is the result of an informal discussion which arose at our meeting last year after the reading of Mr Bryon Heywood's paper. You may remember that Mr Heywood put forward a number of suggestions, with whose general trend I found myself entirely in sympathy, for the improvement of the courses in higher pure mathematics in English universities. He did not criticise one university more than another; but Cambridge is admittedly the centre of English mathematics, so that it is almost inevitable that such suggestions should be considered from the Cambridge standpoint; and that, if my recollections are correct, is what actually happened in the discussion.
My own contribution to the discussion consisted merely in an expression of my feeling that the best thing that could happen to English mathematics, and to Cambridge mathematics in particular, would be that the Mathematical Tripos should be abolished. I stated this on the spur of the moment, but it is my considered opinion, and I propose to defend it at length today. And I am particularly anxious that you should understand quite clearly that I mean exactly what I say; that by "abolished" I mean "abolished", and not "reformed"; that if I were prepared to cooperate, as in fact I have cooperated in the past, in "reforming" the Tripos, it would be because I could see no chance of any more revolutionary change; and that my "reforms" would be directed deliberately towards destroying the traditions of the examination and so preparing the way for its extinction.
There are, however, certain possible grounds of misunderstanding which I wish to remove before I attempt to justify my view in detail. The first of these is unimportant and personal, but probably I shall be wise if I refer to it and deal with it explicitly. Our proceedings here do not as a rule attract a great deal of attention, but they are occasionally noticed in the press; and the writer of a well-known column in an evening paper, who was inspired last year to comment on these particular remarks of my own, observed that it was unnecessary to take such iconoclastic proposals seriously, since Cambridge mathematicians were very unlikely to be disturbed by the criticisms of an Oxford man. Perhaps, then, I had better begin by stating that the Mathematical Tripos is an institution of which I have an extensive and intimate knowledge. It is true that I have not taken any part in it during the last six years; but I was a candidate in both parts of it, I took my degree on it, I have examined in it repeatedly under both the old regulations and the new, and, when the old order of merit was abolished in 1910, I was a secretary of the committee which forced this and other changes through a reluctant Senate. I am not then a mere jealous outsider, itching to destroy an institution which I cannot comprehend, but a critic perfectly competent to express an opinion on a subject which I happen to know unusually well.
The second possible misapprehension which I am anxious to remove is decidedly more important. It is possible that some of you may have come here expecting me to deliver a general denunciation of examinations; and if so I am afraid that I shall disappoint you. Denunciation of examinations, like denunciation of lectures, is very popular now among educational reformers, and I wish to say at once that most of what they say, on the one topic and on the other, appears to me to be little better than nonsense. I judge such denunciations, naturally, as a mathematician; and it has always seemed to me that mathematics among all subjects is, up to a point, the subject most obviously adapted to teaching by lecture and to test by examination. If I wish to teach twenty pupils, for example, the exponential theorem, the product theorem for the sine, or any of the standard theorems of analysis or geometry, it seems to me that by far the best, the simplest, and the most economical course is to assemble them in a lecture-room and explain to them collectively the essentials of the proofs. It seems to me also that, if I wish afterwards to be certain that they have understood me, the obviously sensible way of finding out is to ask them to reproduce the substance of what I said or to apply the theorems which I proved to simple examples. In short up to a point, I believe in formal lectures, and I believe also in formal examinations.
There are in fact certain traditional purposes of examinations, purposes for which they always have been used, and for which they seem to me to be the obvious and the appropriate instrument. There are certain qualities of mind which it is often necessary to test, and which can be tested by examination much more simply and more effectively than in any other way. If a teacher wishes to test his pupils' industry, for example, or their capacity to understand something he has told them, something perhaps of no high order of difficulty, but difficult enough to require some little real intelligence and patience for its appreciation, it seems to me that his most reasonable course is to subject them to some sort of examination. Examinations have been used in this manner, from time immemorial, in every civilised country; there are, in England, quite a number of large, elaborately organised, and, so far as I can judge, quite sensibly conducted examinations of this type; and with such examinations I have no sort of quarrel.
