What’s better: Oxford’s depth or Yale’s breadth?

Oz Woloshyn, who is studying English at Magdalen College, Oxford, has spent the past year as a visiting student at Yale. Oz returns to Oxford next year, but he couldn’t resist offering some thoughts, with the help of some of the people he’s met along the way, on the differences between the two universities.

“Weed is antisocial: It facilitates the munchies and sleep. MDMA and its derivatives facilitate dancing and talking.”

No caption.
No caption.

So one American studying at Oxford summed up the major difference between perma-stoned Yale, where he also applied, and his own more ebullient alma mater. It is perhaps a slightly esoteric perspective on two of the world’s elite centers of learning, but nonetheless a helpful reminder that, inevitably, a university is not only an academic institution but also a social nexus. (And that drug consumption is markedly higher across the Atlantic.)

Oxford and Yale are both built in a largely Gothic style, both house their undergraduates in colleges, and both hold a semi-mystical place in the popular imagination. On the other hand, the two universities differ fundamentally in terms of pedagogic model, admissions procedure and attitude to life outside the classroom. But which is the base, and which the superstructure?

EXTRACURRICULARS

An account of the essential differences between receiving an undergraduate degree at Oxford and at Yale must take stock of student experience outside, as well as inside, the classroom. A crucial difference between the two universities is the esteem in which extracurricular activities are held.

It is telling, for example, that those tapped for Yale’s prestigious secret societies tend to play on sports teams, run gender panels or edit the News. At Oxford, by contrast, those who take part in student organizations are widely derided. In fact, a third-year at St. John’s College, Oxford, who consented to be identified only as “one who pursues the pleasures of text and flesh with equal zeal,” is far from alone in considering participation in non-academic activities “rather off-putting.” At Oxford, he said, the “excessive tribalism” of “the ridiculous student journo [journalist] cliques, the thesps,” and, worst of all, “the hacks” (those involved in student politics) has the effect of strongly discouraging participation by anyone with even a passing concern for his or her social status.

Part of this has to do with what Kate Maltby ’10, a staff columnist for the News who transferred from Oxford to Yale two years ago, called “the broader English disdain for anyone who shows too much earnestness.” Equally significant, however, is a particular self-valorising habit encouraged by the British university system: For all their indubitable strengths, none of the other British universities are ever mentioned in the same breath as “Oxbridge,” and students have to choose to apply to either Oxford or Cambridge.

Evidently, America also attaches snobbery to the Harvard-Princeton-Yale triumvirate, but students can apply to all three, and in any case, Stanford, Columbia and MIT are equally well-regarded. The result of this, as Maltby explained, is that, in the UK, “there’s a strong sense that to ‘be someone’ in one’s generation, one has to have ‘made it’ at Oxford/Cambridge. So the stakes in the hack world are perceived as much higher than they are, and the game is much nastier — which in turn, puts everyone else off.”

Another major reason for the difference in the perception of extracurriculars is the line taken by the universities themselves: At Oxford anything which falls outside of the direct sphere of academia is regarded as a distraction, whereas Yale adopts a more holistic approach to education. These attitudes are reflected in the fact that scholarships are awarded at Oxford purely on the basis of academic performance, while fellowships at Yale take significant account of wider achievements. In fact, one Oxford tutor, or “don,” who asked to remain anonymous for fear of causing offence, went so far as to say the Rhodes Scholarship — which sends about 32 students from the United States to Oxford for graduate school each year — “has nothing to do with scholarship.”

“It sends people over as a reward for being dilettantes on campus and persuading enough undergraduate organizations that they’re decent chaps,” the don said.

THE LIBERAL ARTS MODEL

The culture of demarcation in Oxford is perhaps ultimately a reflection of the way in which it structures undergraduate education.

David Kastan, the George M. Bodman Professor of English at Yale who has also taught at University College London, said the biggest difference between Yale and Oxford is that “at Oxford you apply to ‘read’ a subject and that subject is all that you study to get your B.A.,” he said. “At Yale and American universities you ‘major’ in a subject, but your major makes up only a quarter to a third of the courses you take.”

In other words, if you “read” English at Oxford, you work your way from “Beowulf” to “Ulysses,” but don’t do much else. At Yale, on the other hand, an English major can graduate, in the words of Literature major Tim Ellison ’10, without having “read Shelley or Dickinson or Whitman or James or even [gasp!] Shakespeare.” But you probably speak passable Hebrew and know what DNA is.

