Obituary: Professor Brian Holmes
Monday 30 August 1993
BRIAN HOLMES worked in the Department of Comparative Education at the Institute of Education, London University, from the mid-Fifties, becoming Professor of Comparative Education in 1975. Never boring, sometimes brilliant, he will be remembered for the force of his personality, his quick intelligence, and the quality of his teaching.
Holmes was a man of fine contradictions. A friend of great generosity and kindness, he was a tough and rough university politician in defence of his subject. To his students, he was a brilliant seminar leader and a dedicated supervisor. To his official superiors he was frequently an uncompromising opponent.
Holmes was initially an unlikely candidate for a professorship of comparative education. He had no ear for languages, an uneasy sense of sociology, and some indifference to history. He was by first training a physicist, a science teacher, and through no fault of his own, an RAF radar technician for a short time. But after coming to London (from Durham University) in the mid-1950s he decided he could make a significant contribution to comparative education. Building on his sense of the rigour of the natural sciences, and his understanding of the philosophy of science, especially the work of Karl Popper, he prepared a Ph D thesis on the methodology of comparative education - a first commitment to which he remained loyal throughout his life.
He also found a second arena which was perfect for his considerable talents: the graduate seminar for comparative education students. His teaching technique was Socratic and individual. Holmes, from a simple question (or an assertion) offered by a student would tease out and redefine a problem. A remorseless verbal attack would await anyone who carelessly or illogically interrupted the Socratic dialogue; a quick nod would greet a relevant point which would be incorporated into the discussion - usually via the blackboard. The same technique also informed thesis supervisions, always a fairly terrifying experience. Three-hour tutorials were not uncommon, and as the first student left, exhausted, Holmes would happily welcome the next for what he called, and what really was, a tutoring.
It was this total committment to exploring a topic fully in a no-holds-barred debate - 'clogging' would sometimes be an appropriate metaphor - which made the experience of being taught by Holmes so memorable and which accounts for the deep loyalty of many of his students.
By the time of his retirement he was also a member of 33 committees of the Institute and the university and had been President of the British Comparative Education Society, the Comparative Education Society in Europe, and the World Council of Comparative Education Societies. He continued to work with the College of Preceptors (later becoming its Dean) after his formal retirement from the Institute.
Elitist in his attitude to standards and testing, Holmes never pulled rank in a seminar. Speaking often of the need for rigour and logic, he defended his views with passionate emotion. International in his sympathies, he retained strong local interests in Yorkshire and in cricket. And the dedication and intensity which he devoted to his work and profession would be interrupted by a relaxed, urbane and almost irresistible charm.
Brian Holmes was a teacher and a human being of rare skills, complexity and commitments. Few like him will survive in our smooth, performance-measured universities of the future; and our universities will be the poorer.
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