Five years ago, Guardian journalist and ex-Mertonian Tanya Gold wrote a piece entitled “Oxford is hellish”. The article resurfaced, courtesy of Twitter, last year and was met with the inevitable excoriation it de- serves from current Oxford students. Much of what Gold said about Oxford as a “bitter, lonely rather boring place” was surely wrong, but one of her phrases stuck with me. She argued that despite Oxford priding itself on intellectual rigour and academic excellence, in reality, “no- body was learning. We were cramming”.
Now, as a second-year student with four Ox- ford terms behind me, I find myself actually agreeing with Gold – however annoying that might be. When I was at school, teachers would passionately extol the virtues of the Oxford education and its famed tutorial system: the opportunity for deep intellectual thought and stimulation. In short, I would really be made to “think”. It was certainly a challenge I looked forward to when I got my offer.
But now I question whether I really have been able to seriously “think” through essays and tutorials. In reality, and most will surely attest to this, essays have been nothing more than a product of desperately skimming bulky volumes, furiously typing up unimaginative arguments and copying out ridiculous rafts of information in an almighty attempt to hit the dreaded upcoming deadline.
Concomitantly, once the tutorial is over, we heave a great sigh of relief, thank God it’s over and forget all the information we hurriedly stuffed our brains with the night before. In short, we are not really learning but cramming, thanks to a never-ending succession of essay titles and deadlines. Even if we wanted to really engage with our essay subjects, there simply isn’t enough time to do so.
Is this really why we came to Oxford? Speaking to friends at other universities, it surprises me how superior their grasp of similar subject matter is compared to my own. Now, the answer isn’t (I hope) that they are more intelligent than me. More likely it is the longer-term times and fewer outlandish deadlines that they are faced with. It allows, if they are so inclined, to actually absorb information, understand and engage with it.
Many say they like the intensity of Oxford and pride themselves on surviving an academically more rigorous experience. But intensity for intensity’s sake does little for learning. If the university were to implement longer terms and spread deadlines further apart, then an environment more susceptible to actual learning could surely grow. Students would have more time to prepare for tutorials and would pro- duce essays that don’t just read like botched all-nighter products. I am not saying university is just about learning: Oxford with its bops, balls, punting and halls is, of course, so much more. But if we want to call our city one of the world’s great centres for academia, surely we must focus on teaching academia properly.