One system sacrifices breadth for depth, and the other depth for breadth, so that, in effect, the greatest strength of each model is simultaneously its greatest weakness. Nevertheless, the sense in Oxford is certainly that the British model has more credibility: Maria Paz Mendez Hodes, a graduate of Phillips Andover who is now a third-year studying English at St. Hilda’s College, Oxford, admits to not taking the work of friends at Columbia or Yale “very seriously.”

“Again, this is just a function of the fact that I have spent three years studying the same thing,” she said. “If I had gone to school at home, I think I would have switched majors at least twice, in keeping with the national average.”

That a Yale major only needs 16 credits — or about four semesters of work — is perhaps what leads one Stanford professor who has spent time at a British university and Yale to conclude that “the undergraduate preparation in England is better, more focused.”

Some of Yale’s own faculty appear to be of the same opinion: One professor in the humanities, who preferred to remain anonymous to speak openly, went so far as to call her undergraduate instruction “largely remedial,” comparing it to “teaching at high school” and contending that “the real business of education here [in the U.S.] doesn’t begin until grad school, when a commonality of texts among students can finally be assumed.”

The diversity (or is it incoherence?) of the student body implied by Yale’s liberal arts model risks giving teachers a major headache. Because, although all majors do have prerequisites, most classes (at least in the humanities) do not — professors have to start from first principles in every course they teach.

Thus, as the faculty member said, “in all likelihood, you’re going to be bored if you know anything about the subject.”

Another problem particular to Yale is that students do not select their courses until the beginning of each semester, during the much-feted “shopping period.” As a result, huge volumes of reading are expected of Yalies during school time, which leaves them with little time for exploring their own ideas and even less for off-syllabus research. At Oxford, students are expected to do their primary reading during the holidays, leaving term time to research areas of special interest and hone ideas.

WORKING HABITS

Jin A Bae, ’11 a Yalie currently on exchange at Hertford College, Oxford, noted this difference.

“[Oxford] encourages independent research and studying, efficient time management, and critical writing (a lot of it!), much more so than Yale lectures and even seminars,” Bae said in an e-mail.

Despite the fact that Oxford students have to choose one discipline for their whole undergraduate degree before they have even finished high school, absurd as it may sound, many feel more at liberty than their Yale counterparts.

Jacob Goodwin, for one, who is currently in his final year at New College, Oxford, argued that “the vast majority of learning is self-motivated and self-selected.” Reading English, his weekly assignment, usually “takes the form of ‘Write an essay about X, where X is an author or genre,’ ” he said.

Equally, at Oxford, there is no such thing as GPA and degrees are awarded on the basis of examination, supplemented by some coursework. This means that there is no incentive for students to stick to subjects they know, or to manufacture papers towards grades, as there is at Yale.

“One might say that at Oxford one can take more intellectual risks,” Kastan admitted, though he added the caveat that “in reality, often it merely allows a student to waste more time, knowing that nothing really counts until the final exams.”

And waste more time they do: Throughout most of their undergraduate careers, Oxbridge students work considerably less hard than Yalies, said a Yale graduate student who received his bachelor’s degree from Cambridge.

“The main difference here is the drinking age,” the graduate student said in an e-mail. “For me and for many others, the undergraduate degree [at Cambridge] was almost non-stop intoxication, with a burst of cramming at the end to pass the finals.”

But at Yale, he said, “you have to perform all term in order to get a good grade, and that plus the over-21 drinking age means that Yale undergraduates are harder-working and more professionalized.”

The figures tell the same story: While Yale partying tends to be confined to Toad’s, Viva’s, Rudy’s and a number of frat houses, Oxford boasts the 02 Academy (a nationally renowned venue for up-and-coming music acts), 15 nightclubs and more than a hundred pubs. It also says something about student culture (and something else about funding) that Yale’s Bass Library is open until 1:45 a.m. most nights, while Oxford’s equivalent, the Radcliffe Camera, closes its doors at 10 p.m.

With all that in mind, the “burst of cramming at the end” of an Oxbridge degree should not be misunderstood as a few late nights. In Oxford, finals consist of between 15 and 30 hours of written papers spread out over roughly 10 days at the end of the degree course. On the basis of these exams, students are awarded “First Class Honours” (a.k.a. ‘Firsts’’; read: a golden ticket to success in Britain), “Second Class Honours: Upper Division” (a.k.a. ‘Two Ones’; read: a good performance), “Second Class Honours: Lower Division” (a.k.a. ‘Two Twos’; read: a bad performance), or “Third Class Honours” (a.k.a. ‘Thirds’; read: disaster).

