Brawn v Brains

Detail from ‘Boat-Raceana’ published in “Fun” on 12 March 1873. The implication seems to be that sport is detrimental to study and that the two are incompatible for a student. Image: Suzy Covey Comic Book Collection in the George A. Smathers Libraries, University of Florida.

19 November 2020

By Tim Koch

Tim Koch exercises some brain cells.

In his recent piece, Not the 1873 Boat Race, Göran R Buckhorn reproduced a cartoon of the period, part of which showed an oarsman with grotesquely enlarged arms ‘after training’ and a tiny man with a huge egg-shaped head that represented the student ‘before training’. The ‘brawn v brains’ debate at university is an old one.

In 1928, the Oxford University students’ debating society, the Oxford Union Society, considered the motion, ‘This House prefers athletic to aesthetic education’. The suggestion seemed to be that the two were mutually exclusive and that the choice was between ‘brawn or brains’ and that one had to be either an ‘aesthete’ (one who understands and enjoys beauty) or an ‘athlete’.

The ‘Brawn v Brains Debate’ as seen by “Tatler” magazine. The sometimes rather self-important antics of the Oxford Union can still occasionally attract outside interest, not least because of its ability to attract great intellects (from Albert Einstein to Michael Jackson) and by sometimes courting controversy by inviting people such as Malcolm X and OJ Simpson.

The English have traditionally been rather suspicious of education (I do mean ‘English’, the Scots have long taken it rather seriously). Richard Hillary, who rowed at Trinity College, Oxford, in the 1930s wrote:

The sentiment of (Trinity) was undoubtedly governed by the more athletic undergraduates, and we radiated an atmosphere of alert Philistinism…. One of the great fears of upper-class Englishmen was appearing to be ‘too clever’…. (Cleverness) would be tolerated as an idiosyncrasy because of one’s prowess at golf, cricket, or some other college sport that proved one’s all-rightness.

Anthony Blanche (here played by Nickolas Grace in 1981), a character in Evelyn Waugh’s “Brideshead Revisited” (1945), is one of the most famous fictional aesthetes. Even though he was frequently abused by Oxford’s athletic ‘hearties’, after seeing oarsmen heading to the river, he declared, ‘All b-boatmen are Grace Darlings to me’.

Perhaps up until the Second World War, for some, gaining admittance to Oxford or Cambridge may have relied more on coming from ‘a good school’ rather than showing intellectual promise. Both universities gave what was in effect an attendance certificate to its dullest graduates in the form of a Third from Cambridge and a Fourth from Oxford (unlike the former, the latter did not have an ‘Upper’ and a ‘Lower’ Second). Famously, these were known as ‘Oarsmen’s’ or ‘Gentlemen’s’ Degrees. Some did not achieve even these. In his autobiography I Leap Before I Look (1939), David Haig Thomas, a third generation Cantab and a second generation rowing Blue, wrote:

I, like my father and my grandfather before me, would go down without a degree. Grandfather never looked like passing an exam. Father passed one and I had passed two, and I thought it would spoil the family tradition if I did any more, as well as impertinence on my elders and betters! 

Like David Haig Thomas, some of those who got poor or even no degrees were not stupid, they simply found the social and athletic life of university more important than the academic. Haig Thomas became a well-known ornithologist and explorer and one of his many expeditions was in part a pioneering study into the ozone layer, a phenomenon then unknown to most people.

In the cases of oarsmen David Haig Thomas (left) and Mike Ashby (right), success in life followed failure in exams.

Another example of poor exam results not hindering future achievements can be found in my three-part post based on the unpublished memoirs of Mike Ashby who went Head of the River with New College, Oxford, in 1937 and who rowed for OUBC in the 1936 and 1937 Boat Races. On his time at university, Ashby wrote:

I felt that my career at Oxford had been a success, but my finals in Animal Physiology produced a Fourth, a quality of degree I shared with both a former Prime Minister and a Lord Chief Justice of England. On going onto the Royal London Hospital as a medical student, no one seemed to care a fig about my degree, but all seemed to have heard of other more important matters, though I had not breathed a word…. In those days the great teaching hospitals were only too keen to get Oxbridge students, and for most, a Blue was far more important than a First.

The Oxford Union’s official summary of the 1928 ‘Brawn v Brains’ debate. The motion was lost by 237 votes to 286, the students deciding that they did in fact prefer an aesthetic to an athletic education.

The Oxford Union’s most famous and controversial debate was in 1933. Fifteen years after the First World War, the motion was ‘This House will under no circumstances fight for its King and Country’. When, by 275 votes to 153, the students decided that they would not take up arms, there was a great furore both at home and abroad. The Daily Express was in typical form:

There is no question that the woozy-minded Communists, the practical jokers, and the sexual indeterminates of Oxford have scored a great success….

Members of the Oxford Union Standing Committee and guests pictured in June 1933, four months after the ‘King and Country’ debate. Albert Einstein is in the front row, second left, while the then President of the Union and future Labour Party leader, Michael Foot, stands in the middle row, third left.

The Wikipedia page on the King and Country Debate claims that:

Cambridge University was reported to have threatened to pull out of that year’s Boat Race because of ‘incompatibility of temperament’.

I find this difficult to believe. The source of this claim is given as Barbed Wire Between Us (2002) by Derek Round, in part a biography of Kenelm Hubert Digby, the proposer of the motion. Only the student-run Cambridge University Boat Club (not ‘Cambridge University’) would have the power to ‘pull out’ and I cannot imagine it withdrawing from the event that was the entire reason for its existence. As to possible pressure from the wider student body at Cambridge, in 1927 a similar pacifist motion had been passed there by 213 votes to 138 but this had attracted no public attention.

Interestingly, 523 people voted in the ‘Brawn v Brains’ debate while 428 decided on the ‘King and Country’ motion. Make of that what you will.

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