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The Sussex bug

Tom Kemnitz (ENGAM 1962) at Sussex

I caught the Sussex ideal in 1962; it energized my intellectual life, and I have spent my life trying to give its gift to everyone who would receive it.

Sussex in the early 1960s was a truly different place.  For one thing, it was too small to be an institution; it was a collection of individuals bound together by a remarkably open and good-hearted spirit.

But more importantly, many of those individuals were up to something special.  They were creating what Asa Briggs called the "new map of learning."  In the case of Sussex, this new map consisted of interdisciplinary teaching, opening of boundaries, dealing with material in wide contexts, asking broader questions than disciplinary constraints often allowed, and sharing perspectives and conceptual approaches that were incompatible elsewhere.  There was an excitement about it among the tutors, and many of us undergraduates caught the bug.  We caught it in tutorials and seminars, drinking bad coffee and better tea in the common room and far better pints in the bar.  We caught it writing essays in the miniscule library and discussing topics on the train or bus, in our guesthouses and flats.  We caught it in various societies and in the students' union.

We understood that something special was up.  We understood that a fight was being waged to institutionalize a format that would allow the Sussex spirit to endure.  We revered men like Maurice Hutt who understood that this was a never-ending struggle, and perhaps a Sisyphean task to find an institutional structure for what never could be successful if it were not fluid.  We were grateful to all those people like Patrick Corbett, Michael Moran, Rod Kedward, Barry Supple, Michael Lipton, David Daiches, Larry Lerner, Reg Mutter, Sybil Oldfield, Tony Thorlby, Peter Burke, Asa Briggs, and so many others who shared so much of themselves and of their intellectual lives with us.

I had had a couple of years at a very good university in the United States, but I had never seen or imagined anything like Sussex.  For me and my classmates in the United States, intellectual excitement had never been associated with what happened in a school or university.  Intellectual excitement was confined to coffee shops, poetry readings, discussion groups, and other off-campus venues.  It was a major revelation to learn that this sort of thing could take place on campus, and that it could be enhanced and enlivened by an enthusiastic faculty freely sharing their excitement with the students.  It was even more interesting to find an entire university dedicated to it and an administration full of people who wanted to foster it.

When I came to Sussex in the spring of 1962, I was with the first year intake of 52 students, many of whom were less than happy about their experience.  There were 37 women and 15 men among that 52, and the numbers had not worked out well.  While they wished for better, I could not believe how good Sussex was in so many ways.  One of the most impressive and least appreciated things about the Sussex in the 1960s was the administration.  It was filled with people such as Mary Coppinger and Geoffrey Lockwood and Hywel Jones and Ted Shields who genuinely enjoyed students and who took pains to organize the university so it worked for students.  My experience previously was with bureaucracies that were organized for administrative convenience and the students be damned—or at least perpetually inconvenienced.  Sussex was different in subtle ways, and I was struck in the later 1960s by the irony of those students who protested against the oppression of authority but had no inkling of how much thought and effort had gone into making their lives easier.

Sussex was the sort of place that made one want to contribute to it and help it flourish because of the remarkable good spirit so many of its founders shared.  Out of sheer gratitude, I was even impelled in my first year there to stand for Secretary of the Students’ Union and then to work hard in that post to make the student part of the university function as well as possible.  Later I would become President of the Post Grads Association.  

The design of Sussex was another indication to me that the university was special.  It was designed by
an architect with clear vision and ability.  I noted and appreciated the parts of the design, the tableware in the refectory, the refectory tables and chairs, the chairs and coffee tables in the common room, the fixtures in the men’s room, the paintings hanging in the refectory and the common room, the buildings and the building materials including interior flint walls and oak, the lay-out of the campus, the water features.  It was all of a piece, and it was evidence of higher-order thinking and planning.  In 1962/63 we were largely confined to Falmer House; in later years as the library, arts building, Essex House and other buildings were opened, it was increasingly apparent that the design was successful and would hold the campus together.  The design was more than another part of the excellence that we came to expect at Sussex; it was the exclamation point on that excellence.  Sir Basil Spence set a standard that
will be as evident a century from now as it is now half a century on.

I remember two events with a clarity as though they might have happened yesterday.  The first was when in the spring of 1962 David Daiches handed me the reading list for the Modern European Mind.  It was nothing like a course reading list I have ever seen.  I decided that I would read everything that I had not yet read; the entire list was 125 books.  The second was in my first term in tutorials when I read my essays to Maurice Hutt, and week after week he showed me what I could have done to write a better one.  For the first time, I was seeing that I could learn important things within the walls of an educational institution, and I began to think about becoming an academic myself.  I remember particularly the tutorial—comparing the Chartists with the Anti-Corn Law League—in which I was forcibly struck by the realization that what was happening was not an empty exercise and that I was learning something in the tutorial well beyond what I had absorbed in my reading.  