There are, however, in England, and, so far as I know, in no other country in the world, a number of examinations, of which the Mathematical Tripos at Cambridge, and Greats at Oxford, have been the outstanding examples, which are of quite another type, and which fulfil, or purport to fulfil, quite different and very much more ambitious ends. These examinations originate in Oxford and Cambridge, and are found in their full development there only, though they have been copied to a certain extent by our modern universities. They are described as "honours" examinations, and pride themselves particularly on their traditions and their "standards". To these examinations are subjected a heterogeneous mass of students of entirely disparate attainments, and the examination professes to sort out the candidates and to label them according to the grade of their abilities. Thus in the old mathematical Tripos there were three classes, each arranged in order of merit, while in the new there are three classes and two degrees of marks of special distinction. It is evident that such an examination is not content with fulfilling the ends which I have admitted that an examination can fulfil so well; it is not, and prides itself that it is not, merely a useful test of industry, intelligence, and comprehension. It purports to appraise, and it must be admitted that to some extent, though very imperfectly, it does appraise, higher gifts than these. A "b*" in the Tripos, or a first in Greats, is taken to be, and in a measure is, an indication of a man quite outside the common run. It is these examinations and these only, these examinations with reputations and standards and traditions, which seem to me mistaken in their principle and useless or damaging in their effect, and which I would destroy if I had the power. An examination can do little harm, so long as its standard is low.
I suppose that it would be generally agreed that Cambridge mathematics, during the last hundred years, has been dominated by the Mathematical Tripos in a way in which no first-rate subject in any other first-rate university has ever been dominated by an examination. It would be easy for me, were the fact disputed, to justify my assertion by a detailed account of the history of the Tripos, but this is unnecessary, since you can find an excellent account, written by a man who was very much more in sympathy with the Tripos than I am, in Mr Rouse Ball's History of Mathematics in Cambridge. I must, however, call your attention to certain rather melancholy reflections which the history of Cambridge mathematics suggests. You will understand that when I speak of mathematics I mean primarily pure mathematics, not that I think that anything which I say about pure mathematics is not to a great extent true of applied mathematics also, but merely because I do not want to criticise where my competence as a critic is doubtful.
Mathematics at Cambridge challenges criticism by the highest standards. England is a first-rate country, and there is no particular reason for supposing that the English have less natural talent for mathematics than any other race; and if there is any first-rate mathematics in England, it is in Cambridge that it may be expected to be found. We are therefore entitled to judge Cambridge mathematics by the standards that would be appropriate in Paris or Göttingen or Berlin. If we apply these standards, what are the results? I will state them, not perhaps exactly as they would have occurred to me spontaneously - though the verdict is one which, in its essentials, I find myself unable to dispute - but as they were stated to me by an outspoken foreign friend.
In the first place, about Newton there is no question; it is granted that he stands with Archimedes or with Gauss. Since Newton, England has produced no mathematician of the very highest rank. There have been English mathematicians, for example Cayley, who stood well in the front rank of the mathematicians of their time, but their number has been quite extraordinarily small; where France or Germany produces twenty or thirty, England produces two or three. There has been no country, of first-rate status and high intellectual tradition, whose standard has been so low; and no first-rate subject, except music, in which England has occupied so consistently humiliating a position. And what have been the peculiar characteristics of such English mathematics as there has been? Occasional flashes of insight, isolated achievements sufficient to show that the ability is really there, but, for the most part, amateurism, ignorance, incompetence, and triviality. It is indeed a rather cruel judgment, but it is one which any competent critic, surveying the evidence dispassionately, will find it uncommonly difficult to dispute.
I hope that you will understand that I do not necessarily endorse my friend's judgment in every particular. He was a mathematician whose competence nobody could question, and whom nobody could accuse of any prejudice against England, Englishmen, or English mathematicians; but he was also, of course, a man developing a thesis, and he may have exaggerated a little in the enthusiasm of the moment or from curiosity to see how I should reply. Let us assume that it is an exaggerated judgment, or one rhetorically expressed. It is, at any rate, not a ridiculous judgment, and it is serious enough that such a condemnation, from any competent critic, should not be ridiculous. It is inevitable that we should ask whether, if such a judgment can really embody any sort of approximation to the truth, some share of the responsibility must not be laid on the Mathematical Tripos and the grip which it has admittedly exerted on English mathematics.
