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Oxford achieves synthesis of old and new

Geoff Johnston | Tuesday, November 4, 2003

Walking the streets, I have come to notice more often the contrast, the anachronisms: cranes flexing beside old stone monuments, bulldozers belching diesel smoke past green, manicured lawns, yelling workmen and scurrying dons. Oxford is not so important for what it was, but for what it still is; but I’m getting ahead of myself. First, let’s look at student life and then I’ll meander into a more meditative look at Oxford.

Allow me to correct a misimpression that I reported in the last column. From what I have seen of student drinking here at Oxford, there is not the culture of binge drinking that is so prevalent at Notre Dame. While the Oxford students on average probably drink the same amount of alcohol as their counterparts under the Dome, the atmosphere here is more open, tolerant and embracing of the drinking culture, and so students seem to drink not to get drunk, but for the pleasure and enjoyment of alcohol. The Notre Dame community can learn much from the healthy way that alcohol is embraced at Oxford.

Second, there are so many more opportunities to relax and talk at Oxford than there are at Notre Dame. For example, there are dozens of small, ethnic restaurants throughout the city, serving food in casual environments perfect for chatting and lamenting the weather (which, to be honest, really isn’t that bad). One of the other Domers here succinctly summed up the differences between South Bend and Oxford while we were dining at a fancy Italian restaurant: “Did you guys know that the Olive Garden was voted the best restaurant in South Bend?”

Also, New College has its own beer cellar adjoined to the dining hall; how many dorms at Notre Dame have their own bars? (Actually, I shouldn’t ask that question, since I’m from Zahm; how many dorms have their own legal bars?) Life here is, for better and worse, much more laid back, much more relaxed, off-the-cuff. Oxford students reflect this European ethos; they don’t seem to have the driving zeal of so many Americans (and Notre Dame students in particular).

Relations between genders are not the forced, awkward affair that they are at Notre Dame; as much as I appreciate the single sex atmosphere of the dorms for building camaraderie and community, talking to the girls who live and eat and study with us is refreshing.

The academic system here, as I have written previously, is as different from Notre Dame as night from day. First off, I have no classes. None. I have two academic obligations over the course of the week: one hour-long tutorial on Tuesday and one on Wednesday. Oxford is unique, in all of higher education, in its emphasis on individual interaction between mentor and student, and in the maturity that it assumes from every student. My teachers assign me a list of problems; some are mandatory, others optional, and I am sent off into the blue yonder in search of solutions.

When I do finally return with answers is when the fun begins. For example, when my mathematics tutor and I sit down to discuss, he begins by folding his hands, staring out the window for what could be three or four minutes, says a sentence, deliberating over every word, weighing every syllable, and then furrows his brow when I respond. This continues for an hour. At which point, having exhausted what knowledge I had gained over the week, I am sent out once again in search of answers to finely crafted questions.

No 300-student lecture halls, with homework and tests; nope, just simple face-to-face interrogation, the crucible of the mentor’s knowledge squeezing out every last drop of the unformed, vague and hazy from my thoughts.

But, as at Notre Dame, most of my time is spent in my hall (or College, at Oxford). New College is universally regarded as one of the most beautiful colleges, with good reason. When New College was built in the middle of Oxford’s late-14th century red-light district, part of the agreement was that the College would maintain the walls. And so it has preserved, these many years, its medieval wall: the stairs that lead to the archer posts, the turrets and crenellations, the gargoyles struggling to emerge from the rock face.

What characterizes Oxford as an institution is the balance, the tension between the old and the new. As Susan Sontag professed in her acceptance speech of the Friedenspreis, “old and new are the perennial poles of all feeling and sense of orientation in the world,” and Oxford is constantly trying to synthesize the two, to reconcile tutorials with higher expenses, decaying buildings with diesel, liberal education with science. Oxford is a place where the past meets the future, and this is the bond between Oxford and Notre Dame: the attempt to preserve while innovating.

Geoff Johnston is a junior currently studying at Oxford University. He can be reached at geoffrey.johnston@new.ox.ac.uk.The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.