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The Spike or Victoria University College Review 1935

In Oxford

page 14

In Oxford

It is often, though wrongly, said that the name University was originally applied to certain institutions because men of all kinds were wont to frequent them. However the fact is that these early universities drew students from all grades of the society which supported them; and most modern universities carry on this ancient tradition. But this is perhaps more strikingly the case in such a centre as Oxford than in any colonial university. Among those who entered the same college at Oxford as myself at about the same time I remember a working railwayman, a workshop mechanic who had been "out" in the post-war strikes, the husband of a London County Councillor, an American Olympic Games champion, an Eastern potentate, a number of "Honourables" and a noble Lord. The last-named was after a year removed to Cambridge which then (and since) enjoyed the reputation of being socially "safer." However, his going left a considerable variety of somewhat unexpected people to leaven the mass of the more usual undergraduate type.

For the benefit of undergraduates there were a number of rules which had to be observed—some of them amusing or irritating to one from overseas—but their total effect was as nothing when compared with the rigid organisation of English public school life. In effect the undergraduate multitude was turned loose in Oxford. In particular there was little or none of the social pressure which compels a rigid conformity to certain codes. A man might, if he chose, be outspokenly bored with cricket or football; he might be a "True-Blue" or within limits, a Communist; he might wear side whiskers and pink trousers; he might insist on eating the most unorthodox things. In that large society he would usually find companions to share his "eccentricity," and generally speaking no one would interfere. There were, of course, exceptions. I recollect one man who used to entertain his friends at breakfast with porridge and champagne, and the mixture roused vigorous protest from neighbours who were troubled in mind at the waste of good liquor. But within limits a man might plan his life his own way.

Yet one of the most vital things about Oxford is the way in which one is being continually thrust up against other people. For one thing Oxford is a residential university. Nearly every-one lives not at home, but in or near a college. Students are "full-timers" in the fullest sense; during term there are not even the currents of home life to interfere with the life of the University. The result is a vigorous growth among clubs and societies and groups devoted to activities orthodox or quaint. Men rub against each other, find out for themselves friends and enemies, and generally polish their wits by the friction of mind against mind.

It is this same friction which forms the basis of Oxford academic teaching. Lectures are delivered at Oxford, but, on the whole, rarely attended. A distinguished scholar may find an audience of 100 at the first lecture of a course: after a week he may be addressing half a dozen, including four of his own pupils. The main teaching is done in tutorials where a "don" meets two or three pupils say twice a week. At each meeting one or more of the pupils reads aloud a short essay on a subject previously allotted to him; and as he reads listens to the freely expressed opinions of the tutor, and (less frequently) of his fellow pupils. Such a procedure can sting a man to great activity, making him not only express his opinions but also defend them against expert criticism. The meeting closes with the allotment of a fresh group of essavs. This process continues throughout a term, which is often closed by a term examination or "collection." According to report the dons used to "collect" their fees from students, but nowadays they collect examination scripts.

The actual course of the tutorial depends largely on the tutor. Some say much, and some little. Some speak chiefly about the subject of the essay, and others deal chiefly with its matter of style. Personal habits vary also. I remember a small dark bristly man, with cheerful bon-hommie, whose remarks were often a stimulating revelation of the inner life of things historical, and sometimes a penetrating analysis of one's own sins. He was a pipe smoker, and his pipe naturally went out as he talked. He was reputed to smoke a box of matches per tutorial. His colleague was tall, with a penetrating eye and encyclopaedic knowledge. He also smoked a pipe, which he lit from the fire with the aid of wooden matches about a foot long. He would bend to the fire, light one of these matches—and then think of something. Learned discourse fol page 15 lowed, while the lighted match hovered vainly, burnt out, and was replaced by another which in its turn burnt unused. His pupils were equally fascinated by his scholarship and his perpetually frustrated match.

Underneath local differences there are certain fundamental features shared by all Oxford tutorials. For one thing, they are based on the frequent writing of short essays—a man may have to write three four-page essays per fortnight. This system teaches men to dig essential points from big books, and to express the results in concise and vigorous language. Again the system is built upon the fact that Oxford terms are short (eight weeks each) and vacations correspondingly long. It is said that the length of vacations was originally framed to enable students to get back to farms at times when their labour was most needed. Nowadays few undergraduates work on farms but these vacations give opportunity for reading which is particularly necessary in view of the lack of continuity in essay-work.

Another essential fact to the background of work is that the tutor is very unlikely to examine his own pupils in University examinations. The bigger "schools" are examined by a board of four or five Oxford dons and one outsider. Even if a man's tutor is examining, he is only one among five, and the board is external and impersonal. The result is that the tutor, though responsible for a man's learning and behaviour, is felt to be the pupil's ally against a common enemy—the examiner. This helps to give a friendly atmosphere to some tutorials—though of course not to all—and this in its turn helps to promote that free contact of minds which is so important a part of Oxford life.

Such are some of the main features of the Oxford system—fruits of centuries of tradition stimulated and pruned by the criticisms and enthusiasms of the 19th century. It has already adjusted itself in many ways to the needs and the stimulation of the 20th century; for Oxford is a living and changing society.

—F. L. W. Wood.