I am anxious not to fall into exaggeration in my turn and use extravagant language about the damage which the Tripos may have done, and it would no doubt be an extravagance to suggest that the most ruthless of examinations could destroy a whole side of the intellectual life of a nation. On the other hand it is really rather difficult to exaggerate the hold which the Tripos has exercised on Cambridge mathematical life, and the most cursory survey of the history of Cambridge mathematics makes one thing quite clear; the reputation of the Tripos, and the reputation of Cambridge mathematics stand in correlation with one another, and the correlation is large and negative. As one has developed, so has the other declined. As, through the early and middle nineteenth century, the traditions of the Tripos strengthened, and its importance in the eyes of the public grew greater and greater, so did the external reputation of Cambridge as a centre of mathematical learning steadily decay. When, in the years perhaps between 1880 and 1890, the Tripos stood, in difficulty, complexity, and notoriety, at the zenith of its reputation, English mathematics was somewhere near its lowest ebb. If, during the last forty years, there has been an obvious revival, the fortunes of the Tripos have experienced an equally obvious decline.
Perhaps you will excuse me if I interpolate here a few words concerning my own experience of the Tripos, which may be useful as a definite illustration of part of what I have said. I took the first part of the Tripos in 1898 and the second in 1900: you must remember that it was then the first part which produced wranglers and caught the public eye.
I am inclined to think that the Tripos had already passed its zenith in 1898. There had already been one unsuccessful attempt to abolish the order of merit, a reform not carried finally till 1910. When the first signs of decline might have been detected I cannot say, but the changes in the Smith's Prize examination, and the examination for Trinity Fellowships, must have been partly responsible, and these had been determined by dissertation for a considerable time. At any rate it was beginning to be recognised, by the younger dons in the larger colleges, and to some extent by undergraduates thenselves that the difference of a few places in the order of merit was without importance for a man's career. This, however, is comparatively unimportant, since it is less the examination itself than its effect on teaching in the university that I wish to speak of now.
The teaching at Cambridge when I was an undergraduate was, of course, quite good of its kind. There were certain definite problems which we were taught to solve; we could learn, for example, to calculate the potential of a nearly spherical gravitating body by the method of spherical harmonics or to find the geodesics on a surface of revolution. I do not wish to suggest that the two years which I spent over the orthodox course of instruction - my second two years were occupied in a different way - were altogether wasted. It remains true that, when I look back on those two years of intensive study, when I consider what I knew well, what I knew slightly, and of what I had never heard, and when I compare my mathematical attainments then with those of a continental student of similar abilities and age, or even with those of a Cambridge undergraduate of today, it seems to me almost incredible that anyone not destitute of ability or enthusiasm should have found it possible to take so much trouble and to learn no more. For I was indeed ignorant of the rudiments of my profession. I can remember two things only that I had learnt. Mr Herman of Trinity had taught me the elements of differential geometry, treated from the kinematical point of view; this was my most substantial acquisition, and I am grateful for it still. I had also picked up a few facts about analysis, towards the end of those two years from Prof Love. I owe, however, to Prof Love something much more valuable than anything he taught me directly, for it was he who introduced me to Jordan's Cours d'analyse, the bible of my early years; and I shall never forget the astonishment with which I read that remarkable work, to which so many mathematicians of my generation owe their mathematical education, and learnt for the first time as I read it what mathematics really meant.
