Category Archives: History of the OU

Classics in the Open University – The Early Days

In this post, we share with you the text of an article that was published in the Classics journal ‘Greece and Rome’ in 1974, just five years after The Open University received its Royal Charter. It was penned by John Ferguson, the first Dean of the OU Arts Faculty; prior to this appointment, Ferguson had been teaching Classics at the University of Ibadan.

The article introduces the OU to an audience of fellow classicists who were teaching at ‘conventional’ institutions: hence Ferguson starts by explaining the OU’s mission, before moving on to discuss, with great frankness, some of the practical and academic considerations that shaped the new Faculty and the earliest Classical Studies curriculum.

We are very grateful to Cambridge University Press and the editors of ‘Greece and Rome’ for allowing us to reproduce the full  text of this article on our blog – a fascinating insight into the early history of our subject area!

Pioneers of the OU: showing (from left to right) Mike Pentz, first Dean of Science; Geoffrey Holister, first Dean of Technology; Maxim Bruckheimer, first Dean of Mathematics; John Ferguson, first Dean of Arts; Walter Perry, first Vice-Chancellor; and Anastasias Christodoulou, first University Secretary.

Pioneers of the OU: showing (from left to right) Mike Pentz, first Dean of Science; Geoffrey Holister, first Dean of Technology; Maxim Bruckheimer, first Dean of Mathematics; John Ferguson, first Dean of Arts; Walter Perry, first Vice-Chancellor; and Anastasias Christodoulou, first University Secretary.

Article title: Classics in the Open University
Author: J. Ferguson
Source: Greece & Rome, Vol. 21, No. 1 (Apr., 1974), pp. 1-10
Published by: Cambridge University Press on behalf of The Classical Association

“The Open University received its charter in July 1969, offered its first courses in January 1971, and produced its first graduates (with some ‘credit exemptions’) by the end of 1972. Those who originally planned it saw that many people who for various reasons missed their opportunity of university education at the usual stage of their lives could profit from it, provided that what was offered was home-based study in spare time. They saw too that radio and television offered an excellent opportunity for helping such study to be direct and personal. Students then are admitted with no entry qualification except the age of 21. We have built a few parameters into our selection procedure; we can control the proportion admitted to any one foundation course or from any one region of the country for example; but basically it is ‘First come, first served’. Typical students are the boy who has been to a poor school, has never been turned on, has left at the age of 15 and gone into industry, and in his twenties has suddenly become excited by what he is doing and at the same time has revealed a keen mind; the girl who with decent A levels has got married at 18, sees her family growing up, is aware that she has time for some study while they are at school, and will be able to take a full-time job in three or four years; the long-term prisoner needing a constructive occupation in prison and qualification for when he comes out; the working-class lad who has entered the police force and, by ability and application, has worked his way up from the beat; the retired industrial worker or bank manager who wants a positive purpose in his retirement; the teacher who has no degree, perhaps because the family could not afford more than a two-year course, and seeks more knowledge in his subject, as well as the increment applicable to a degree; the person well settled in one profession who would like to qualify for a second career before giving up the first; the taxi-driver who is interested in people and ideas, and wants to know what it is all about. We have them all, and many others.

The Planning Committee, a body which included most of the country’s leading educationalists and no politicians, decided for three reasons that the basic courses should be of a new kind, and should be an attempt at an integrated or inter-disciplinary approach. For, first, they thought that the seamless web of learning had become too tattered, and that we were not even seeing the shreds in context. Secondly, they thought that if we were attracting the sort of students we should attract, there would be many who would have a general sense that they wanted to work in the humanities, but might not know exactly which aspect of the humanities interested them. Even more they might (for instance) think that they wanted to study history or literature, and might never dream of trying philosophy or art history unless they had had the opportunity of an earlier sample. Thirdly, operational constraints conspired to make our basic courses large in numbers. The main constraints here were the limited amount of air time available, which meant that it would not be possible to have basic courses in all the familiar university disciplines, and money, for the Open University had to establish itself on a ‘cost-effective’ basis. The pessimistic prophecies of an 80 per cent drop out have not been fulfilled; in fact in the first year we had an 80 per cent pass rate in Arts. But when we started no one knew what the results would be, and we had to be cost-effective even on the most pessimistic prognostication.

