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Bill and friends' excellent adventure; Rhodes scholars may know a lot. But they didn't learn it at Oxford.

I used to work with a young English woman named Tracy, a freshly minted graduate of Oxford University who spoke with one of those British accents that make you want to put on a tie and sit up straight. Tracy once told me a story about her alma mater and a professor--or a don, as they are known in England --whom she suspected was not paying much attention as she read her essays aloud during their weekly one-on-one tutorials. To find out if she was right, she randomly inserted the word "ferret" in three places in one essay, which was about John Donne and had nothing to do with animals, weasels or otherwise. Her don, as she suspected, did not say a word. So the next week, Tracy upped the ante by inserting 12 "ferrets" into her essay; the don didn't so much as shift in his seat. The pattern continued until the term ended, by which time Tracy had installed a few zoos worth of gratuitous "ferrets"--72 of them by her count. Had he bothered to listen, the don would have heard what sounded like the ravings of a lunatic: "The problem ferret is that the Romantics ferret ferret could not countenance ferret. . . ."

This story came to mind back in October when George Bush engaged in an improbable bit of pre-debate posturing by claiming to be underschooled ("You know, I don't pretend to be the world's greatest debater. I didn't go to Oxford.") and again when Bush tried to paint Oxford as a hot bed of fancy ideas about "social engineering" ("My opponent is drawn to these views. He and a number of his advisors studied them at Oxford in the late sixties."). If Bush couldn't figure out whether to compliment the university or charge it with sedition, it hardly seemed to matter. Dukakis and Harvard may have been wounded four years ago by Republican rabble about elitist "boutique" ideas, but Bill Clinton and Oxford weathered Bush's last round of arch populism virtually unscathed.

In fact, Bush's campaign demagoguery, Clinton's eventual triumph, and the imminent arrival of a whole slew of Oxonians at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue have only increased the cachet and glamour of the gothic spires. From the regents and dons of the university you could almost hear the happy tinkling of sherry glasses toasting a new generation of the best and the brightest in the White House: economic advisors Robert Reich, Ira Magaziner, and Saul Benjamin, and young turks George Stephanapolous, Bill Halter, Atul Gawande, and Bruce Reed. Post-graduate stints at Oxford were the favored path of success for upstart politicos and the overly ambitious long before Clinton ever set foot on British soil, and long before the two Supreme Court justices and five senators now toiling in Washington got their Oxford sheepskins. But more than ever, a two or three year jaunt to the Mother Country is the confirmed ticket to punch now that the university has finally sent an entire crew to the varsity team.

"Oxford! The very sight of the word printed or sound of it spoken, is fraught with most actual magic," says Max Beerbohm's narrator in Zuleika Dobson, and you can't blame him. It is hard to argue with Oxford's beauty, its mystique (just ask George Bush), or its track record in producing scholars, politicians, and entertainers of world-class caliber. Oxford, after all, gave us Adam Smith, Shelley, Samuel Johnson, Oscar Wilde, Graham Greene, penicillin, and one third of Monty Python.

The school has also produced its share of American luminaries. But our national crush on Oxford has less to do with its alumni than with our Bridesheadish image of the place: its aura of tweedy erudition, its dewy green fields, gargoyles frowning from the turrets of medieval buildings, and all those pipe-smoking lads in white pants and thick sweaters debating the merits of Gibbon and Eliot. But like a lot of crushes, this one is partially founded on misconceptions. As I discovered during my own two years there in 88 and 89, our hoary vision of Oxford contains some kernels of truth. But I also learned what my friend Tracy already knew: To the extent that a university's reputation is derived from the quality of education it provides, Oxford is overrated. And most Americans studying there couldn't care less. For them, the main challenge is finding ways to stay amused. With its star rising as fast as its most famous alum, the time has come for an unsentimental look beyond the myths.

Don yawn

The heart of the Oxford education--for British undergraduates and for the many American grad students who do two-year versions of undergrad degrees --is the tutorial system. It sounds at first like the perfect antidote to America's overstuffed and impersonal lecture halls: lock yourself in a room with a learned prof and go mano-a-mano for an hour on the topic of the week. The session begins with the reading of an essay you have written, leaving the bulk of the time for chin-stroking and discussion. At the end of the hour, your don offers up a new subject, a list of books to pore over, and sends you off to write another cogent synthesis of another topic. It sounds great, and sometimes it is. With a dedicated don and a curious student, it's hard to conceive of a more intense learning experience. Some Oxford alums get downright soggy recalling individual tutorials.

But as the ferret story makes clear, without a committed teacher this system is a hopeless disaster. "There's nothing like tutorial teaching when both sides take it seriously," says Alan Ryan, a former Oxford don now a professor of politics at Princeton. "If they don't, then it's the idlest and least efficient system there is." Ryan learned this firsthand when he arrived at Oxford's New College and found that one of his colleagues had been marching off to a bar with students after listening to their essays and nodding vague, unhelpful approvals. "These chaps were all absolute tabulae rasae when I got ahold of them," says Ryan.