It has often been said that Tripos mathematics was a collection of elaborate futilities, and the accusation is broadly true. My own opinion is that this is the inevitable result, in a mathematical examination, of high standards and traditions. The examiner is not allowed to content himself with testing the competence and the knowledge of the candidates; his instructions are to provide a test of more than that, of initiative, imagination, and even of some sort of originality. And as there is only one test of originality in mathematics, namely the accomplishment of original work, and as it is useless to ask a youth of twenty-two to perform original research under examination conditions, the examination necessarily degenerates into a kind of game, and instruction for it into initiation into a series of stunts and tricks. It was in any case certainly true, at the time of which I am speaking, that an undergraduate might study mathematics diligently throughout the whole of his career, and attain the very highest honours in the examination, without having acquired, and indeed without having encountered, any knowledge at all of any of the ideas which dominate modern mathematical thought. His ignorance of analysis would have been practically complete. About geometry I speak with less confidence, but I am sure that such knowledge as he possessed would have been exceedingly one-sided, and that there would have been whole fields of geometrical knowledge, and those perhaps the most fruitful and fascinating of all, of which he would have known absolutely nothing. A mathematical physicist, I may be told, would on the contrary have received an appropriate and an excellent education. It is possible; it would no doubt be very impertinent for me to deny it. Yet I do remember Mr Bertrand Russell telling me that he studied electricity at Trinity for three years, and that at the end of them he had never heard of Maxwell's equations; and I have also been told by friends whom I believe to be competent that Maxwell's equations are really rather important in physics. And when I think of this I begin to wonder whether the teaching of applied mathematics was really quite so perfect as I have sometimes been led to suppose.
I remember asking another friend, who was Senior Wrangler some years later, and has since earned a very high reputation by research of the most up-to-date and highbrow kind, how the Tripos impressed him in his undergraduate days, and his reply was approximately as follows. He had learnt a little about modern mathematics while he was still at school, and he understood perfectly while he was an undergraduate, as I certainly did not, that the mathematics he was studying was not quite the real thing. But, he continued, he regarded himself as playing a game. It was not exactly the game he would have chosen, but it was the game which the regulations prescribed, and it seemed to him that, if you were going to play the game at all, you might as well accept the situation and play it with all your force. He believed - and remember, if you think him arrogant, that his judgment was entirely correct - that he could play that game at least as well as any of his rivals. He therefore decided deliberately to postpone his mathematical education, and to devote two years to the acquisition of a complete mastery of all the Tripos technique, resuming his studies later with the Senior Wranglership to his credit and, he hoped, without serious prejudice to his career. I can only add - lost as I am in hopeless admiration of a young man so firmly master of his fate - that every detail of these precocious calculations has been abundantly justified by the event.
I feel, however, that I am laying myself open at this point to a challenge which I shall certainly have to meet sooner or later, and which I may as well deal with now. It will be said - I know from sad experience that such things are always said - that I am applying entirely wrong criteria to what is after all an examination for undergraduates. I shall be told that I am assuming that the principal object of the Cambridge curriculum is to increase learning and to encourage original discovery, and that this is false; that learning and research are admirable things, but that a great university must not allow itself to be overshadowed by them; and that, in short, a German professor of mathematics, however universal his reputation and profound his erudition, is not necessarily the noblest work of God. Indeed, at this point I seem to hear the voice of my opponent grow a little louder, as he points out to me that I am entirely misconceiving the function of an English university, that the universities of England are not at all intended as machines for the generation of an infinite sequence of professors, but as schools for the development of intellect and character, as training grounds of teachers, civil servants, statesmen, captains of industry, and proconsuls, in short as nurseries where every young Englishman may learn to add his quotum to the fulfilment of the destinies of an imperial race. I wish very heartily, I confess, that I was not going to be told all this, but I know very well that it is coming, for have I not heard it all a hundred times already, and did we not hear it all in 1910 from all the Justices who had been wranglers in their day?
Perhaps, however, I shall not be wasting your time entirely if I occupt a few minutes in an attempt to examine this indictment as dispassionately as I can. I find it very difficult to believe that most of the quite considerable body of quite intelligent people who continue to use this kind of language at the present day, and to turn it to the defence of our present university education, can have considered at all coolly some of the implications of what they say. On the other hand I recognise that it is a good deal easier to laugh at these people than to refute them, and that, if I were to attempt a reasoned reply to their contention, considered as a general principle to guide us in the construction of an educational system, then I should have a long and tiresome argument before me.
Fortunately, this is unnecessary. We are not now discussing educational systems generally, but the merits of a particular examination. We have not to undertake a general defence of mathematics and the position which is at present allowed to it in education, or to repel the very formidable onslaught which might be directed against it by Philistinism pure and simple. You and I and the Justices are after all agreed in wanting to see some sort of education in higher mathematics, and differ only in the kind of mathematical education which we prefer. The question is merely whether it is possible to defend the Mathematical Tripos on these lines, and we can appeal here, I think, to the method of reductio ad absurdum.
