‘Genius leaves but second place, among men of letters, to the Learned’, wrote Edward Young in 1759. ‘It is their Merit and Ambition, to fling light on the works of Genius, and point out its charms.… Genius is from Heaven, Learning from man.’ Providing one accepts that genius cannot be taught, it becomes the humble responsibility of a university to recognize and nurture genius, to elucidate its works and, in time, to honour its achievements.
These tasks have not always been straightforward, however, for the stellar genius and the university are not necessarily a comfortable fit – as Max Beerbohm comically illustrates in his image of Dante in Oxford.
Incipient genius may be difficult to spot. In the early eighteenth century Percy Bysshe Shelley did not impress Oxford University with his precocious literary productions, he outraged it. Only at the end of the century would his college honour his peculiar greatness. A careers adviser, interviewing an uncertain young author, may hardly be expected to foresee the great works which lie ahead, and is concerned instead with the student’s immediate need to earn a living.
Honorary degrees, by contrast, have brought people of proven distinction to the university. Some have been accustomed to the academic environment, but others have lived and worked in very different conditions, and so found the experience bemusing and even difficult.
Equally, a person of rare talent may, against the odds, find a sustainable place in a university, and because of their unconventional style and uncertain status bring it honours and success.