Oxford criticism misses point of time abroad

That two Harvard “veterans” traveled to Oxford University and discovered the rest of the world is not their alma mater is surely not a bad lesson for them to learn. The essay that Melissa Dell and Swati Mylavarapu penned in the Harvard Crimson about their experiences in Britain is now well known, of course. It seems somewhat passe to replay the debates that effervesced on both sides of the Atlantic over a month ago, debates that became locked in a grid of comparisons between those two venerable institutions, Oxford and Harvard. What might be more interesting and, for those Yalies considering studying abroad, more relevant, is if we take this opportunity to consider the purpose of exchange programs, and how one might go about approaching them.

Beyond having a personal interest in such topics, I write as someone whose life over the past couple of years has been at the intersection of these institutions. Never a Rhodes, but a Fox, a Fellow, a Slater, and a Davis; holding accolades from Yale (twice), Columbia (twice), and Harvard (once), as well as the American Philosophical Society and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I consider myself slightly more than an academic tourist or intellectual nomad. As a current Fellow in Calhoun, and avuncular-like figure within that college — casually giving advice to those interested in applying to my home university of Cambridge, or Yale’s exchange programs generally — I take issue with the perspective of Dell and Mylavarapu’s essay, as well as some of the responses to the piece that appeared in Monday’s News (“Yale’s Rhodes winners defend Oxford studies”).

In reconsidering the original article, let us forgive the authors their contradictions (Oxford has an “outdated academic system,” yet it is one that “has changed a lot in the past fifty years.”), their ridiculous portrait of the beautiful city of Oxford as a land that time forgot (with “everything” from coffee shops to pharmacies rolling down the shutters at 5, prompt!), the dubiousness of their observations (one would hope they alerted workers at Google currently scanning the Bodleian’s rare artifacts that the library “house[s] a less than inspiring collection”), and their muddled motivations (they claim to be “frustrat[ed by the] academic experience” yet question whether one would want to study “immediately after turning in that 150-page senior thesis”). What we should not pass over is the provincial perspective to be found in that piece. It is a perspective that I think inheres in some of the coverage provided by the News on this topic, and it is a way of viewing the world that needs to be dislodged if the productive value of institutional exchanges is to be realized.

Coupling the “winning” of academic scholarships with a perceived entitlement to “success and celebrity,” the most galling aspect of Dell and Mylavarapu’s essay is its naivety, its monstrous lack of worldliness. Quite simply, the authors’ argument turns on the view — whether correct or not — that their time at Oxford has been poorly spent, because that institution lacks the functional ease and intellectual prowess of Harvard. Trawl through the online comments made about their commentary and you will find a number of ways have been proposed for testing these claims: size of endowment, prominence of faculty, number of Noble Prize winners. Using such slick equations, it is apparently possible to calculate the value an exchange might have on a person.

Worryingly, responses within Yale so far have failed to depart from this view. In the News article discussing how Rhodes scholars from Yale have dealt with this debate, the reporter surmised that success on such exchange programs requires, among other things, that students set “realistic academic and social goals.” Comments by Yale’s associate director for International Education and Fellowship Programs, Mark Bauer, seem to bear her out. Leaving New Haven to study abroad, Bauer said, prompts students to realize that studying in the U.K. is “no longer [like being at] Yale, and [students] miss the support, the camaraderie, the familiarity and being in control and on the top of their game.” The implication is that exchange programs force students to moderate their academic aspirations, and realize the quality of their life will not match that at Yale. Yet, in accepting any opportunity to study abroad, might it not be better to wander with an open-mind rather than convictions about difference and superiority?

So what if Oxford, Cambridge, and the many other institutions with which Yale holds reciprocal programs do turn out to be shoddy imitations of the Ivy League? What do you do if it proves Oxford is a weak imitation of its imitator? Does that mean your time there will be wasted? Surely not. For amid such challenges might you not also learn lessons about yourself, and the world you inhabit, the value of which far outstrips the immediate inconveniences they might pose? I have no doubt that those traveling to other, “foreign” institutions will face a battery of tests, and unfamiliar situations perhaps not encountered before. And when you do, be sure to embrace these incidents for proving the functional capacities you previously did not know you had, for their effect in enlivening your powers of curiosity, perhaps even granting you an insight and empathy absent in your peers.

Andrew Fearnley is a Fellow in Calhoun College and a Ph.D. candidate at Sidney Sussex College, University of Cambridge.

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