I have already put forward one test of a mathematical education, namely that it should produce mathematicians, as "mathematician" is understood by the leading mathematicians of the world; and this test, whatever its defects may be, has one merit at any rate, namely that it is clear and sharp and easily applied. It is also a test to which I suppose that everybody would agree in attaching some degree of importance, since it must be extraordinarily difficult for any English mathematician to maintain that it is of no importance whatever whether English mathematics be good or bad. The question therefore is not of the validity of the test, but only of its relative importance.
Now there is one obvious difference between my test, which I will call for shortness the professional test, and the slightly more orotund test which I have tried to state in general terms. My test has certainly this advantage, that I am testing a mathematical education as a means to one of the ends which a mathematical education may reasonably be expected to secure, and which it is hardly possible to secure in any other way. When, on the other hand, we attempt to test a training in higher mathematics, the highest such training the country offers, by its effects generally on the intelligence and character of those who submit to it, we are at once confronted with a question which is obviously more fundamental, whether intelligence and character of the type at which we aim are really developed very effectively by a training in higher mathematics. And as we are all mathematicians here, we need not indulge in humbug about it. We know quite well that the answer is No.
It is hardly likely that anybody here will accuse me of any lack of devotion to the subject which has after all been the one great permanent happiness of my life. My devotion to mathematics is indeed of the most extravagant and fanatical kind; I believe in it, and love it, and should be utterly miserable without it, and I have never doubted that, for any one who takes real pleasure in it and has a genuine talent for it, it is the finest intellectual discipline in the world. I believe also that a fair knowledge of mathematics is, even for those who have no pronounced mathematical talent, extremely useful and extremely stimulating, and that it should be part of the ordinary intellectual capital of all intelligent men. I am prepared indeed to go further, since I believe that a very large proportion of students abandon mathematics merely because it is often very badly taught, and might push their mathematical studies a good deal further than they do at present with very great profit to themselves. But I do not believe for a moment, and I do not believe that the majority of competent mathematicians believe, that the intensive study of higher mathematics, whether it be understood as it would be in a foreign university, or whether it be understood as it has in the past been understood in the Mathematical Tripos, forms a good basis of a general education. I an not al all sure that, among all possible subjects which might be selected as special courses of study, for an intelligent young man of no particular talent, mathematics is not the worst. Indeed, I think that this is being gradually recognised both by teachers of mathematics and by students themselves, and that it is for this reason that the Mathematical Tripos is more and more becoming, and rightly becoming, the special preserve of professional mathematicians. And if this be so, then surely it is quite obviously futile to judge the Tripos by anything but a professional standard.
It seems to me, then, that the opponents of the professional standard are committed from the beginning to a very paradoxical position, and yet it seems - such is the attraction of a paradox - that they are actually dissatisfied with its already sufficiently serious difficulties and determined to surround it by still more fantastic entrenchments. For they generally go on to maintain that mathematics may indeed be made the finest of intellectual disciplines, but only if it is taught in a manner which ignores or rejects every development of recent years. It will teach you to think, so long as you are not allowed to think quite correctly; it will widen your interests and stimulate your imagination, so long as you are carefully confined to problems in which mathematicians have lost interest for fifty years. In a word, the mathematics of the amateur is all right, and that precisely because it is so much more than a little wrong but if we once allow mathematics to be dominated by the professionals, that is to say by the men who live in the subject and are familiar with its vital developments, then its energy will be sapped and its educational efficacy destroyed. And of all insane paradoxes, surely, this is one of the most portentous.
I have told you already that I am not much of a believer in the general educational efficacy of a specialised mathematical training. I do not believe that it is possible to build a character or an empire on a foundation of mathematical theories; but surely it must be still more impossible to build either on a foundation of Tripos problems. If I were compelled to undertake so crazy an enterprise, I would select the true theorems rather than the false, the fundamental facts of mathematics rather than its trivial excrescences, the problems which are alive today rather than those which perished in the mid-Victorian era.