Needless to say, this is a fairly harrowing experience, which sees most students spend the three-month run up to exams in secluded exhaustion, under the influence of caffeine pills, glucose pills and, sometimes, unprescribed Ritalin. A decent number suffer nervous breakdowns and, at the last minute, opt to re-sit the year. It’s a bit like writing the senior essay at Yale. Times a million.

Suddenly, the Yale model of teaching appears flattered by comparison, and perhaps the liberal arts deserve a second hearing.

Yale student Ellison, after all, judged “the insistence, not merely the option, that students explore a number of intellectual arenas [to be] probably the best aspect of the Yale education.”

What Ellison was referring to is the system whereby, no matter what their major, in order to graduate, every Yalie has to complete a minimum number of classes in foreign language, natural science, social science, humanities and quantitative reasoning. Although such a system is open to accusations of being a crude imposition, Yale history lecturer and professor of biochemistry William Summers, said he is adamant that the distribution requirements do not simply “force science and math on some students, and language and humanities on others.”

According to Summers, even if the majority of Yale students do not “develop serious understanding and interests in these ‘foreign’ subjects … seeing the way another branch of knowledge approaches problems and studies its subject” nonetheless encourages lateral thinking. It is worth recalling that strict delineation of different branches of knowledge is a modern phenomenon: When, for example, the renowned scientific journal “Nature” was founded in 1869, the purple prose of some of its articles would put the Yale Lit to shame.

Yale student Maltby said she thinks that, unlike at the “intellectually segregated” Oxford, at Yale, “most people have read some political theory, and most people know the definitions and difficulties of scientific proof, so everyone has the basic equipment with which to have a fight over bioethics at the dinner table.”

It definitely appears that Yalies are much more liable to engage in intellectual conversation than their English equivalents, and the idea that this is a product of the liberal arts education they receive is, at the very least, an intriguing possibility. At Oxford, though, it would probably be explained by the prevalent theory that irony is a chronically underdeveloped faculty in American society.

Whatever the truth of the matter, intellectual cross-fertilization is a characteristic upon which students and staff at Yale alike pride themselves. The theory that the often helter-skelter transcripts of Yalies are compensated for by a greatly increased acuity for inter-disciplinary, critical thinking finds a supporter in Kastan, who argued that while UK students “end up knowing more,” U.S. students are “more able to do interesting things with the fewer facts they know.”

Pursuing the same line from the other side of the science- humanities divide is Nigel Godson, a professor emeritus of biochemistry at New York University who studied at Cambridge and taught at Yale. Godson makes the case that, in spite of the fact that “undergraduates at Oxford receive an absolutely first rate training in scientific practice, which in some sense better equips them with the tools of their job than those educated in the American system,” the flexibility of thought inculcated at Yale breeds better “proto-scientists,” more likely to lead their fields in the future.

TEACHING STYLE

Of course, a more tangible explanation of the superiority of science at American universities is the vastly greater availability of funding. But even Yale is not immune to global economic trends, and despite the fact that its endowment is so much larger than Oxford’s, it has felt the effects of the economic downturn more immediately.

Andrew Hamilton, formerly provost of Yale and now Vice Chancellor of Oxford, explained this phenomenon.

“Yale has had the unfiltered impact of a steep decline in the endowment and is now in a second year of budget cuts,” Hamilton said in an e-mail. “Oxford had the dampening effect of the recession filtered through the UK government funding agency, and the significant cuts are only starting to bite this year.”

More so than the humanities, scientific research demands money, and it is for this reason that Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry Joan Steitz fears Yale’s position is under threat.

“I am very concerned that — in these times of financial crisis — Yale has decided to cut back on teaching support for the faculty. Since I view teaching and training as Yale’s major mission, I believe that this is a mistake and that the cuts should instead be in administration and new ventures,” she said.

Indeed, it is worth noting that in spite of Oxford’s relative poverty (where a year’s highly-subsidized tuition costs around $5,000, as opposed to Yale’s $35,000), Oxford is more serious about providing undergraduates with access to faculty than Yale is. Case in point: A degree at Oxford is centered on the tutorial system, whereby students generally submit one essay per week, and then talk about it for an hour with their tutors, either one-on-one or in pairs. Over the course of a degree, most students are educated at the hands of between two and four main tutors, many of whom are fully tenured professors. The consequence is that Oxford can and does foster very intense academic relationships between undergraduates and their professors (“dons”), in a way that Yale simply does not — few Yalies are likely to be in formal contact with any professor for longer than a semester (two at most), with discussion groups often entrusted to teaching fellows and papers functioning primarily as a means of evaluation, not as invitations to dialogue.

