On Visiting Oxford: a Pilgrimage

I’ve been up to a lot since I posted my piece on dog walking. I’ve since been to Istanbul and Rome, and my brain’s been a little slow to process everything it and I’ve experienced. On this last leg of my journey, in London, I decided to visit Oxford yesterday to avoid Underground and street closures caused by Pope Benedict’s state visit to the U. K.

It turns out that today was an “Open Day”, when prospective undergraduates could come to tour the campuses of the colleges, of which Oxford is composed. My time in Rome involved a lot of walking in the heat, the resulting prodigious perspiration of which activity prompted the emergence of two angry pimples on my chin. I even side-parted my hair and shaved extra-thoroughly this morning. I looked not a day over 17: perfect for poking around undisturbed.

After visiting Blackwell’s, a gargantuan bookshop boasting over three miles of shelving, and narrowly avoiding some serious fiscal misbehavior, I meandered about some of the smaller campuses, and strolled around Trinity College, where the young women—students and hopefuls—most Emma Watson lookalikes—wore particularly flattering sweaters.

Although those colleges were beautiful in that classic academic way, none struck me as more quintessentially Oxford than Christ Church. The following is a short narrative synopsis of the rest of the afternoon.

On the walls of the college’s courtyards were painted the results of various crew regattas: how many years a particular college was undefeated, the initials of the rowers and cockswains, and embellished heraldic flimflam that is the stuff of Ralph Lauren’s dreams—except that this was real, by all accounts. Very rarely do I find myself so delighted as I was today.

In every town or city that houses a university that was once all-male, there were various shops that catered to the sartorial needs of the institution’s young men. In the States, most of these shops closed long ago. There are some vestigial hold-outs, J. Press most notable among them. When I visited that shop’s New Haven outpost earlier this summer, I was the youngest there by at least 20 years.

But as I perused Ede & Ravenscroft, among many others, I was shocked to find young men my age, some even younger, browsing. One mentioned to me in an unspeakably upper-class accent, “The selection of tweeds here is simply dreadful. No character whatsoever! There’s a shop down the street that deals in secondhand menswear, allegedly bought from the estates of dead professors.” I came this close to buying a slim-cut sport coat, but I declined on the advice of my new friend: “Those are functioning buttons at the cuffs. It’ll be something of a pain in the ass ['oss'] to tailor properly.” I walked out with a serviceable business-card case engraved with an R, and he found a tweed three-piece which stunk of pipe tobacco. “A brilliant find, if I say so myself.”

Over lunch with a couple of his friends, all students at Trinity, we discussed various things: the PPE program popular at Oxford, my misgivings with the university system in the States, and how “simply awful” it is that no college offers a non-quantitative Particle Physics for Poets course. It was, in short, one of the greatest lunch conversations of my life. It proved something to me, or rather, to a friend of mine.

This friend, during a long meditative walk on the beach in early July, claimed that “Jason, I don’t really know what you see in institutions such as Oxford… It seems to me as though you’re romanticizing the whole thing, finding what character traits you want to find in the students. They’re probably no different than UChicago students, on average.” I immediately recoiled.

After a long, hard think, I’ve concluded that I’m right. They’re different. Not better or worse, just different. I’m still struggling to parse out the “why”. I’ve realized something else through today’s experience: in spirit, I share much more with the average college student in Oxford than with the average Maroon; but, after all, that’s not saying much. Right?

One thought on “On Visiting Oxford: a Pilgrimage

  1. Catriona

    I don’t know if you remember me, we were in beginning photography together 4 years ago at Lab. I moved here to Oxford at the end of that year and ended up applying to Christ Church last year for a physics degree. After seeing and hearing about so many of my good friends from Chicago leaving for college and such, I feel like I do know somewhat about both systems.
    Having actually gone through the Oxford application process, its reputation in comparison to the American college system is greatly romanticised. Of course the grandiose and imposing setting of Christ Church does leave you feeling that it’s some kind of alternative universe, but knowing many students there I can assure you that so much of that is an illusion. It really isn’t just Oxbridge. Many of my closest friends here are setting off for Oxford or Cambridge and they are just like the rest of us going to other universities here, I assure you.
    Students in the UK generally, not just Oxbridge, are much, MUCH different than students in the USA in so many ways. Fundamentally, you begin a specified degree here from the start instead of having a varied diet of humanities, sciences, and everything in between for the first part of the degree. Most residences here are self-catered (with exception to Oxbridge, Durham, and some Bristol halls) so a certain degree of independence from the start is required. Tuition payments and living costs here are provided partially in government loans which are then payed off later, but the fees are a fraction of the cost of American universities. As a result of that, money is a much greater problem for the student as they are expected to really have to deal with that themselves rather than to rely on their parents. In the US, as the tuition fees are so giant, parents really have to (and feel obliged to) help out their children as students in a very big way. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, as if I’d stayed in the US my parents would do the same, but the money situation in the UK does have a big effect on the British student mentality. I am also not saying that students in the US are less independent or anything of the sort, it just happens that students here require a different kind of independence and this is reflected in the way they are perceived.
    I will admit though, that there is a certain charm about Oxford which definitely does have effects on the student lifestyle here. The university is very old, very pretty, and very set in its traditions. So many great figures in academia, literature, film, and pretty much everything else attended the university, and it’s a very unique place to be. The student welfare situation at Oxford is good, and the degree you receive is second to none provided that you work hard and put yourself out there once you’ve finished. There is no denying any of these things. I have obviously lived here for three years (not as a university student) and have had the time of my life, it’s an absolutely brilliant city and you can get so much of the essence of it without actually studying.
    Universities in the UK are changing in that Oxbridge is no longer the only option for aspiring academics, any Russell Group university or top 10 university will give you an equal platform for postgraduate work provided that you achieve a first. It’s only really in postgraduate degrees that it matters which university you attended.
    I got to the final stages of the Oxford interview process after taking a Physics Admissions Test (PAT) and undergoing three interviews over a three day period on maths and physics along with 14 other physics hopefuls at Christ Church. I had a miserable experience at the interview and no girls were accepted to my course. I chose the wrong college and probably said something wrong in my interviews so was rejected. Getting into Oxford requires almost as much luck as it does skill, just like any Ivy in the US. I will be starting an MSci in Mathematical Physics at the University of Bristol as of October 2nd.
    As a final note, though, both of my parents attended St. John’s College, Oxford for their undergraduate degrees, and my father for his DPhil and he is now a fellow of the college and the senior dean. Both my parents were very relieved that I didn’t end up there as the university has the potential to be extremely suffocating and oppressive at times. It is a beautiful place but can have disastrous effects on many people.

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