Why did you come to Oxford? Perhaps it was for the glorious architecture, or the centuries of history that have converted what is admittedly a fairly decent set of spires to an untouchable myth. Perhaps, like me, you read Brideshead Revisited one too many times at an impressionable age, and immediately made it your life goal to become Sebastian Flyte (preferably minus the teddy bear and alcoholism). Or perhaps your motives were slightly nobler and it was Oxford’s illustrious academic record that attracted you. After all, the tutorial system is legendary; there’s no better place to go to develop your ability to think deeply about a subject. Or is there?
I arrived in Oxford a mere two months ago, and was immediately surprised by a host of bewildering new vocabulary. The Union (why is it called that when it’s a debating society?). The pigeon post system (I knew Oxford was archaic, but this is ridiculous). Sub fusc (sorry, you want me to wear what?) When the time came to get down to work, I was somewhat relieved: here, at last, was something I understood. My tutors were to stretch me, challenge me, force me to delve into the very heart of the issues surrounding my subject. Then came my first reading list, with the caveat that as I couldn’t be expected to read all those books in depth before my essay was due, I should choose a few and skim them for the relevant details. I boggled. Okay, I wasn’t exactly keen to pore over every last footnote of some 600-page tome on advanced metaphysics, but skimming didn’t strike me as being quite in the Oxford spirit. Wasn’t I supposed to be thinking deeply? Eventually, the harsh realities of a Monday deadline caught up with me and skim I did, ending up with a reasonably credible essay on the mind-meltingly broad topic of ‘What is linguistics?’
Strangely, none of the other undergrads I spoke to seemed to find this peculiar, nor did my tutor remark upon the superficiality of my bibliography. When questioned, my college parents spoke cheerfully of faking their way through tutorials, scraping pass marks in exams, and the benefits of Wikipedia as a study tool. Could these really be the brightest minds in the country? Sadly, yes. They weren’t learning the analytical reasoning skills I had been led to expect. They were learning how to blag.
Now, I’m not necessarily suggesting that blagging is a bad thing. The ability to think on one’s feet, synthesise large amounts of data and assume an air of mastery on the strength of minimal background reading are all valuable qualities in our fast-paced modern society. (They’re also very useful for getting a job: one Oxford-educated EU employee told me that once you’ve got through a tutorial unprepared, interviews become laughably easy.) The issue is that they’re not the skills Oxford purports to develop. Oxbridge is still both advertised as and popularly supposed to be a place of education for education’s sake, one of the last bastions of civilisation in a world ever more dedicated to training people solely for the workplace. Had I come here for any reason other than to re-enact the homoerotic mishaps of fictional bright young things, I might feel disappointed; betrayed, even.
My own disillusionment aside, it is in fact a serious public issue if Oxford isn’t teaching its students to think deeply. Consider the proportion of Oxbridge-educated Cabinet members, then remind yourself that they are essentially slightly older versions of your hungover, Very Short Introduction-skimming tute partner. In a society focused on soundbites, people willing to ponder the consequences of policy are already vanishingly rare. Combing painstakingly through data rather than scanning it; listening to all sides of an argument rather than just the one that fits this week’s essay topic; going beyond the obvious answer to something more lasting: these techniques have the potential to improve public discourse immeasurably, but they’re not the ones we’re learning.
But perhaps this is just a naïve fresher’s complaint; perhaps next term things will change and the legendary epithet ‘Oxford tutorials teach you how to think’ will come true. I do hope so. Because right now, I’m not being taught how to think, but how to fake.