Why do you come to Oxford?

Proposition: There is far more to the Oxford experience than work, says Sam Richardson

From what I can remember of it (very little), freshers’ week was a byword for confusion. Introductory lectures painting an evocative world of dusty libraries and intellectual discovery were somewhat difficult to reconcile with debauched and sweaty evenings ‘experiencing’ Oxford’s nightlife. Which would I treasure in the years to come? So here’s my view on what really matters at uni.

Tell me this: how exactly does sitting in a library, or slaving away all day in the labs, expand your mind, or prepare you for the real world? This is not to suggest that I dislike the ivory tower of academia in which I reside, but I hesitate to suggest that it is of much immediate relevance to the world of work. History is, after all, stuff that has already happened.  I’m told the quality of academic education at this university is so because we have the time and space to really delve into our chosen subject. Study doesn’t expand the mind; it focuses it.

For me people, not pages, have been key to the real learning done at university. Despite Oxford’s notorious – and perhaps exaggerated – lack of social or ethnic diversity, you’re going to meet people here very different from yourself. Whether from deprived inner London, home-counties affluence, or rural Wales one’s innate assumptions (read prejudices) will be challenged; at school they’re generally reinforced.

I’ve found university is also about opportunity. Hungry for sporting success? Oxford has more sporting teams then you can wave a stick at. Eager to pester your friends into pointless voting? The Union is the greatest establishment for doing so in the known world. Want to try medieval re-enactment? I can’t imagine why you’d want to, but we’ve got it. We’ve got everything. Stuff that’d you’d never be able to do again, and stuff you’d probably not bother to do again. But in the trying and failing there’s some genuine learning to be done as well.

So here’s my underwhelming conclusion: Oxford isn’t all about work. In fact, while accepting the importance of getting that degree, there’s a great deal of other stuff to do which may in fact pay off big-time in the distant future. Ultimately it doesn’t matter what you study at uni. Just being here is a true education.

Rebuttal: Sam is ignoring everything that is great about this place, says Sean Scoltock

The greatest moral philosopher of our generation, Derek Parfit, recently published his long-awaited magnum opus, On What Matters. There, he arrives at the – devastating yet brilliant – conclusion that the two great ethical traditions, Consequentialism and Kantian Contractualism, fundamentally agree on what matters: they are, in his words, climbing the same mountain, just on different sides.

Sam goes one better. He tells us what really matters. Two ways to live one’s life – that of the pen and of the pint – can, in fact, complement each other. Enjoy your work – in all its quaint pedantry and Veblenite conspicuous wastefulness – and, by your mere presence here – socialising, networking, hacking – you will be better off. The faintest hint of an ideal synthesis is glimpsed: the scholar and the socialite are climbing the same mountain.

But look closer. The summit of Sam’s mountain better resembles the floor of a valley. If our studies are useless, then that’s a rather depressing thought. One imagines, on one side of the valley, a meticulous, steady descent to the depths of futility. The other side is no more appealing. An aimless meander downwards, unsure of both the route and the destination, filled with groundless certainty that all will be fine in the end. Deep and dark recesses of regret await.

Just being here is not enough. Playing hockey for your college’s 2nd team and busying yourself as Treasurer of the Random-and-pointless Society shouldn’t allay those worries that you’re not making the most of your degree. Neither should a packed social calendar, nor the knowledge that slightly-more-than-the-average-number-of-people have heard of you. Outside of the tutorial, it is not in the fleeting and ephemeral, but in the meaningful and edifying that intrinsic value lies.

The only singular feature of the Oxford undergraduate experience is the academic. And yet this could not be enough on its own. Thus emerges an alternative synthesis. The Mountain of Promise that looms over the Valley of Regret and Futility: pursue your studies to the best of your ability and forge enduring, significant friendships. You’re a student at one of the greatest seats of learning, taught by some of the most gifted academics, and, possibly just down the corridor, lives someone whom you will know for the rest of your life. Make the most of it.

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