The Learning Curve

New tricks for an old dog.

The oak beams of New College, Oxford

by Gregory Bateson
Reprinted in The Next Whole Earth Catalog, 1980

“New College, Oxford, is of rather late foundation, hence the name. It was probably founded around the late 16th century. It has, like other colleges, a great dining hall with big oak beams across the top. These might be eighteen inched square, and twenty feet long.

“Some five to ten years ago, so I am told, a busy entomologist went up into the roof of the dining hall with a penknife and poked at the beams, and found that they were full of beetles. This was reported to the College Council, who met in some dismay, because where would they get beams of that caliber nowadays?

“One of the Junior Fellows stuck his neck out and suggested that there might be on College lands some oak. These colleges are endowed with pieces of land scattered across the country. So they called the College Forester, who of course had not been near the college itself for some years, and asked him about oaks.

“And he pulled his forelock and said, “Well sirs, we was wondering when you’d be askin’.”

“Upon further inquiry it was discovered that when the College was founded, a grove of oaks had been planted to replace the beams in the dining hall when they became beetly, because oak beams always become beetly in the end. This plan had been passed down from one Forester to the next for four hundred years. “You don’t cut them oaks. Them’s for the College Hall.”

“A nice story. That’s the way to run a culture.”


Written by Tom Fox

09/25/2007 at 8:33 am

Posted in Culture, Planning

2 Responses

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  1. Does anyone know if this is a true story, or somewhat “modified” over the years, or a parable something like Chief Seatle Speaks, or total fiction? I love the story, but I have my doubts. For someone in the right location, say Oxford, for instance, it shouldn’t be too hard to check out. A note to me at from someone who knows would be appreciated.


    03/05/2009 at 11:47 am

  2. It’s possible. New College Oxford was founded in 1379 according to Wikipedia, and oak trees have a maximum life span of 500 – 600 years. If the oaks were planted when the college was founded and they were well tended, they cold have still been alive into the 20th Century. I can vouch that oak wood is really tough stuff. So for the original oak beams to last 500 – 600 years doesn’t surprise me at all. I like to think of it as being true. That’s thinking ahead!


    03/05/2009 at 7:08 pm

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