When I was appointed Dean of Arts in 1968 I was asked to name four areas in which professors should be appointed. I named history, literature, the whole area of thought (philosophy and religion), and the fine arts. It is important to see that these are not departments, and we have resisted any tendency towards a departmental organization. We did not seek at this stage to develop languages, dead or alive. There were a variety of reasons for this. First, the problems of teaching languages at a distance were quite different from any of the other problems we were facing, and we had enough problems as it was. Secondly, those who wanted courses in languages were reasonably well catered for, by the BBC, by Linguaphone, and, in the main centres of population, by evening classes. Thirdly, languages did not fit easily into the emergent pattern of basic courses, which were strongly integrated, and the amount of any one language one could have mastered as a fraction of the foundation course would not have been worth while. Fourthly, while there was general agreement that language courses should be geared in to communication, i.e. reading and writing, there was controversy whether such courses were properly part of a University degree. Languages remain one competitor for University expansion, but it is unlikely that the classical languages will have any high priority. In the meantime work on classical and foreign texts is done in translation.

Originally there were four faculties, Arts, Social Science, Science, and Mathematics. Since then we have added Technology, and Education (which does not offer a Foundation Course). Graduation is on six credits, a credit representing the successful completion of a course which runs for the whole of an academic year. Students are not permitted to take more than two credits in one year. Since the first year we have added some half-credit courses, but do not intend to have any of lower denomination. This system has the flexibility of the American system without its fragmentation, the structure of the English system without its rigidity. Students are required (unless they are accorded a ‘credit-exemption’ in acknowledgement of study already achieved at a University level) to take two Foundation Courses. They must therefore do some work in more than one faculty. But we have not bridged Sir Charles Snow’s two cultures. The majority of our original 20,000 students, and of the 48,000 we have since admitted, have tended to combine the science-based subjects or the arts-based subjects, though the figure of perhaps 200 a year who combine science and arts, small in proportion, is not absolutely negligible. The Planning Committee assumed that faculties would extend the integrated approach to the ‘second level’, and that the majority of students would graduate without going beyond second level. Specialist courses would begin at third level, and students would convert ‘general’ degrees to ‘honours’ degrees by the addition of two such specialist courses. The Arts Faculty has in fact continued integrated courses into the second level, but it is already clear that some students will take specialist courses at third level as part of their original six credits, and it is a strength of the system that they can do so. At the same time the specialist courses continue the element of integration: the literature course on The Nineteenth Century Novel looks at the historical and social background and parallel developments in the other arts, the history course on War and Society looks at the impact of war upon literature, music, the arts, and religion.

The first courses ran for 36 teaching weeks. This was reduced first to 34, and later to 32. In addition, for all science courses, for all foundation courses, and for most other courses there is a week’s intensive summer school. There is also a revision period and an examination. Students are expected to put in about twelve hours a week on a course, though some put in appreciably more. Students are assumed to be home-based. There are study-centres in the main centres of population, where they can meet with other students and with tutors (academic) and counsellors (general advisers). The basic course-material is centrally prepared and sent to them at regular intervals. It consists of beautifully printed, well-illustrated booklets. We have tried to design them so that they are strongly personal and conversational, and form a kind of dialogue between reader and writer. We invite a student to make responses, and then read on as if we were commenting on his response. Students are required to purchase some books, and these are negotiated with publishers, so that they are kept in print, and are as cheap as possible. Some of these are specially published for the course (which has a guaranteed life of four years). At foundation level there is a weekly television and weekly radio programme; at later levels these may be less frequent. They form an important bridge for some students between the familiar means of comunication and the less familiar involvement with the written word. They enable students to see what we look like and to hear our voices. They enable us to introduce eminent specialists from all over the world. They are essential to visual and auditory experience, as in drama and music. And they have a variety of other uses. Written work is corrected by part-time tutors. Students are assessed on their written work, with one three-hour exam at the end of each course to add confirmation.

The Foundation Course in Arts is entitled ‘Humanities: An Introduction’. It is frankly a compromise, one worked out through many months of patient negotiation, between a variety of sometimes conflicting opinions and interests. Sometimes it achieves an integrated approach; sometimes it is interdisciplinary; sometimes it is merely multidisciplinary. After an introduction (originally 4 weeks, now 2) each of the disciplines, history, literature, art history, music, exposes its wares. Then follows a series of case-studies (one of which, on Descartes, is effectively an introduction to philosophy), each lasting two weeks, and an extended eight-week-long case-study on ‘Industrialization and Culture’. An introduction to logic runs concurrently with the first half of the course.

Part of the introduction is an attempt to raise some questions about the relation between technology, society, and the arts. In raising these questions I take off from two famous passages in Greek tragedy, the long speech in which Prometheus outlines man’s indebtedness to him for the gift of fire, and the chorus in Antigone which sings of man’s achievements and his limitations. So that at the outset students become aware of classical literature. When we discussed the case-studies, we felt that they should enable students to apply the techniques of critical analysis which they were beginning to learn; they should where possible be inter-disciplinary; and they should open up aspects of our inheritance of which students should be aware. I was therefore insistent that one case-study should link with our classical heritage and one with our Christian heritage. For the first we chose Socrates. C. F. Angus used to describe him as one of the three most fascinating personalities who ever lived, and the only one who was not worshipped as divine (the others being Jesus and Gautama the Buddha). It was this aspect we decided to concentrate on. We did not treat Socrates primarily philosophically, partly because I do not believe that the Theory of Forms pertains to Socrates (what a lot of Vlastos’s recent collection of essays on Socrates is really about Plato!), partly because this would in any case form part of a third-level philosophy course, partly because they had not yet had their philosophical grounding. But of course there are inescapable links with philosophy. What there is also is a fascinating problem in source-criticism.

