One thing I’d change about Oxford… Educating people

Daniel Villar calls for more versatile education in Oxford

Oxford does a wonderful job at educating historians, biologists, classicists, geologists, and almost any other academic discipline. But it does not do a very good job at educating people.

In the United States, university is a place of experimentation. You try many subjects, before deciding which one you’ll major in. Maybe you take a few classes in biology, a few in history, a few in Russian literature and a few in geology. Maybe you would like to double major in philosophy and geology, or drama and chemistry. That is allowed and normal.

In Britain things are different. When applying to Oxford, I realised that I would have to choose between my two academic loves. One the one hand, biology — the beauty of evolution, the intricacies of the natural world, the moral purpose of conservation and the excitement of field work. On the other hand, I had history—the imaginative study of how life once was, the great intellectual and political debates of bygone eras, and the cast of fascinating characters which shaped the modern world. Faced with such a dilemma, and being unable to study both at Oxford, I flipped a coin and hence find myself studying biology.

There is much to be said about the English style of education. Someone with a BA in any subject at Oxford will know far more on how to do that subject than someone with a BA at a US university. But there is something to be said for the opportunity to shop around, for perhaps a year or even a term, before specializing too deeply into one field.

I love biology, and do not regret applying for it. But for all the joys of biology, I still love history. Oxford is a great university, but it could be greater. There is a benefit in a liberal education, and Oxford and her students would benefit if there was a tad more flexibility in the subject combinations, and the ability to try things before delving head first into only one subject.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Why can’t you double major at Oxford? Imagine what you could study during the 6 week breaks – a language or a subject of your choice – double the fun and intellect!

  2. This would be an enormous change since the US degree programmes described in the article are 4 years long (versus 3 in the UK) plus 2 more years to gain an integrated masters (versus 1 in the UK).

    So an Oxford offering US-style degrees would, other things being equal, have far fewer undergraduate students and the cost of gaining a degree (in terms of extra tuition fees, extra maintenance costs, and additional years not spent earning a salary) would be much greater.

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