I would suggest to you, then, that, when you have next to listen to the mathematical reactionary who laments the good old days, if you doubt your competence to judge for yourself the merits of his complaints, you should apply to what he says Hume's test of the greater improbability. It does not seem very likely that the modern experts are all wrong, but it is quite possible. It is also possible that the times have really left a conservatively-minded mathematician a little bit behind; that his lectures and his textbooks have run out of date; that there is a good deal in modern mathematics which he finds it too great an effort to master; and that it gives him a good deal less trouble to abuse the modern tendencies than to repair the gaps in his own mathematical equipment. This also is, of course, extremely improbable; but you must ask yourself which is the greater improbability of the two.
I do not propose to waste further time on the discussion of this question in what more I have to say about the Tripos I shall adopt a frankly professional view. I shall judge the Tripos by its real or apparent influence on English mathematics. I have already told you that in my judgment this influence has in the past been bad, that the Tripos has done negligible good and by no means negligible harm, and that, so far from being the great glory of Cambridge mathematics, it has gone a very long way towards strangling its development. There are further questions to consider. We may ask in the first place, if it be granted that what I have said about the past is roughly true, how far have things improved? Is it not true already that the Tripos means a great deal less, and English mathematics appreciably more, than forty years ago, and is it not extremely likely that, even if there be no further radical changes, this process will continue? Then, if we are not content to answer this question by a simple affirmative and leave it there, we may ask what really are the fundamental faults of an examination on the Tripos model, and whether it is not possible to make less drastic suggestions model, and whether it is not possible to make less drastic suggestions for its improvement.
I began my address with what was to a certain extent a defence of examinations. I said that under certain conditions I believed in examinations, that is to say in examinations of a sufficiently lowly type, which do not profess to be more than a reasonable test of certain rather humdrum qualities. The phrases which I used were vague, and I ought no doubt to attempt to define my own standard a little more precisely. This is naturally not quite easy, but I will risk some sort of definition. I should say, roughly, that the qualities which I have in mind - reasonable industry, reasonable intelligence, reasonable grasp - would be about sufficient to carry a candidate, in any of the orthodox Oxford or Cambridge examinations, into a decent second class. Beyond that, I do not believe in recognising differences of ability by examination.
I said this here last year, and I was at once challenged. I was asked whatever could you do, if you could not tell the quality of a man by looking at his examination record? I wonder whether my questioner realised that these elaborate honours examinations, so far from being one of the fundamental necessities of modern civilisation, are a phenomenon almost entirely individual to Oxford and Cambridge, copied in a half-hearted fashion by other English universities, and, beyond that, having hardly a parallel in the world? Does Germany suffer from intellectual stagnation, because there are no honours examinations in her universities? Germany does not think in terms of firsts and seconds; we think in terms of them, so far as we do so think, and perhaps the practice is to some extent abating, merely because we have heard so much about them that they have become to us like bitter ale or eggs and bacon, and we have forgotten that we could get on quite happily without them.
I remember, if you will excuse my referring once more to the forgotten controversies of 1910, a curious saying of, I think, Mr Justice Romer. Mr Justice Romer circulated a flysheet to the Senate, deploring, of course, the proposal to abolish the Senior Wrangler. "What", he asked judicially, "is the function of the Tripos?", and he replied "Surely to examine and to make distinctions between young men". It would indeed be difficult to compress a larger quantity of vicious educational doctrine into a smaller number of words. The exactly opposite doctrine, that no distinctions should be made by examination except such as practical necessities may make imperative, is surely somewhere a little nearer to the truth.
Let us then consider, with the view of meeting the objection which was raised to what I said last year, whether the kind of distinctions made by the Mathematical Tripos are, in fact, of any particular practical utility. The evidence of ability provided by the Tripos is as follows. A candidate may obtain a first, second, or a third. He may obtain a mark - the "b" mark - of adequate knowledge of some special subject, or a higher mark - the "b*" mark - of special distinction in that subject. The test case for us, and the only one I have time to consider now, is the highest mark. When a candidate has attained this mark, what has he gained?
In the first place, he has gained the natural feeling of satisfaction which everyone experiences when he is adjudged to have performed a definite task at least as well as anybody else. He will feel with pleasure and pride that the world is awarding honest work, and these entirely creditable feelings may spur him on to further effort. Has he gained anything of more tangible or permanent value?
