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The Illustrated History of Oxford University.

This volume has ten essays by ten different scholars. The essays cover a wide range of topics, from the relations of the University with the City of Oxford ('town' v 'gown'), Oxford's part in English history, the university's architecture, its contribution to classical studies, to 'life sciences', medicine and 'modern physical sciences', to 'modern arts', to the University's various collections and to a final chapter devoted to 'the growth of an international university. As with all collections the appeal varies although the illustrations are of a high quality throughout.

In the first essay, the historian, John Prest, discusses the University's relationship with the City of Oxford although one wonders why the first essay was not on the University's role in English history, a somewhat more important topic. In John Prest's essay there is, to this reviewer, a somewhat apologetic note, as if the University had to apologise to the City for the powers it once had and for the influence it still has. One really should ask exactly what the City of Oxford, assuming it would have been raised from a town to city status had it not been for the University's presence, would have been without the University. The City has more than had its revenge through the motor works which transformed the university from being the city's centre to Cowley's 'left bank.' Once the Tudors had destroyed the abbeys there would have been little to distinguish Oxford from neighbours like Swindon or Reading.

In this essay on 'The University and the Nation' Vivian Green, formerly the Rerctor of Lincoln College, is surely rather dismissive about the Oxford movement when he writes that it was 'a backward-looking movement...[which] later contrived to inject some warmth into the liturgy and teaching of the Established Church'. If it was backward-looking so, too, is Christianity in that it traces its roots and mission to its foundation, something the Oxford Movement did, and did successfully.

Geoffrey Tyack, in his essay on 'The Architecture of the University and the Colleges', gives a good view of this subject although he barely mentions some of the most hideous modern buildings put up by the University and Colleges: they rival in ugliness anything the City erected in the form of council tower-blocks. The picture editor, if not Mr. Tyack, does, to be fair, include a photograph (fortunately in black and white) of the Florey Building put up by Queen's College. When the Queen Mother, as Visitor of the College, came to open the building she was rumored to have said that it was the ugliest building she had ever seen. She was right.

The Rev. Dr. Geoffrey Rowell's essay on the university and religion is well written and H. D. Jocelyn's contribution on classical studies is in itself a history of the university, especially when read in conjunction with the following essay on the University's contribution to modern studies in the arts by Alan Bell. While there is a glossary of peculiarly Oxford terms which includes for some reason, 'varsity', something this Oxonian never heard used, there is no chapter which describes the daily life of the University and its members in the 1990s. Unless one had been to Oxford oneself one would finish the book without knowing much about actual university life. Likewise, there is nothing about the growth of new colleges, the effect of admitting women into men's colleges, the University's current campaign to raise new funds, the problem of increasing violence against undergraduates (perhaps in delayed retaliation for all those centuries of ill-use by the University against 'townies'). Altogether there is a certain critical perspective missing in the book: for example, do efforts for a Japanese college in Japan lower the University's reputation even though they bring in money? We are not told of the debate about lowering standards in order to get coloured undergraduates. Finally we are not told of the University's shameful behaviour in refusing to honor Lady Thatcher, the United Kingdom's first women Prime Minister and an Oxford graduate, with an honorary degree -- and this in a century which has dedicated itself to advancing the cause of women. A great university can withstand criticism even in illustrated histories.
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Author:Munson, James
Publication:Contemporary Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1993
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