Oxford and Columbia: Depth and Breadth

Thomas Dineen

Editor’s note: A version of this essay by NAS member Thomas Dineen first appeared in the Columbia Spectator on January 24, 1995. NAS reprints it here as an item of enduring interest for our members (and all who are curious about how elite higher education in the United States compares to that in Britain). As the original essay was written nearly two decades ago, some circumstances described here may have changed by now.

I embarked in 1991 to read law at Lincoln College, Oxford, with the usual Brideshead Revisited-based fantasies—swanning around medieval quadrangles swilling champagne, punting languorously along the Cherwell, and engaging tutors in arch repartee. 

I also wondered: Were Oxford undergraduates as bright and sophisticated as my old classmates at Columbia University (from which I graduated in 1989 with a B.A. in English literature)? Did Oxford’s tutorial system provide as good an education as Columbia’s classes? 

In some ways, they were, and it did.  British high school students concentrate early in their best subjects, so by the time they at arrive at university they usually study one subject for three years. It therefore wasn’t unusual to come across first-years who knew as much about literature as any middling Columbia English graduate, like me. 

But while they may leave university with a deeper understanding of their subjects than I did leaving Columbia, Oxford undergraduates necessarily lose in curricular breadth what they gain in rigor.  

Weekly tutorials with college fellows (called dons or tutors, about equal in rank to U.S. professors) are the main format of instruction at Oxford.  Tutors assign a substantial reading list and an essay to write, which students read aloud then discuss at the next tutorial.  There is little coddling—students must master basic concepts quickly, then be prepared to discuss their more arcane ramifications.   

This intimate setting (usually the tutor and two students) allows issues to be covered in considerably more depth than in a typical college class.  Moreover, tutors wouldn’t let me get away with the facile responses I often tossed out at Columbia.  Once they knew I was on the right track, they pried, Socratically, with ever harder questions.  When I had prepared well, tutorials were exhilarating…elevated exchanges that revealed complexities and refined premature conclusions. 

American universities might benefit by having occasional tutorials.  They improve one’s articulateness and let teachers address esoteric issues in great depth.  In addition, the weekly essays at Oxford honed my writing in a way that sporadic Columbia term papers could not.  I also found Oxford dons to be more sparing in praise than the average Columbia instructor, which raised my self-expectations.  In short, Oxford’s teaching method, though time-consuming for tutors and implicitly expensive, is hard to match if depth and precision are pedagogical goals. 

Oxford’s curricula are nothing if not traditional; Anglo-Saxon is mandatory for those reading English, as is Roman Law for law students.  Such requirements leave little time for indulging cross-disciplinary interests, which was always encouraged at Columbia.  Indeed, at Oxford, straying from one’s subject can be frowned upon.  I recall once referring to Plato during a criminal law tutorial only to have the remark dismissed with a quizzical look from my tutor.  Such references usually stirred Columbia instructors to explore authors and subjects even further afield. 

The British consider our grading system rather lax; by its nature, theirs is more stringent.  Skim reading before a test doesn’t work at Oxford, where the only grade that really counts is the student’s “class” in Final Exams; this is based on his composite score in a week of essay-only exams (taken in bow ties and black gowns), for which he must know over two years of material. 

Despite this holistic approach, I don’t remember much more from Oxford than I do from Columbia; yet I more thoroughly understand how various aspects of my Oxford subject fit together.  Still, the Oxford system can unjustly reward those who do little for tutorials, yet perform well on comprehensive exams.  At American universities, there’s always a chance to redeem oneself after a bad semester, which instinctively seems more fair (though again, a bit lax…preparing for Finals at Oxford made even my toughest exam periods at Columbia seem relatively easy). 

One indisputable advantage of Oxford is that students may attend virtually any lecture in any subject they wish…they need not register for or consistently attend particular ones, as in the U.S.  Thus everyone has access to the stars of every faculty.  Compare this with the anxious flight to get into desirable classes with popular professors at U.S. universities. 

But at least each Columbia course was a discrete academic experience, usually with a clear path to success: take good notes and study hard for the exam and/or write good papers.  At Oxford, one must constantly juggle tutorials, lectures, and revision for Finals.  Full understanding of one’s subject and good results are sought along disparate roads, a quality I sometimes found disjointed.  

In addition, quite a few Oxford dons cultivated a benign aloofness toward the academic fate of their students, ignoring slackers as often as reprimanding them.  Yet this does compel students to become self-sufficient fast.  It’s almost totally up to the student to make something of his education. 

Another virtue of Oxford lies in its organization.  The university is a federation of thirty-eight colleges, each with about 100-700 students.  Though colleges can become village-like gossip-mills, their smallness makes tutors accessible and eliminates the horror of big-university bureaucracy.  Registration hassles, for example, are minimal compared with the Kafkaesque nightmare I recall at Columbia.  

Politically, Oxonians tend to be liberal, yet scholarly methods are typically more conservative than those at Columbia.  Many dons find amusing the American fixations on multiculturalism and political correctness—they quaintly think universities are for education rather than political activism or social engineering.  And although these days it is more merit- than class-based, elitism remains entrenched at Oxford.  Envied their place near the top of the British educational heap, Oxonians can be self-satisfied.  This made me miss the unpretentiousness of most Columbians.  

I finally think the two systems cultivate different intellectual qualities at different times.  Columbia provides a well-rounded generalist base from which a student can move on to graduate study or a job.  Oxford fosters depth, but at a time in students’ lives when they are just forming their tastes.  Yes, Columbia’s programs are sprawling and sometimes dilettantish, but so were my interests when I was eighteen.  I’m grateful for the broad knowledge I acquired at Columbia before refining my thinking at Oxford. I always had much to ponder when wandering around the quads, champagne bottle in hand. 



Image: Wikipedia, Public Domain

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