To this end I compiled a source-book on Socrates. I had often needed one for teaching in the past, and was glad to compile one. As it has met with criticism from the reviewers, a comment or two may not come amiss. It is an attempt to present all the evidence (Plato and Xenophon being represented by key-passages only) about Socrates. Many of the criticisms I accept. It had to be done in an extreme hurry, and we had, with one exception, to use out-of-copyright translations because there was no time to negotiate copyright. I missed one important passage in pseudo-Lysias (though no reviewer has in fact mentioned this), and am now persuaded that I mistranslated one Aristotle passage. But this was a source-book for students, and I do not agree that it should have had the sort of index which does students’ work for them. Of course in the later passages about Socrates there is a lot of dead wood, Stoic or Cynic moralizing, trivial anecdotes, and the like. But these late writers still had access to Aeschines of Sphettus, and perhaps other contemporary writers. No one has really asked what information they may yield, and it was not the book’s purpose to anticipate such conclusions. We were able, because of the magnitude of the O.U. operation, to put out nearly 400 double-column pages, including the first-ever translation into English of Libanius’s Defence of Socrates, for 42p.

The course-units (entitled Which was Socrates?) then are an invitation to evaluate the source-material, with a sketch of the historical background. The first radio programme is a talk with illustrative excerpts showing the problem of the principal sources. The second is a philosophical discussion between Renford Bambrough and Godfrey Vesey of the significance of the Socratic ‘universals’ for modern philosophy. The first TV programme is a presentation of the key-passages of The Clouds in conditions as near to the original as we can get in the studio. This is after all our only primary source for that period of Socrates’s life, and it is important to see it as drama, comic drama, and low comic drama. The masks incidentally, brilliantly designed, formed a problem in the heat of the studio. A second programme discusses the point of the first. Altogether we wanted students to feel the impact of Socrates the man. One of the more moving letters I have received came from a tutor in the Isle of Wight to say what a therapeutic effect the Socrates units had had on long-time prisoners in Parkhurst gaol!

After Socrates come two units entitled What is a Gospel? It is a study of the compilation, writing, nature, and tradition of The Gospel according to Mark, again with a sketch of the historical background. It seemed a good idea to expose students to two of Angus’s three seminal personalities in swift succession. It has made possible an interesting assignment, ‘Compare the reasons for executing Socrates with those for executing Jesus’. The exposition is naturally open, historical and philosophical, not dogmatic.

At the second level we apply the integrated approach to period studies. Our two main courses are Renaissance and Reformation and The Age of Revolutions. Included in the first are a couple of units on the classical and mediaeval inheritance, and in them I discuss Renaissance humanism against its classical background. The associated radio programmes are a portrait of Petrarch as a humanist, and an exposition of Platonism as an essential backcloth to Renaissance art and thought. There is one television programme, made in colour, an exploration of the neo-Platonism underlying some of Botticelli’s paintings. Obviously also the account of Florentine art and architecture includes their indebtedness to classical principles and classical originals. The Age of Revolutions naturally has less classical involvement, but Jefferson’s architecture is deeply rooted in the ancient world, as are many of the ideas of the French and American revolutions, and the High Art of the period (not least that of David) has important classical references. In addition to these we have begun to develop courses in the history of science; I suspect that I am the only Dean of Arts in the country with four chemists on his staff. One of the first two half-credits, Science and Belief from Copernicus to Darwin, includes a certain amount of material on the Aristotelian and Ptolemaic world-pictures, and on Renaissance neo-Platonism; I have contributed a radio programme on the Cambridge Platonists. A projected course on The History of Mathematics will contain a considerable body of material on Greek mathematics.