Every Oxford student has at least one good variation on the distracted don theme; dons who slinked under a rug, skimmed the newspaper, or--my personal favorite--sat and shaved with an electric razor while students read out their essays. Most common, not surprisingly, are dons who snooze. Developing strategies to keep sleepers awake was generally half the fun of their tutorials, the trick being to keep the guy upright without letting on that you know he's falling asleep. This was a special challenge with the most narcoleptically inclined of them, a nearly retired politics don who could scarcely keep his eyes open in classes after 3 p.m. Reading at twice the ordinary decibel level was one strategy; fluctuating between a soft and loud voice was another. But neither was foolproof A friend of mine finally dreamed up an ingenious technique. At the beginning of every sentence, he would state the name of this teacher: "Mr. Smith, Hume's analysis of the problem of causation raises some baffling questions. Mr. Smith ...." The don felt obliged to politely nod back at every mention of his name, which kept him awake.

During term, students have just two one-hour tutorials a week to attend and there are no mandatory lectures. Ostensibly they are off devouring books and scribbling essays the rest of their time. But they're not. Now, Oxford is no different than other schools around the world in being rife with undergrads who'd rather cavort than dissect Hegel, but the British system seems to encourage would-be scholars to choose the bars over the books. For one thing, students don't actually hand in their essays, they just read them out. The difference is vast. You'd be amazed at how easy it is to cobble together a couple of pertinent facts, cull insights from secondary sources and wing the transition sentences once you get to class. If you're feeling particularly lethargic, near-by bookstores offer plenty for the student in need of a quick precis that can be easily paraphrased into an original essay.

And while the American system tries to keep minds focused by grading constantly, Oxford's students are not evaluated with a mark that matters until two weeks before they leave the place for good. (There are college-wide tests at the start of each term called "collections," but they're primarily used to signal looming disasters.) In sum, the essays are not graded, lectures are optional, and there's no exam to sweat at the end of term.

Pint of lager, please.

Hard work is not only unnecessary, it's essentially frowned upon. Wanting to excel, striving for high marks on collections, even heady discussions are subtly tsk-tsked as indecorous. "Dining hall talk was not supposed to be about Plato," says one Rhodes Scholar, there in the eighties. "Oxford places the emphasis on fluency and glibness. Serious discussions are not encouraged." If you end up with a high mark at the end of your years, fine, but wanting to do well and applying yourself is deemed off-putting. At Balliol, the college that I attended, this ethic was semi-officially codified as "effortless superiority." Lots of the American students--most of whom had been hyper-industrious undergraduates--had a hard time adjusting to Oxford's too-clever-to-care chic and devised ways to study on the sly.

You can trace this culture of cool detachment to the British secondary schooling system. By the time English students are 15 they are already winnowing down which subjects they will major in for the rest of their years in school, and they are accepted into college to study one subject--and only one subject--as undergrads. Their advantage is that they get to dig deeper in a narrow field and develop an expertise. The drawback is, they're bored. The academe becomes something like a salad bar where you can only help yourself to the beans--which tends to make you very cynical about beans and sick of salad bars in general. The standard rap against American education is that it's superficial and next to the British system, it's guilty as charged. But while the smattering approach to the curriculum may not lend itself to penetrating thought, it has the advantage of keeping the enthusiasm level high.

"Irony is an almost mandatory part of the British education," says Simon Schama, a former Oxford don, now teaching at Harvard. "There's almost no irony in American education. American students believe there's an answer to everything. British students believe there are no answers to anything. This prepares the British student to be indifferent to just about anything other than having a good time."

And have a good time they do. So do the Americans. In fact, the hard part for U.S. students is figuring out how to spend the day. One Marshall scholar I knew at Oxford described his daily regimen this way: "Wake up at noon. Noon to one, lunch. One to two-thirty, hang around and play guitar. Two-thirty to four, nap. Four to five-thirty, exercise. Six to eight, dinner. Eight to nine, do some work. Nine to eleven, hang around and play guitar. Eleven to three in the morning, television." One group of U.S. students in the late eighties was so bored that they decided to keep their watches--and their lives--set to American time for one entire term. They blackened their windows with curtains and towels and were essentially nocturnal for eight solid weeks, eating dinner right around breakfast time and getting to sleep by noon.

Those not addled by tedium have a blast. George Will may remember his time at Magdalene College, as he did in a 1991 column, for fervid discussions about Stigler and the virtues of the Chicago school of economics. But Massachusetts Governor William Weld's rendering of life at Oxford sounds more like the norm to me. A New York Times Magazine profile explained that for Weld, Oxford was "lager and chocolates, poker games and parties without end, 10 sets of tennis every afternoon, played on grass courts so no one ever got tired."

