Saturday, October 29, 2011

An 18th Century Oxford Experience

While at the Oxford Beer Festival I had an interesting conversation with a student about differing models of university education. (No, I am not kidding. Oxford is both social and brainy that way.) And said conversation gave me the idea for a post or two here.

The first model I will look at is that of 18th Century Oxford. Oxford has a well-earned reputation for rigorous education, but it was not always so. In 1700’s, students were left to their own devices to a great extent. Many Oxford tutors were notorious for not wanting to spend any time with those annoying undergraduates. And the demands on many students were slack.

Therefore many students (who tended to be younger than today’s university students) were slack themselves. And even those who were not often found themselves at a loss as to how best to proceed with their studies.

So how did they graduate? The oral examination system was often perfunctory, especially if the examinee was of a high social class, which he often was. Such became the butt of jokes. One Lord Eldon was said to have been examined thus:

Q: What is the Hebrew for the place of a skull?

A: Golgotha

Q: Who founded University College?

A: King Alfred (a legend steadfastly believed against all evidence at the time)

Examiner: Very well. You are competent for your degree.

And such slackness became somewhat scandalous as well. That is one reason Oxford has a more rigorous system today, which expects more of both faculty and students, much more.

But something is to be said of the 18th Century model, in which there is not constant pressure to prove oneself academically. IF a student knows what he wants to study and indeed wants to study it, there is both tremendous freedom and opportunity with the excellent libraries of Oxford, which today are augmented by the internet.

In fact, on this trip to Oxford, I decided to mimic the 18th Century by eliminating academic pressure altogether. I am not taking a course for credit. (I am not actively seeking a degree, so I have that luxury.) I read what I want when I want.

And I find that this is very productive for me. Not only am I reading and learning a lot in the general area of English Medieval Church History (even though I have already studied the subject much in recent years already). But when I find a book I particularly like and in which I want to spend a lot of time, I look the book up on Amazon. If it is available and reasonably priced, I wish list it to buy it when I get home, and spend more time on books not so readily available back home, thereby multiplying the effect of my visit here.

If I had constantly to prove that I am reading and learning by writing papers, I would have much less time for actually reading. And on some occasions, I would not be able to profitably delay reading certain books until I get back home.

Of course, the problem with giving students such freedom is that many of them will take advantage of that in the wrong way, by being lazy, blowing off their studies, and, yes, getting drunk and obnoxious. Having experienced some of that from “students” first hand, it would not surprise me if past Oxford slackness contributed to town vs. gown riots of notorious history. But I better not get going on that subject.

And there is also the problem of how to evaluate student performance. For that, surely a student must produce something. But if a student is harried by demands for the production of papers and the like, can that not get in the way of real and thoughtful studies?

I do not have easy answers. But that won’t keep me from poking a stick at the issue.

In the meantime, I am thankful that I get to have something of an 18th Century Oxford experience augmented by 21st Century technology.

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