We have recently taken the decision to augment our second-level courses with two half-credits on classical civilization. The first of these, The Early Roman Empire and the Rise of Christianity, will be available in 1974. We have taken as notional dates A.D. 14-138, not without considerable heart-searching. But the reign of Augustus has two serious disadvantages for our purposes: the primary sources are too limited, scattered, and varied, and the literature is too bulky for a half- credit course; and the late Republic really does need more of Cicero’s speeches than are readily available in translation outside the too ex- pensive Loeb. The more we looked, the more the early Empire had to commend it, the emergence of the pax Romana, the rise of Christianity, Tacitus as a primary source, the climax of satire, moral philosophy represented by Seneca, the first serious invasion of Britain, plenty of material on social life, Pompeii and Herculaneum, portrait busts. So we shaped the course. We were fortunate in persuading J. P. V. D. Balsdon to join us as a consultant to write the basic history units; he quickly fell in with our unfamiliar approach to presentation without losing his own pungent style. These units are associated with television programmes on ‘The Roman Army’ by Michael Jarrett, and on ‘Image of Empire’ (a study in imperial propaganda) by myself, and radio programmes from Michael Grant and A. N. Sherwin-White. Then come two units on moral philosophy, using Seneca’s letters as a basis; the radio programmes are a dramatic presentation, entertainingly acted, of Lucian’s Philosophies for Sale, and a talk, with dramatic illustrations, on the Stoicism in Seneca’s tragedies. Next come two units on satire, Petronius and Juvenal unexpurgated. (When these are put together with our somewhat phallic version of The Clouds I shall have acquired a high reputation for immoralism!) The radio programmes are a dramatization of the Ludus de morte Claudii, and a talk on Martial, illustrated by ample quotation. Then two learned units on Roman art by Catherine King, one of our History of Art lecturers. This has associated with it television programmes on Roman domestic architecture and Roman portraits, and radio programmes on urbanism and Roman building. Then two units on social life, which Balsdon and I have shared. The television programme treats the Romans at work and the radio programmes the imperial elites, and the School of Rhetoric. Peter Salway has a single unit on Roman Britain with a television programme in which he looks at Fishbourne and Bath with Barry Cunliffe, and a radio programme on the Britons under Rome. Finally, a block of four units treats the rise of Christianity. Dr. Francis Clark together with the staff tutor, Revd. D. A. T. Thomas, is responsible for these. The first television programme shows Christianity among other religions; I have done this; the other is the first television film shot under St. Peter’s.

Set books for the course include Penguin or Mentor translations of Tacitus’s Annals, Seneca (Letters from a Stoic), Petronius and Juvenal, the New Testament and the Apostolic Fathers, as well as the appropriate volume of Lewis and Reinhold for primary sources. A very proper limit of essential expenditure to £9 for a half-course constricts our secondary sources. Salmon and Filson between them cover the history, and Wheeler the art and architecture. At the time I write it looks as if there will be an initial registration of slightly under I,000 for this course.

We hope to complement this with a half-course on Greece 450-350 B.C., though this may not be available before 1978. The present plan, which may be modified, is that the course will contain, interspersed with each other, four units on history, four on literature, four on philosophy, and four on art. The dates are notional, and may be stretched slightly in either direction. The literature is likely to concentrate on drama. We hope to take The Oresteia, and perhaps the two Electra plays, and an Aristophanes, perhaps (as Douglass Parker calls it) The Congresswomen, which fits in pleasantly with the philosophy and the political history, and is beginning to point forward to New Comedy. For the philosophy we shall probably do a double-unit on The Republic and another on The Ethics (to end the course). The art units are not yet planned, but Peter Salway will probably treat the Acropolis, and we shall surely need units on vase-painting and sculpture. Professor Gerald Fowler, who held a university post in ancient history, before entering first practical and then theoretical politics, will be a member of the course team; three regional staff with classical interests, Peter Salway, David Sewart, and Ian Howarth, have expressed a readiness to be involved, as has Mrs. Jennie Potter, the former Newnham scholar, whose husband holds an O.U. post; we hope that one of our art historians will contribute, and perhaps also one of our philosophers. The two together should form an attractive introduction to classical civilization.

Meantime, there is an important classical contribution to the gradually emerging third-level specialist courses. Indeed, I have a strong conviction that one of the most important things for classical scholars to do is to make their contribution to a fresh synthesis in this way. Thus I have written a unit on Thucydides and the Peloponnesian War for the history course War and Society; a unit on Plato’s Theory of Forms for Problems of Philosophy; and am in process of contributing study material on Alcestis, The Bacchae, Oedipus the King, and Oedipus at Colonus to The Basis of Modern European Drama, and on Greek and Roman religion to Man’s Religious Quest.

This then is the picture. It is worth remembering that something like 5,000 students a year take the Foundation Course, about 2,000 take Renaissance and Reformation, 1,200 the history of science courses, and (at present) about 700 War and Society and 400 Problems of Philosophy; as indicated, the expected figures for The Early Roman Empire are not far off 1,000. It is a not negligible contribution to interest in and understanding of classical civilization.”


Nb. the original article contains an appendix containing the times of transmission for 1974 of the programmes referred to above. All television programmes were on BBC2 and all radio programmes on Radio 3 VHF.