A man who can attain the highest honours in the Tripos is generally a good enough mathematician to hope for a permanent academic career. How far will his "b*" assist him along this career ? Will anyone give him a position, a fellowship or a lectureship, on the strength of it? If he thinks that, he will be very quickly disillusioned.
It is possible that there are positions, in the junior grades of the teaching staffs of certain universities, which are sometimes filled on the strength of an examination record. I have never come across such a post myself, but it is probable enough that they exist. Academic positions are usually bestowed, not on examination record, but from personal knowledge or on the strength of private recommendations from competent people. I have taken part myself in many such appointments. When applications are invited, the testimonials submitted by candidates contain statements of their academic qualifications, and often of their performance in examinations, and it would be an exaggeration to say that such records are never referred to. There are usually a fair proportion of the candidates whose qualifications seem obviously below the standard expected, and a glance at their examination records often provides useful evidence in confirmation of this view. I do not remember any case of any other kind in which such a record has played any part in the decision, or has been referred to in the discussion by any member of the board of electors.
I suppose that this is generally understood, and that candidates for such positions are not usually under any delusion about the attention paid to the records which they submit. It may, however, be urged that an examination record of high distinction might often determine the decision if the post were of a less purely academic kind, for example if it were a mastership in one of the big public schools. It may be so, but I must confess that - at any rate in the particular case which we are considering - I am uncommonly sceptical about it. In the first place, people who obtain "b*"s have usually scientific ambitions, and the last thing they want is a mastership in the most historic of public schools. It is not possible now for the richest or the most aristocratic school to obtain a really distinguished mathematician, even if it wants one, which of course in general it does not. Finally, even if the demand existed and the supply were there, the headmasters of the great public schools do not, so far as my experience has shown me, select their assistants in this way, but proceed much more in the spirit of a board of electors, though naturally in a more capricious and autocratic way.
My conclusion, then, is that the highest certificate of merit offered by the Tripos might just as well be scrapped, for all the influence it exerts on the careers of those who obtain it. I suppose, in fact, that the universities, and most of the other bodies in whose hands educational patronage is vested, have come in practice to very much the same conclusion as my own, that examinations are an admirable test of competence and industry, but ineffective and erratic as a test of any higher gift. The Government stands alone, so far as I know, in attaching a definite money value to an examination class, and even the Government stops short of rewarding the only mark which could plausibly pretend to be a mark of real distinction.
If such distinctions are in effect futile, why should we waste our time and our energies in making them, even if we were certain that they do no harm? If Einstein had taken the Mathematical Tripos, what would it matter what place he took? The world can recognise its Einsteins quickly enough when it gets the opportunity. If Einstein sits for an examination, let him have his degree, assuming that he can satisfy the examiners. What is the object of taking all these pains to make today, uncertainly and half-heartedly, distinctions which, if they have any foundation in reality, the world will make in its own much sharper fashion tomorrow?
I have left to the last the defence of the Tripos which I find myself most difficult to meet. It is a defence difficult to overcome, because it proceeds on what a chess-player would call close lines. This defence, which I have often heard from mathematicians whose judgment I value, and which I wish to treat with all respect, is simply this: that the examination has already been considerably relaxed, and that the effects of its relaxation can already be traced in a corresponding strengthening of English mathematics; that it may be indefensible in principle, but that the spirit of emulation which it fosters may conceivably do some slight positive good; and that, now that so many of its teeth have been successfully drawn, it is not very obvious that it does any very serious harm. This is undeniably the case for the Tripos in its strongest and sanest form.
