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.

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