That's when school is in session. Most of the time, Oxford's students are on vacation. The English school year is divided into three terms of eight weeks with a six-week break between terms and a 16-week summer vacation. That's eight weeks on, six off, eight on, six off, another eight on and then it's summertime. The "vacs" as they are known, are intended as reading periods to bone up on the last term's work and prepare for what's ahead. I've heard about Brits who put this time to productive use--but I can't say I ever met one. For Americans, vacs were travel time, a chance to explore Europe, the Middle East or--like Clinton--Russia. Oxford alums knew immediately that the university's leisurely schedule, not communist skulduggery, was behind the incoming president's 1969 trip to Moscow.

"My main impression was just how easy it was," said one Rhodes who attended Oxford shortly after Clinton, and "there's a sort of a conspiracy. of silence not to reveal this."

Nigellian tables

Oxford's dons, by contrast, are overworked. In fact, the more you know about their schedules, the harder it is to begrudge them their naps. Typically they have 15 hours of tutorials a week, plus lectures to prepare and deliver, plus a wide range of administrative duties that includes everything from screening next year's incoming class to running the college's investment portfolio. "I didn't hope to do any work on my own during the term," says Amartya Sen, a renowned economist who used to teach at Oxford and was lured away by Harvard five years ago. "At one point I was teaching 12 tutorials a week and lecturing and reading papers. It all adds up to a hell of a lot of hours." It also adds up to a great deal of brain-glazing repetition. For scholars who would rather be trailblazing in their fields, listening closely to the 400th student effort to define negative and positive liberty isn't easy. The more mischievous of the undergrads at Balliol knew this and made a game of deciding over breakfast which totally inappropriate phrase they would all try to slip by their dons that week. My favorite was "the last train to Vladivostok," which was somehow woven into a number of essays, apparently without eliciting any comment.

For all their travails, Britain's teachers are paid sums that would make their U.S. equivalents blush. Senior lecturers who have put in a few decades of service can now expect to pull in roughly $45,000, exactly half of the published average salary of a Princeton professor. And though Oxford was the spawning ground for The Wealth of Nations, it apparently has a visceral aversion to free-market forces. Publish an academe-rattling treatise on quantum physics or wile away your days shaving, if you're a British scholar it won't affect your bottom line. Aside from winning a promotion to a professorship--awarded by the university biannually, two dozen or so at a time--living another year is the only way to get a raise.

Government-imposed penury and the school's devotion to an inflexible pay scale have had an inevitable effect. Since the eighties, Oxford has been losing heavy-weight scholars at a dizzying rate and many of its departments can boast only negligible fractions of the talent they used to have. Oxford, for instance, was the center of the known universe for philosophers in the late seventies. Now that the likes of Simon Blackburn, Colin McGinn, Steven Lukes, John McDowell, and others have departed for the United States and elsewhere, the philosophy department is unremarkable.

To some extent, the quality of the Oxford education doesn't matter. The British, like many other societies, tend to look at college as a seasoning experience rather than a career-making or breaking one. Securing a spot at Oxford, in a system that allows barely 2 percent of teenagers to get a university education, is most of the battle. As long as Oxonians don't founder miserably once there, they are well positioned for the plunge back into the real world. The rare over-eager types and those interested in a career in academia are inclined to work hard, but otherwise there's little reason to break a sweat, at least until final exams come along.

Americans on scholarships tend to be monumental slouches for different reasons. The important achievement for those who land one of these free rides is the scholarship itself, and neither the Rhodes Trust nor the administrators of the Marshall Scholarship get particularly anguished about their wards kicking back and enjoying the scenery once they've arrived. Lots of Rhodes and Marshalls don't even bother getting degrees at Oxford (Clinton didn't), and many others scrape by with what are called "thirds," degrees that in this country roughly translate into two years of straight "D"s. (Bill Bradley got a third and has joked ever since that he received "the third highest" mark at Oxford).

So if Oxford is overrated, who cares? Not the students. And not the eager consumers, in this country and others, of its Jeremy Irons elegance. Old World gravitas is what we want from Oxford and it's got that in spades. It's also got a name that can't be beat, a credential that looks swell on the resume. But before Clinton wannabes decide they need that Oxford experience, they should know what they are getting into. Heed the words of one of the prime purveyors of Oxford nostalgia, Evelyn Waugh. In a letter to a friend while an undergraduate, Waugh summed up the situation succinctly: "Life here is very beautiful. Mayonnaise and punts and cider cups all day long. One loses all ambition to be an intellectual."
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Title Annotation:President-elect Bill Clinton attended University of Oxford in the United Kingdom
Author:Segal, David
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Cover Story
Date:Dec 1, 1992
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