"So, do you have any exams?”Almost every day for the
past few weeks I have been confronted with this question, and the
response is always the same. “No,” I answer sheepishly,
and then proceed to give a lengthy speech explaining that even
though I’m American and only here on a one-year programme as
a visiting student and have no exams, I really am working; this
year really counts for something; I need to make sure I do
well… Chances are that at some point you’ve run across someone
like me. At times it seems that Oxford is practically infested
with us. For American university students, spending part of their
education abroad is becoming more and more common – as
popular as gap years are in England. And, Oxford is certainly an
attractive location: the rigour of the academic system, the
opportunity to work in small tutorials (quite a different
scenario from the crowded lecture halls of many American
universities), the challenge of adapting to a surprisingly
different culture, the chance to view our own country from a new
and often critical perspective, and quite simply the opportunity
to study at one of the world’s greatest universities manage
to attracts us Yanks in droves. Now that my year abroad is
drawing to a close, I realise that while all of the above reasons
factored in my decision to come here, they were not my genuine
motive. During the past few years, I have noticed that the pace of
life has been accelerating at an alarming rate. Looking back on
my first days of university orientation, I remember how
incredibly long that blissful week felt. New faces, new
opportunities – it felt like life was just beginning. It
didn’t take long for me to sink into the routine –
essays, projects, part-time jobs, summer vacations that slipped
away before I could even fully appreciate them. As much as I
detest clichés, I cannot help but asking, “Where has the
time gone?” I came to Oxford looking for newness. By immersing myself in a
completely different environment, I hoped to slow time down. And
I often think that this feeling of restlessness, this anxious
desire to halt time’s passing, plays a part in many foreign
students’ decision to study here. Is this a form of
escapism? I cannot deny it. However, like all attempts at escape,
the relief is only temporary. Time moves quite strangely in Oxford. I think most of us can
agree that Trinity is considerably shorter than Michaelmas. And
yet, I feel that somehow, I’ve succeeded in slowing time
down. America’s national obsession with success leads to a
yearning for achievement that sometimes eclipses the thirst for
knowledge; finishing with high grades is more important than
actually enjoying your subject. While all the Oxford students
whom I’ve met genuinely strive to work hard and do well,
they seem to keep life in better perspective. They play hard and
work hard. This year has given me the chance – for the first time in
a long while – to learn my subject for its own sake.
However, while I could tell you all about the influence of
Calvinism on the poetry of John Donne or Wordsworth’s
concept of empathy, these are not the most important things that
Oxford has taught me. I’ve learned that the best time to
walk though the streets of Oxford is Sunday night, when all of
the bells are resounding at once. I’ve learned that after
procrastinating for three hours and finally completing an essay
at 1am, kebabs are the best food anyone could ask for. Despite my weakness for sentimentality, the simple fact is
that soon my fellow exchange students and I will be leaving.
Admittedly, in some ways this year has felt like an extended
vacation, albeit a very work-intensive one. For finalists this is
certainly not the case. However, to a certain extent all
university students are indulging in escapism to a degree. No
matter how hard we work, we are still fleeing from the reality
that soon the situation is going to change. “Enjoy
university,” a former teacher once advised me,“because
once you get out, it’s all nine to five.” But I would rather not view life in that way. I want to
believe that there will always be chances for adventure, always
something new to learn. Saving money to travel, taking up a new
hobby in one’s forties, going back for further education
– all of these could be dubbed “escapism” to a
degree. And yet, these are things that make life fulfilling. Call
me a hedonist, but I’ve come to believe that life is
something to be enjoyed. And, in moderation, a little escapism
does no harm at all.ARCHIVE: 6th week TT 2004