Taking stock

It has been an eventful long vacation. Whether you were stuck in an office in the city, sunning yourself in exotic climes or living your dream internship, you would not have been able to ignore the magnitude of the summer’s eventsAt a time which is normally a news-free “silly season”, the holiday saw some significant, and some shocking, developments. Daily news
of bombings and uprisings in Iraq, Bali, Israel and across the world were brought violently home by the terrorist attacks on London’s travel network in July. Hurricanes Katrina and Rita swept through swathes of the southern USA.Back in Oxford, these events seem unbelievably distant. But it is now that the real discussion begins. All of this will be analysed, investigated and dissected. Countless undergraduates in countless tutorial rooms will conclude profound consequences of the hike in oil prices, use Bush’s response to Katrina as a moral example in ethics tutes, and draw analogies between the 7/7 attacks and an obscure passage in an Eliot poem.Much is made of the freedom which freshers feel when they first come to university. But Oxford brings another element to this equation: while here, it is difficult not to be lulled into a comforting sense of security.We spend our days and nights posing rhetorical questions and answering them, and treating the outside world very much as a theoretical playpen to demonstrate the lessons we learn in lectures.It is not surprising that we should feel sheltered here. Many of us live in centuries-old buildings with walls, built once to keep out riotous townsfolk, which are now sufficient to shield us from modern reality.Chaplains, college welfare officers, OUSU and university services are ready to demonstrate, with genuine concern, that there is always someone to talk to.But perhaps it is time to shake ourselves free of this comforted assurance.Oxford has its own shocks, as a glance at the news pages of its papers will show. The fires which raged in the Longbridges boathouse do not compare to the scale of the July bombings; the Norrington table does not echo through opinion columns as A-level results are bound to do. Yet both have the potential to change the landscape of Oxford’s well-established status quo.When real change happens, it is felt throughout the town. And Oxford cannot hide forever from the realities of the outside world. In 1920, in its first ever editorial, this newspaper vowed to “drive out all those agencies that disturb our little community”. These words sound archaic to modern ears, but behind them lies an undeniable relevance to our current situation. Whatever we pretend about the importance of our Oxford lives, their stereotypes and institutions, it is to the outside world that we will return, bleary-eyed from libraries and flush with success, to find that there are many lessons still to learn.And yet, despite the clear need for us to acknowledge this external reality, we must also make time to revel in the luxury of insularity which Oxford represents. No doubt we will all look back fondly at things which did only and could only have mattered in Oxford.ARCHIVE: 0th week MT 2005