As usual, there are compensations. The benefits of structured discussion and exchange of ideas between undergraduates are sufficiently obvious that even conservatively inclined tutors at Oxford are increasingly importing Yale-style class teaching and seminars. Equally, that most Yalies will be exposed to 20 or 30 different professors over four years gives a fantastic range of perspectives — even if it does seem to leave the development of a coherent critical faculty to accident.

Close association with only a few academics risks the opposite problem: That of myopic attachment to a particular critical mode. All in all, the Oxford system invests a potentially dangerous amount of responsibility in tutors: As Goodwin points out, the relationship can result in fireworks, but only “assuming the tutor is interesting, or interested, and not hung-over.”

STUDENT BODY

Unlike residential colleges at Yale, which are glorified halls of residence, each Oxford college functions with considerable academic and financial autonomy. Although there are moves towards centralization, currently students apply to individual colleges within the university, so that dons not only hand-rear their students, but also hand-pick them in the first place.

The net effect is that, despite paying constant lip-service to widening access, Oxford University has very little control over the composition of its student body. As one don, who preferred to remain anonymous to speak openly about contentious issues, observed, candidates are admitted if “they have a genuine cleverness and originality.”

“Sometimes they come from disadvantaged backgrounds, sometimes not,” the don said. “But the idea that we should take someone simply because they come from a disadvantaged background is strangely misconceived.”

Yale’s centralized admissions process, in contrast, means that the University in theory can and does more coherently attempt to select in favour of diversity. The don argued that the reality was very different.

“America has a long and troubled/troubling history of attempting to construct ideal communities. You can trace it back to the Pilgrim Fathers, or to millennialist sects, or to a more general utopian tendency that makes its citizens think that American democracy is the only kind that can ever work, especially in Iraq. Constructing a student body isn’t radically different to any other sort of utopian program, and is likely to be just as successful,” he said.

That Yale’s student body is not only “incredibly homogenous,” according to the Yale humanities faculty member, but also closely resembles Oxford’s, suggests that structured attempts at diversification or no, the two institutions cannot help but select their students from a relatively narrow section of society . While Yale boasts that more than 50 percent of its students are on financial aid, such a statistic says very little about representation of the poorest in society, as the financial aid policy extends to families with a household income of up to $180,000.

In this light, Kastan appears amply justified in questioning “to what degree either elite university avoids reinforcing existing patterns of privilege even as it overtly tries to ‘level the playing field’ of social inequity by way of educational opportunity.”

It is not that these institutions do not want to be a positive force for social change but, rather, as an Oxford don who preferred to remain anonymous because of university policy on media relations, laments, “when it comes to the education system as a whole, we come on the scene far too late and in far too small numbers to make the sort of interventions we might think valuable or necessary in society as a whole; we are French polishers rather than tree growers.”

In other words, to be in a position where an Oxford or Yale application is conceivable all but requires a middle class upbringing: a stable home, a good school district and academic role models. Yale is “need blind” within these closely defined parameters. Of course, there are students who make it to elite universities from genuinely deprived backgrounds, but they are anomalous, and often reliant on the chance of exceptional circumstances.

In England, even within the category of students at top universities, class awareness is sufficiently pronounced to play a major role in structuring daily life at Oxford.

“There is a group of 500 or so people who aren’t reliant on the college system for a network of friends,” Oxford student Paz Mendez Hodes said. “Oddly these ‘500’ exist because they have assembled themselves around the pre-existing networks from the private schools … Of the people in my phone book, I can count about three who went to state schools … I did not come here intending to mix only with those who went to schools similar to mine, but it appears that you end up in one group or the other. This class divide is definitely the worst thing about Oxford.”

Because social class tends to be disguised by the American myth of meritocracy, Yalies do not seem particularly conscious of it. To replicate its segregating function, a hyper-codification of extracurricular activities, which far exceeds the perceived cliquey-ness of Oxford, has emerged. From a cappella groups, to campus publications, to sports teams, Yale organizations anxiously exude exclusivity, which is reflected in their insistence upon arcane tradition and in their elaborate initiation rituals. Senior societies are the acme of this culture. What could be a better metaphor for social class than the large, architecturally imposing and yet windowless “tombs” which litter Yale’s campus? Begging to be looked at, they demurely decline to be looked into.

Despite all their obvious differences, Oxford and Yale teeter close to being unified by the same tendency: Their deliberately imposing and sometimes vaunting architecture makes them visible to all, but societal conditions mean that, despite bona fide attempts to widen participation, they remain open to only few.

Comments