I should admit that, up to a point, the defence is sound. I would so far as to admit that the system now does little harm to men of what I may define roughly as fellowship standard. The truth is that the principles for which I am contending have been so far recognised that a man of this degree of ability need not really disturb himself very seriously about the examination. Such a man may pursue a course of serious mathematical study with every confidence that, unless he is wilfully neglectful, he can obtain without any intensive effort all such honours as the Tripos can bestow. The test, in short, does him no harm, because for him it has lost its meaning. This I admit, and, of course, I recognise that it is a very large admission, since it destroys a good deal of the case which could be urged so irresistibly against the Tripos thirty years ago on strictly professional grounds. It is no longer true that Cambridge is notably behind the times, or that its courses compare particularly unfavourably, at any rate in the subjects about which I am best qualified to judge, with those at any but the very best of continental universities. This, I think, Mr Heywood did not recognise sufficiently; it was the only point in his address from which I particularly dissented. It is no longer true that the development of a decent school of English mathematics is being steadily throttled by the vices of its principal examination.
We must recognise this and rejoice that things have moved so far, and if they have moved just because the glamour of the Tripos has faded, we shall only rejoice the more. We need not rush to the conclusion that the whole case against the Tripos has been destroyed. We have to think of its effects, not only on students of the highest class, but also upon teachers of mathematics in the university, and upon students a little less gifted than those of whom I have spoken hitherto. I am afraid that it is still true that mathematical teaching is hampered very seriously by the examinations, both in Cambridge and in Oxford, where the system is different in detail, but in essentials the same.
In the first place, it is still true that a large proportion of students, either wilfully, because they exaggerate the importance of the examination, or from ignorance, because they have never heard of anything better, or (and I am afraid that this is the most common explanation) because they are driven to it by tutors who have to justify themselves in the eyes of college authorities greedy for firsts, for one or other of these reasons allow their mathematical education to be stunted by absorption in examination technique. They spend hour after hour, which ought to be devoted to lectures or reading, in working through examination papers, or the collections of problems in which English textbooks are so rich, exhausting themselves and their tutors in the struggle to turn a comfortable second into a marginal first. It is possible that the effect of all this mistaken exertion is more directly damaging to the tutors than to the students themselves; but a pupil cannot draw much inspiration from a tutor who is always tired, and there is hardly a tutor in Oxford and not very many in Cambridge, who has not about twice as much teaching as any active mathematician should be asked to undertake. A professor at Oxford or Cambridge is very much his own master, but even a professor may be handicapped very seriously in his teaching by the recollection of the syllabus of the schools. It is often very hard to ask your pupils to go on listening to you when you know that what you tell them will gain them no credit in an examination to which they attach enormous importance and over which you have practically no control. I should always like to ignore the examination completely, and often summon up the courage to do so for a while, only to be pulled up short a few weeks later by the thought that after all it is hardly fair.
Whatever, then, may be said about the improvement of Cambridge teaching, and however much the dominion of the Tripos may have abated of its rigours of thirty years ago, I adhere to the view which I expressed to you last year, that the system is vicious in principle, and that the vice is too radical for what is usually called reform. I do not want to reform the Tripos but to destroy it. And if you ask me whether the Tripos is a peculiar case or whether what I have said applies to all other high-grade honours examinations, I can only answer that, so far as I can see, it does. The Tripos is the worst case. It is the oldest examination and the most famous, and generally the most strongly entrenched; and mathematics is a subject in which it is particularly easy to examine ferociously, so that the evils of the system stand out here in the clearest light. But, of course, the greater part of what I have said about the Tripos could be applied with almost equal force to Greats.
I wish, then, to abolish the Tripos, and as I know perfectly well that neither I nor anyone else will succeed in doing so, since the practical difficulties would be so serious, and the force of tradition is so terribly strong, I may reasonably be asked what seem to me the best practical steps for a more moderate reformer to take. You will probably have inferred from my remarks that I am not prepared with any very illuminating suggestions. I could, of course, suggest many changes of detail, both in the schedules and in the conduct of the examination; but my suggestions would be comparatively unimportant; and I should not be prepared to expend my energies in pressing them, since they would all be inspired by the same ideal, and that an ideal whose realisation will no doubt remain hopeless for many years. Indeed I am afraid that my advice to reformers might sound like a series of stupid jokes. I should advise them to let down the standard at every opportunity; to give first classes to almost every candidate who applied; to crowd the syllabus with advanced subjects, until it was humanly impossible to show reasonable knowledge of them under the conditions of the examination. In this way, in the course of years, they might succeed in corrupting the value of the prizes which they have to offer, and in all probability time would do the rest.
Last Updated February 2017