David Gellner’s speech to the alumni dinner, 17th September 2022

Welcome everyone, my name is David Gellner, I am Professor of Social Anthropology and the Chair or Director of the Institute of Human Sciences. It is has been my pleasant duty to lead the organization of this wonderful occasion celebrating 50 years of Human Sciences at Oxford.

Of course, none of this would be possible without a huge amount of work from a very large number of people so let me start by thanking all of you for coming to help us celebrate. I would like to thank our guest of honour, the Chancellor of the University for gracing us with his presence. And let me thank Wadham College for hosting us and particularly all their staff for putting on this dinner and accommodating so many people and so many dietary preferences. There is one person I must thank who isn’t here with us this evening but without whom not only today’s celebration but the day-to-day and week-to-week functioning of the degree would be impossible, and that is Sarah-Jane White. Many of you may know her only from her emails, but those of you who are current or recent students will know just how much we owe to her in holding this degree together.

Ten years ago, when I was Head of Department for the first time, we celebrated 40 years of Human Sciences with a dinner in All Souls. Some of you may have been there for that event. This time we have a bigger venue and a bigger occasion. 

You all know that the Human Sciences degree is totally unique. It is the only Oxford degree to take teaching from all four academic Divisions. PPE doesn’t even come close. Some of the visionary people who founded Human Sciences hoped that it would become the new PPE, just as PPE was supposed to be the new Greats. I will leave to the Chancellor, who knows so much more about these things, speculations about how different the recent history of the UK might have been if our political leaders had read Human Sciences at Oxford rather than PPE or Classics.

Inevitably, the Human Sciences degree depends on the good will and dedicated contributions of scholars and teachers right across the university, a few of whom are here today as our guests. We are incredibly grateful to them for supporting it and contributing to it.

The proof of the success of the degree is before us -- the assembled alumni who are so distinguished across such a wide array of fields. This afternoon we have had moving and evocative testimonies from alumni about what the degree did for them. We have more than 6 applicants for every place, so we are continuing to get superb students and I am confident that they will continue to go on to great things. It is only by holistic Human Science thinking that we are going to be able to save the planet.  

The driving force behind the creation of the degree was a man called John Pringle, who was Linacre Professor of Zoology. Pringle faced a huge battle to get Human Sciences established, but in the end he succeeded. There were many who supported him, from across the university – among them Chelly Halsey in Sociology, John Beattie and Edwin Ardener in Social Anthropology, Geoffrey Harrison in Biological Anthropology, and the great Niko Tinbergen in Zoology. Tinbergen didn't usually get involved in university politics, but for this cause and to support Pringle, he was willing to do so. 

This is not the place to go into the intricacies of how the collegiate university works. Let me just say that Oxford is a world leader in institutional complexity – and we in Human Sciences are at the cutting edge of that. One problem we face is that we have lost many of the colleges that used to offer Human Sciences. We are down to 9 colleges and, very disappointingly, are going to lose one those in a couple of years (Mansfield). As far as I know, we are secure for now in those colleges that continue to support us. Whichever college you attended, I do urge you to write to your old colleges. Remind them what a valuable and amazing a degree it is. Colleges do listen to their alumni.

Meanwhile, we are working hard to make sure that the degree flourishes in the next 50 years as much as it has done in the last 50 years. One of the things we would like to do is to endow a statutory professorship of Human Sciences, to provide leadership for the Institute. We will need your help with that and I would like to hear from you if you think you can help us or if you know somebody who can.

I will now hand over to the Chancellor.

The then Chancellor Harold Macmillan opened the dedicated Pauling Human Sciences building 41 years ago on 12 November 1981. How appropriate, then, that Lord Patten should address us now.