Of course I wanted to stay at Sussex.  I came back and did my D.Phil. at Sussex.  I turned down places at Balliol, Oxford and Peterhouse, Cambridge and the Universities of London and Edinburgh; they could never compare.  I didn't even apply to a university in the United States.  They were immunized from the bug that infected Sussex.  During my doctoral studies I had the good fortune to have as my supervisor Asa Briggs, who lived and breathed the Sussex ideal.  The Monday evening history seminars he initiated were the acme of intellectual life at Sussex in the 1960s.  And from an office in his Vice Chancellor’s suite, I watched and was inspired as he worked so hard to maintain the Sussex ideal with a constantly growing and changing university.  From that perspective I saw how much of the impetus and intellectual force that lay behind Sussex was Asa’s; he was the sine qua non.  It says a great deal about the Sussex ideal that he gave the spare room in the official suite to a graduate student working on a subject of interest to him rather than using it as a means of conferring status on a university functionary.

When I finished my doctorate, I went back to the United States to teach; there was nowhere else to go in England.  I found American universities still immune to the bug and indeed often hostile to it because somehow it might include the virus that led to sit-ins and other disruptive behavior.  And after Sussex, the mundane was simply not satisfactory to me.

Finally I came to understand that the excitement that was Sussex could not be transferred institution to institution.  There might be a few other places like Sussex, but they would be rare, and I never found one.  If I wanted to share the Sussex ideal, I had to find non-institutional ways to do it.  And I came to see that the excitement did not have to be confined to universities.  It could be shared from the very earliest years if one could only find ways to do it.  Indeed, the Sussex ideal is easier to transmit to kids who are just beginning to read to learn than it is to undergraduates.  And so I started a publishing company whose purpose is to make it easy for teachers in schools to do what was such a struggle and a joy for our tutors at Sussex.  I would hardwire the interdisciplinary approach into the textbooks themselves so the students could get it even if the teachers did not.  And I would place in the hands of teachers who understood it books that would enable them to break boundaries, to ask broad questions, to use material in novel ways, to challenge students to think more creatively, to tread different paths, and to make the previously mundane exciting—in short give them Sussex.

We would publish pedagogic materials that looked like no one else's.  We would avoid mind numbing exercises and worksheets—the neutron bomb of pedagogy—and demand more concepts, interpretations, and creative thinking.  We would produce textbooks such as the one for young adolescents that challenges students to think about Plato’s concept of beauty while studying poetics and reading poets on beauty.  We would deal with subjects no one else taught in American schools—leadership, creative problem solving, philosophy, futures studies, and the like.  Sussex might never be recreated in any American school at any level, but any teacher who wanted to could recreate its excitement in his or her classroom, and more and more in the past few years, homeschooling parents could give their children Sussex.

For the past thirty-five years, I have sought to rewrite the lesson plans of American teachers and of homeschooling parents.  We have tried to replace what I call the SOBS (Same Old Boring Stuff) with the exciting, challenging stuff—with material designed to increase thinking skills and conceptual sophistication, aimed at taking students to new awareness and understanding, conceived in terms of building foundations for people whose thinking might be related to their entire lives.  We have managed to reach millions of children.

If I have one regret, it is that Sussex itself gave up on its ideal and scrapped the interdisciplinary format.  It was hurting the career prospects of our undergraduates, a short-sighted Vice Chancellor told me.  The Sussex I knew was not a trade school; it was never about resume.  In a narrow way from my own personal experience, that Vice Chancellor was correct:  Sussex was the worst thing that happened to my career as an academic; because I had caught the bug, I quit my career as an historian to become a publisher.

For me redrawing the map of learning was and is truly exciting, and I named my publishing company Royal Fireworks—after the most exciting thing a person could ever hope to see in the pre-industrial world.  It provided a symbolic parallel to the experience of the intellectual excitement of Sussex in my life.  

Although I am at the age when most of my contemporaries have retired, I keep working, and I know the excitement will carry me through every year my mind and body will sustain my trying to transmit the Sussex ideal.  I caught it in 1962, and I want nothing more than to share it.  Indeed, I have spent a lifetime endeavoring to share that gift in ways that will reach children for decades to come.  It was the most important gift I received in my life, and I am grateful to everyone who helped to make it possible.


Posted on behalf of: The Sussex Alumni Network
Last updated: Tuesday, 27 March 2012

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