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Oxford History 101

Geoff Johnston | Tuesday, September 2, 2003

Welcome back to Notre Dame and welcome to my introductory column about life at the University of Oxford.

I’m a junior math and philosophy major who will be studying abroad this year at Oxford, along with five other lucky Domers. Over the next year, I will describe the University of Oxford as seen through the eyes of a Notre Dame student. You will see what I see, attend the events and parties that I attend, eat what I eat and study what I study (although you might want to skip those last two parts). And, as soon as The Observer installs those scratch-and-sniff patches I ordered, you will smell what I smell.

However, I’m not actually at Oxford yet. Oxford operates on trimesters and their first term, Michaelmas, doesn’t start until Oct. 12. Which means, of course, that I am still here in the States, sleeping in and otherwise enjoying myself.

Since this is an introductory column, I wanted to describe the history and culture of Oxford. Thus, you can expect today’s column to read like a set of lecture notes. So, keep reading only if you are the type of student who a.) relaxes in the dining hall for two hours between periods and reads The Observer from cover-to-cover; b.) is writing a history paper about the University of Oxford; c.) is desperately considering going abroad; or d.) is closely related to myself and if you don’t read this column, I’ll find out about it.

Now that there are only three of us left, I can begin. To a Domer, the most interesting academic aspect of Oxford has to be its tutorial system. Instead of narrating to a class of 30, each professor acts as the tutor of one or two students. The students are allowed to design their own programs of study and decide how much (or how little) work they want.

Want to read until your eyes drop out of their sockets? Fine. Want to read at most five pages a night? Fine, but don’t expect to pass the massive battery of tests at the end of the year. (At Oxford, students are tested only once per year.)

But how does one relax after a hard day’s study? At the bars, of course! Pub atmosphere in Oxford is considerably livelier (I’ve heard) than in South Bend (unless you consider someone throwing up on your shoes lively). Many of the pubs in Oxford are converted medieval inns and none is more famous than the Eagle and Child Inn. This is where J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis would meet after a long day of tutorials, to share a pint (“They come in pints?!”) and talk about Middle Earth or Christianity or maybe the dismal weather.

My history of Oxford could not be complete without some mention of religion. Oxford was originally founded as a Catholic institution (at the time, however, there would have been little or no distinction between Catholicism and Christianity). But Henry VIII’s Reformation converted Oxford to Anglicanism. After Queen Elizabeth I, Oxford would remain Anglican for the next 300 years. During that time, Catholics, Puritans and other non-conformists were not allowed to study there.

In the 1800s, Oxford was the center of a revival in Anglo-Catholic sentiment, a movement which was led by Cardinal John Henry Newman. Today, Oxford is a secular institution. Personally, I hope that one day Oxford might return to its religious heritage and embrace Christianity again.

Although my simplified history lesson makes Oxford seem like it’s one unified body, it is not. There are many individual colleges that make up the University of Oxford, just as Notre Dame is built up of residence halls. Of the 30 individual colleges in Oxford, the other Domers and I will be attending New College.

Notre Dame and St. Mary’s both share one feature in common with New College: they were all named in honor of the Virgin Mary. New College was founded in 1379 as St. Mary’s College of Winchester in Oxford. (Question: If it’s so old, why do they call it New College? Answer: Because it was actually the second Oxford college christened as St. Mary’s.)

We will be living and studying in the medieval quad, complete with 14th century chapel, dining hall and cloisters for monks. In fact, New College was founded in order to help repopulate the clergy after the Black Plague.

Well, that about wraps up my lecture on the University of Oxford and New College. I hope that you weren’t driving while you read this; otherwise you probably fell asleep, drifted off of the road and are now calling a tow truck to cart the remains of your vehicle out of the shoulder. I promise that when I actually get to Oxford, this column will be more interesting. Until then, God bless.

Geoff Johnston would appreciate any and all emails he receives at his address: gjohnsto@nd.edu. He does not guarantee that he will respond, but remember what Tommy Boy taught us about “guarantees.” He would also like to give a “shout out” to his “homies” in Zahm Hall.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.