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£27,000 for a library card?

I’m writing this over the summer vac in the library of my local university, which is considered to be in a league below Oxford. I’m sure this is true in some respects, but sitting here I can’t help but wonder what really makes Oxford better for my degree – history – than anywhere else.

I love Oxford, but I love it predominantly for reasons other than the education, which feels somewhat wrong. Anyone will attest this is a common Oxford theme: everyone loves to talk about how they wrote their last essay in five minutes. Literary Oxford is arguably more famous for hedonistic layabouts than devoted academics: Evelyn Waugh’s alcoholics and drop-outs (and Waugh himself, who despised Hertford and confessed ‘I do no work here and never go to Chapel’); Martin Amis characters who ‘read sex at Oxford’; the many now successful people who regarded their degree as more of a distracting hobby and graduated with flippant thirds.

While writing this I came across a Times article by Giles Coren that describes just what I’m talking about, reading in part: ‘One goes to Oxford precisely because the teaching is rubbish, nothing is compulsory, tutorials are optional after first week, and nobody ever, ever talks about careers. If you want to be taught and pass exams and become a lawyer, don’t you go to a red brick? Or Cambridge? Oxford is for drinking and playing tennis and nicking books out of the Bod under your cricket jumper and lobbing them at punting tourists from Magdalen Bridge.’ I won’t lie – my immediate reaction was: fantastic stuff, no notes. But then I thought about it more, and while this Brideshead Revisited sentiment is all very romantic, and a semi-reasonable thing to say back when university was free (or if you were somebody who didn’t have to worry about that anyway), it is really quite absurd to borrow or pay almost thirty thousand pounds to be told to read some books, and then choose not to read them.

When I think about this, I’m reminded of the scene in Good Will Hunting in which Will mocks Clark, a Harvard-educated bully, for having ‘dropped $150,000 on an education [Clark] coulda got for a dollar fifty in late fees at the public library.’ Clark retorts, ‘Yeah, but I’ll have a degree’, and Will, despite having just shown that he knows more than Clark, can’t argue with that. When the degree matters so much more than the knowledge acquired from the degree, the goal is not education or erudition, but the qualification itself, turning it into a brand or a product, something which can be purchased. It turns out not to be all that absurd that we don’t prioritise studying. The degree isn’t really about the books at all, and if you can get it without reading them properly, why bother?

People who talk about ‘paying thirty grand for a library card’ tend to be people who think the humanities are a self-indulgent waste of time: this isn’t what I’m saying. I don’t think the liberal arts are pointless; I think they deserve to be better. Oxford tells us to spend 40 hours per week on our degree, and for humanities students 90% of it is spent reading alone. This isn’t some random, exaggerated number: it actually is 90. Those of us doing history have three tutorials every two weeks, plus two or so lectures a week, and a class a week if we’re lucky – coming to a very optimistic eighteen contact hours out of 160 study hours a month, which is 11.25%. Of course, humanities degrees are by and large about reading, and spending many hours reading alone is unavoidable. But it shouldn’t feel like we’re just reading alone. It feels like a tragic missed opportunity to be taught by and among so many intelligent and knowledgeable people and only get to discuss the things we’ve all studied if somebody takes it upon themselves to start the conversation. It wasn’t until Hilary of second year that I had any classes at all, not until Trinity of the same year that I had classes with the other history students in my college – which I think is insane. Of course we discussed the things we studied together before this, but in our own time, and informally: why didn’t we have to do it for over a year?

The point of a liberal arts degree, the difference between it and simply going to the library, is supposed to be the opportunity for discussion with and instruction by some of the best minds. This is what the tutorial system intends to provide: the unique opportunity to have Socratic conversations with a leading expert in the field about a piece you’ve written, in which they treat you like an intellectual equal. I’m not sure if it succeeds. In practice, tutorials are more of a bizarre pretence that, after reading about something for a week and writing a few pages about it, we have nuanced enough opinions to have an equal conversation with someone who has devoted their whole life to it. Even after two years of this, in tutorials I still find it difficult to override the feeling that I should just let the expert talk – and I don’t think it’s always wrong to feel that way. When my tutorials are about topics on which I have genuine opinions, which they often are, I don’t have a problem defending my point of view. But when it’s something I don’t feel I know enough about, I don’t like having to pretend I know (as tutors will criticise you for not being opinionated enough). It seems remarkably unintellectual. It also seems like many problems, such as politicians artfully dodging questions, are reflected in, or in many cases actually nurtured by, the Oxford tutorial system.

Some have criticised tutorials, but while I think the concept is noble, things could be a lot better. The tutorial system still demands public-school arrogance, expecting students fresh from A-level to be confident enough to challenge tutors with decades of experience. Pre-existing barriers like this are difficult to break down but this doesn’t mean that we should ignore them. Wouldn’t it be beneficial to see our tutors more often, so that they become less of a scary, semi-anonymous figure associated predominantly with essay deadlines? And to have more classes and have them sooner, so that we aren’t always only talking to the expert? This isn’t a criticism of tutors themselves: I know many of them are more than willing to spend extra time with us if we ask for it, but real teaching should be a guarantee, not something that only happens when tutors overstretch themselves. Surely Oxford itself has the money and resources to give us more than a glorified library card and an hour a week.

Image credit:Diliff/ CC BY-SA 3.0 Deed via Wikimedia commons

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