Old School Beauty 

On the Ennobling Presence of a Goodly Place

I  was a doctoral student in Oxford when I was offered, and accepted, a tenure-track position at Princeton University. One of my dearest Oxford friends was the dean of my college—known as “New College,” though by the time I was a student there, it was very old (it had been new in 1379). The dean, whose name was John Cowan, was an Oxford don of the old school. His field was modern languages, and he was known as an excellent tutor, especially for students learning German and studying German literature. He was of the last generation of Oxford dons for which having a doctorate was not a requirement or even an expectation—and he didn’t have one. Nor was he a publishing scholar—he was also of the last generation for which scholarly publications were not necessary, so long as one was a person of learning and an excellent teacher. I suspect that the last piece of academic writing John ever did was his final undergraduate examination when he was himself an Oxford undergraduate.

As dean, he was the college’s chief disciplinary officer. The term “disciplinary” includes all that it connotes for those familiar with American colleges and universities—the responsibility for dealing with students who have gotten into trouble for academic dishonesty and other offenses—but it includes other things, too. The dean was also what at an American university might be called “the Vice President for Student Life,” the official responsible for the overall well-being of students entrusted to the college’s care. And John was the perfect person for that job—perfect because he was wise. He possessed the virtue of prudentia—practical wisdom. He knew what supported and advanced, and what impeded and undermined, the happiness and all-around flourishing of young men and women.


Robert P. George is McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University (web.princeton.edu/sites/jmadison). His books include In Defense of Natural Law (Oxford University Press) and Conscience and Its Enemies (ISI Books). He has served as chairman of the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.

Print &
Online Subscription

Get six issues (one year) of Touchstone PLUS full online access including pdf downloads for only $39.95. That's only $3.34 per month!


Get a one-year full-access subscription to the Touchstone online archives for only $19.95. That's only $1.66 per month!

bulk subscriptions

Order Touchstone subscriptions in bulk and save $10 per sub! Each subscription includes 6 issues of Touchstone plus full online access to touchstonemag.com—including archives, videos, and pdf downloads of recent issues for only $29.95 each! Great for churches or study groups.

Transactions will be processed on a secure server.

more on theology from the online archives

31.6—November/December 2018

Tragedy & Transcendence

on Futility & the Open Door to Deliverance by Patrick Henry Reardon

31.4—July/August 2018

Right Before Our Eyes

Life & Love Are Real Despite Theatrical Illusions by Anthony Esolen

33.2—March/April 2020

Glory to Be Revealed

on How Bodily Resurrection Informs Social Justice by W. Ross Blackburn

more from the online archives

32.2—March/April 2019

The Boy Genius

Finding Him Again Through the Patriarchal Group by Anthony Esolen

29.4—July/August 2016

Naked Truth

on Noticing That Modern Science Has Rendered Atheism Irrational by Harry Biltz

32.4—July/August 2019

Sojourner Knight

on Single-Mindedness in Durer's Ritter, Tod, und Teufel by Anthony Costello

calling all readers

Please Donate

"There are magazines worth reading but few worth saving . . . Touchstone is just such a magazine."
—Alice von Hildebrand

"Here we do not concede one square millimeter of territory to falsehood, folly, contemporary sentimentality, or fashion. We speak the truth, and let God be our judge. . . . Touchstone is the one committedly Christian conservative journal."
—Anthony Esolen, Touchstone senior editor

Support Touchstone