Sarah Sands: Is a first-class education really worth a grope?

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If only to defy her surname, Mary Beard, a Cambridge Classics professor, has fondly remembered being groped by a late Oxford don, Eduard Fraenkel. She wrote in a now famous blog entry: "It is hard to repress certain wistful nostalgia for that academic era before about 1980 when the erotic dimension of pedagogy was firmly stamped out." The women's officer of the National Union of Students gave a predictably priggish response, "shocking and unacceptable", and Mrs Beard dug a deeper hole for herself with her clarification that "knowledge is about power... sex and power are inextricable bedfellows".

The sexual potential of relationships between teachers and pupils is a theme of our times. Alan Bennett has made a Broadway hit from it with The History Boys. Zoë Heller's novel Notes on a Scandal, about an affair between a female teacher and her male pupil, is soon to be a film. Dedicated teachers do sometimes fall in love with their charges and students have crushes on their professors. I think what Mrs Beard yearns for is some glamour in intellectual life. Phrases such as "skill sets" and "tuition fees" have poured icy water over the eroticism of learning.

I have just been reading A N Wilson's biography of John Betjeman, which dwells on the poet's Oxford life. Those were the Brideshead years, a celebration of excess and bad taste and gigantic crushes. The university years should not be for "increasing personal worth and making the most of opportunities". They should be Midsummer Night's Dream.

Noel Annan wrote a starry-eyed book, Our Age, about the dons and wits of Oxford between the First World War and the end of the Second. They were famous and flamboyant. Maurice Bowra has many entries. His bon mots such as "I am more dined against than dining" are carefully recorded. Annan asserts that it was Oxford which swirled in glamour while poor old Cambridge excelled at maths.

I wonder if Mrs Beard, let us call her Mary, was staging a fightback in her blog against a portrait of Cambridge as worthy but dull. It is rare these days for a don to appear in a newspaper for "shocking and unacceptable" views. After Norman Stone and Niall Ferguson, the colourful dons seem to dry up.

The interesting theme in Contrary Mary's blog is the flaws of great teachers. But does this mean you have to lust after your pupils to be a great teacher? I remember talking to Nicholas Hytner, director of the National Theatre, about the unsympathetic headmaster in The History Boys who gets rid of the inspired and homosexual history teacher, Hector. The headmaster demands conventional behaviour and exam results.

Hytner surprisingly defended the headmaster, saying that he was doing what parents would have wanted him to do. The problem now is that university lecturers are badly paid and have to spend much of their time teaching remedial education. It is tricky to contribute to the dictionary of quotations when you are trying to establish the distinctive spellings of practise and practice.

Higher thought and expression are not valued much in public life. I think Mary's beloved Plato might have considered the word "crap" inadequate to describe a Middle East strategy. But then, John Prescott's confusion between snobbishness and education has done for us all. She was protesting that a good education was worth a grope. For the rest of our society, "appropriate behaviour" is more important than inspiration and wisdom.

Brown vs Cameron: may the best dad win

Suddenly, journeys make far better conversation than holidays. I no longer ask where people have been on holiday but how. I went to watch Dr John Sentamu praying for peace at York Minster last week and inquired after his family holidaying in Austria.

Then I burst out: "Did they go from Heathrow? Did they manage with the luggage?" The Archbishop blinked at me in a holy, bewildered way. What did that have to do with anything?

So when a friend returned from Corfu I glazed over during the description of sparkling seas, taverns and whitewashed villas until she mentioned the journey home. The plane had been on time and not too full. And sitting right there in economy were David Cameron and his family. Furthermore, the Conservative leader had spent much of the journey walking up and down the aisle with his baby.

When I repeated this anecdote I got a mixed reaction. All women want a husband prepared to take the baby during the plane journey rather than peering sympathetically from the seat in front then returning to a newspaper and a gin and tonic.

The men I mentioned this to, however, groaned and grumbled. What a nitwit. What a show off. I reckon that David Cameron's dilemma is not between old Conservatives and new ones but between men and women.

The same thought occurred to me listening to his post-holiday performance on the Today programme. He sounded as if he were trying to sort out his wife's car insurance. He was patient, reasonable and mildly pissed off. While he was, as it were, sorting things out at the counter, a great brawl was taking place in the background between John Reid, Gordon Brown and John Prescott, Neanderthal by contrast.

Babies are very bad for female politicians, but essential for men. If Tony Blair goes in July, then it will be a battle of fatherhood between Gordon Brown and David Cameron. If I were Brown, I would carry that papoose everywhere - G8 summits, the Commons, all Treasury meetings.

Don't 'chillax': The new age of balm and banality

A word designed to make your blood pressure soar is "chillax", a compound of chill and relax. It is an inflationary measure, because being relaxed is no longer enough. The ideal state of being is jelly. Students waiting for results are urged to chillax, parents should chillax, drivers especially should chillax.

Classic FM's selling point is that this is music to relax to. Last week, I went to hear Mozart at the Proms. The grey-haired promenaders standing rock still in some discomfort for an hour and a half were not relaxing to Mozart. They were in a state of complete concentration.

I have found the smell of aromatherapy oils in offices has overtaken the customary odour of sweat and soup. I listened to a nine-year-old girl booking a head and neck massage on her mobile phone the other day.

The opposite poles of stress and chillaxation do not seem to me to cover the human spectrum. For instance, I do not want a pilot to be chillaxed. I would prefer him alert. It is fashionable for heads of companies to appear fabulously easygoing. Men such as Sir Martin Sorrell or Lord Browne are charmingly unwound. But at the Regimental Sergeant Major level, someone is going to have to do the shouting.

The word "stress" is used to describe far more terrible conditions. A newspaper headline last week, about the father who jumped with his children from a balcony in Crete, said "death-leap father escaping stress". If a loving father tries to murder his children, I would choose a different word. Despair, insanity, wickedness surely? Not stress.

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