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Mary Beard: Lessons in Love

Ethics and the classroom Professor Mary Beard caused controversy this week for confessing her nostalgia for 'pawing' pedagogues. Here the classics scholar explains why sexual tension has been an essential part of the curriculum since Plato played favourites with his pupils

The British currently have a very ambivalent attitude to the relations between teacher and pupil. On the one hand, packed audiences applaud Mr Hector in The History Boys. We love his eccentric relationship with the kids, his maverick approach to the constraints of exams, and his frankly homoerotic closeness to his pupils. This is education just as it should be, we like to think.

On the other hand, as soon as any of our own children actually have the privilege of being taught by the likes of Hector, most of us are round at the head's office within a term. The imaginative approach to the syllabus is bad enough, with A2s looming. But it is the inappropriate intimacy, even if not physical, that is the really damning thing.

This is just one phase in an argument that has gone on since classical Greece about just how close a good teacher should be to his or her (usually his) pupils. We all know about sitting at a great man's feet. But what happens when that moves to sitting on his knee? Students - and I'm talking about university students here, above the age of consent - often love the idea of having an intimate relationship with a charismatic teacher. That is, after all, how the best learning happens. But what happens when it all gets too intimate for the student's comfort? Or for the comfort of those of us who are watching? What happens when apparently tender closeness is an alibi for the abuse of power?

The modern university in Britain and elsewhere has drawn firm rules about the kind of closeness that is, and is not, allowable. These are rules that work for us and (despite what has been widely alleged in the press this week) they are rules that I support and apply. That said, as a historian, it is my job to notice that different cultures have adopted very different conventions and to reflect on why that might be.

This struck me most powerfully when I first worked on the history of the University of Cambridge in the 19th century, at the time that women's colleges were first appearing in what for centuries had been more or less a monastic environment It was not until the late 1800s that most male fellows of colleges were allowed to get married and allowed not to take holy orders. All this combined to put sex high up the agenda.

Reading the letters and diaries of the first students at Newnham College, who were taught largely by (unmarried) men sympathetic to the cause of women's education, the steamy atmosphere is all too evident. Heavily chaperoned they might have been, but they always seem to have been chasing their teachers (or being chased by their teachers) around the college gardens. Many of them, both at Newnham and Girton, ended up marrying their former teachers or other university luminaries suspiciously soon after they had taken their exams (they couldn't officially receive a degree until the regulations were updated after the Second World War).

All too often, that marriage spelled the end of their scholarly career. Agnata Ramsey was one of the most notorious casualties of the university marriage market. She did better than any of the men in the classics exams in 1887 and her success became the subject of a famous Punch cartoon, picturing her entering a "first class" railway carriage in mortar board and gown. How did she follow this up? She promptly married the master of Trinity College (Henry Montagu Butler, many years her senior) and did very little classics ever after. Girton College has a wonderful portrait of her - in her engagement outfit.

But heterosexuality was probably not the norm for these teacher/student liaisons, and certainly could not possibly have been before the arrival of a handful of women in the 1870s; even in the mid 1970s, women accounted for only 10 per cent of Cambridge undergraduates. We have absolutely no idea how many of these relationships had a physical side. But we do know that intimacy between young men and the dons was fostered on lingering walks by the river and drinking sessions late into the night. (It actually doesn't need any rules to get rid of that sort of behaviour these days. When would any of us have time for a saunter by the river after lunch?)

It was not just relationships between men, though. While some Newnham girls were having intense tea parties with their male teachers and speculating about university marriages to come, others (or the same ones) were brewing no less steamy relations with the female teachers (all unmarried). Again the degree of physical intimacy is uncertain - even though Virginia Woolf, typically, thought that a few of them were living together in "Sapphic" (that is, Lesbian) nests. But the college archives shows that they were exchanging notes in extremely fond terms (such as now would give rise to some sort of disciplinary procedure if they were discovered).

They also planned extensive foreign holidays together. One of the most glamorous dons of the early days of Newnham was the classicist Jane Harrison - eccentric, fashionable and a proto-media don (she used to lecture to audiences of thousands on Greek art and archaeology). Throughout her time in Newnham, she had a series of favourite girls whom she would take off, on their own, presumably with parental consent, on long archaeological tours around Greece, helping them "with their archaeological study". Some of these students "settled down" later to married life. One ended up living with Harrison - Sapphically, as Woolf alleged.

Compare that to now. It's not just that such behaviour would land us in serious trouble with the university and college authorities. We have to complete elaborate health and safety risk assessments just to take a group of 20 students to a museum in London.

Of course, this was not Blair's Britain. This was a privileged and wealthy group of students and dons investing a huge amount of emotional energy in the process of pedagogy - and seeing teaching as integrally linked to personal intimacy. One of the most enlightened men in 19th-century Cambridge gave a hint of this when he said that in marking exam papers he was "judging the person, not the paper". We now claim the exact opposite: we are marking the exam papers entirely anonymously; we don't even know who the "person" is.

But they were also rather self-consciously looking back to a much older model of pedagogy - one with which they were all familiar from their classical reading at school and university. (This was the era when you still had to take a Greek exam to get into Oxford and Cambridge.) They were looking back to the erotic world of classical Athens. Here, at the centre of the process of growing up (for elite men at least - don't imagine that this was the case for women or your average carpenter), lay an explicitly homoerotic relationship between a late adolescent youth and an older man. Youths were the target of advances from older men, who competed for the affections of most beautiful. Youths in turn gained from the education in all senses that they received from their mature lovers.

This was more, though, than just social practice. This kind of relationship, and the debates that surrounded it, lay at the very heart of the philosophic tradition enshrined by Plato - and so, in a way, at the very origin of Western intellectual culture. One of themes of Plato's most approachable dialogues, the Symposium, is the relationship between the love of wisdom and the love of the body. Socrates stands out in being a teacher who managed to resist sleeping with his favourite pupils (he spent, it is said, a night in the same bed as the gorgeous Alcibiades without touching him). And the messianic climax of the Symposium offers a vision of how to learn about absolute beauty which goes beyond "the beauty of boys" (it still sees knowledge as a version of love). But, in terms of most of 5th-century culture, this is decidedly off-message. Sex, power and knowledge went together.

Each culture has to negotiate its own solution - provisional as it must be - to the teacher/pupil problem. We now live with, and, by and large, endorse a particular regime of prohibitions. These are "our" rules, and they are rightly sensitive to the potential abuse of the power of pedagogy. We have to reckon, however, that in a hundred years or so, our own practice will seem as quaintly odd to future generations as the strange cavortings in 19th-century college gardens - or the classical Greek assumption that sex and teaching were natural bed-fellows.