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Life at Oxford different but comparable

Geoff Johnston | Tuesday, November 18, 2003

Walking through the darkness of the University Parks, a curtained moon glooming over the path, an Oxford student and I were discussing what impact college will have on our lives. He was saying that the individual makes the college experience, and I was arguing that the college itself plays a larger role in one’s education.No doubt both factors influence one’s experience, so I wondered, “What would life have been like had I gone to Oxford, instead of Notre Dame?” Though I have been here only a month, allow me to shed some light on the question.Dorms; It’s Gotta Be the Dorms: The most noticeable difference between the two Universities is the residential atmosphere. Here, each student is allotted a single – no freshman “closet” triples or elaborate loft schemes. Also, students are more dispersed, about 20 to a house, throughout the college campus. The benefits of this set-up are obvious: more living space, more privacy, one’s own bathroom and shower.However, I believe that Notre Dame has something special in its dorm traditions. Even though the rooms are cramped, and the halls smell, and the parietals are, well, parietals, I would never have met my future friends without being thrown together by random assignment, or luck, or grace. Life at Notre Dame revolves around the dorms: We party together, we study together, we eat, sleep and live together. Here at Oxford, life feels more insular, more isolated; even being a part of the football (soccer) team and a singer in the lay college choir does not begin to compare with the community fostered under the Dome.Ars Gratia Artis: One of the perks of an Oxford education is the availability of high culture. Two weeks ago, the other Domers and I trekked to Stratford-upon-Avon to witness a performance of Richard III by the Royal Shakespeare Company. The performance was polished and professional, the sets and lighting were clever, the setting was original (late 19th century) and the actors convincingly displayed a wide range of emotion, from Richard’s morbid lust to Margaret’s frenzied ranting. We will definitely be returning.Also, New College is blessed to host one of the world’s premier boy choirs, the aptly named New College Choir. Being the choral music junkie that I am, I attended their recent performance of Durufle’s setting of the Requiem Mass. Listening to their pleas for mercy in Latin, the counter-tenors and boys reaching as high as any soprano while the basses growled underneath was a moving and powerful experience. I felt as if I, too, had lost a loved one, and were begging for the release of her soul. There are concerts and plays performed throughout Oxford every day; the lack of the arts at Notre Dame is certainly one of its most glaring deficiencies (though the new Performing Arts center will no doubt help).Think, McFly, Think: This is probably the first column in which I am actually qualified to make a subjective judgment about Oxford’s academics. My verdict? Academics here at Oxford are comparable to those at Notre Dame (no better, no worse). I must be careful; the tutorial system is not as well suited to mathematics as it is for, say, philosophy, and since I have been enrolled only in math courses, I shouldn’t definitively judge the Oxford system. However, for undergraduate science, the two Universities are equivalent. For arts and letters, I believe that the work load here is slightly harder, but that the graders are slightly more lenient. (Though I will be able to give a better account once I start Jurisprudence next term.)Keepin’ the Faith: I chose to attend Notre Dame for many reasons; one of the most important for me was a vibrant faith life. At Oxford, by and large, faith is not as central to students’ lives. I read a recent article in the school newspaper explaining why, explaining how younger people have no need for faith, how we are more skeptical, etc. But there is also a greater faith diversity here than back at home. One example: A New College student and I were chatting after Hall, when the topic of faith came up. He happened to be a devout Anglican, and asked me why Catholics prayed the Hail Mary. So I recited the prayer to him in Latin (he’s a Classics major) and we went over the prayer line by line, all under the watchful gaze of the Virgin Mary, whose statue happened to be hanging over the quad. (New College was founded Catholic.) Wouldn’t happen at Notre Dame, or at least, such a situation is more unlikely. I enjoy the diversity of opinions here; part of the study abroad experience is being exposed to people from different ideological backgrounds.So, how different would life be had I attended Oxford? A lot. But the experience wouldn’t be better or worse than that at Notre Dame, merely different. So Domers, enjoy what is great about Notre Dame. Enjoy its unique balance of academics, athletics, residence life and faith. I’ll be here enjoying what’s great about Oxford: its tutorials, its tradition, its sophistication. That, and the free drinks after football games.

Geoff Johnston is a junior currently studying at Oxford University. His column appears every other Tuesday. He can be reached at gjohnsto@nd.edu.The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.