To Be Part of History
POSTCARD FROM ENGLAND
The fact that Oxford is a curious place is surely a cliche. But the fact that this hodge-podge of idle proriety and flustered cluelessness commands loyalty so effortlessly amoung its students is quite another oddity. By the myth ofits name and the sublimity of its architecture alone, Oxford fuels a crippling English--and anglophile--desire to be part of a great history.
Everyday occurrences aren't exactly fodder for future fund-raisers. Take an ordinary supper in the dining hall of my college (colleges are like Harvard houses, except that Oxford has about 40 of them). The hall is about 500 years old and is bedecked with portraits of famous alumni and old Masters: Harold Wilson, Clement Attlee, Bill Clinton.
Students sit at ancient wooden tables like in an army barracks. At the front of the hall, elevated one foot above the rest of us, is the High Table; large silver candelabras, fine bone china and a staff of three to serve about six dons. When all students are seated, a secret door opens on stage and the High Table diners, with glasses of sherry in hand and long black academic gowns fluttering behind them take their seats.
The Master slams a gavel loudly at the head of the table and everyone in the hall stands in silence. A meek-looking undergraduate approaches High Table from the floor, and launches into a dialogue, completely in Latin, with the Master. The college grace lasts four and a half minutes and includes several false endings punctuated by 'Amen'. The student retreats back to the lower classes, and then dinner--served this way six times a week--begins.
At High Table, the six dons chatter away while butlers in crisp which uniforms gingerly usher three routinely exquisite courses onto their plates (and this is not exaggerated): smoked salmon mousse with a dollop of caviar, prime venison steak with exotic grilled vegetables and a painstakingly hand-crafted brandy snap shell filled with fresh berries and topped with a Grand Marnier sauce. Each course is served with a choice of wines from the college cellar. Afterward, they retire to the Senior Common Room for port and coffee. And this is where our tuition fees are going.
At Oxford, it is understood that the students should feel privileged to sit here in the resonance of so many before us. We play our part.
Down where the students sit, we are served a putrid-looking salad and a thin slice of turkey in gelatinous broth. Dishes of boiled peas and potatoes are plopped down onto the table, and students grab at them, shoving these shared portions of the meal onto their plates. Often, the potatoes and peas run out before all students get a share. There is clearly a class division here.
There is half-joking talk of over-throwing the ruling class and storming High Table, but that would be so indecorous--so un-Oxonian. It is understood clearly that we should feel privileged to sit here in the resonance of so many before us. We play our part.
Everywhere, the decadent scent of Collapsed Empire is heavy--and panting adoration of America is its choices perfume. On American Election Day last November, Clinton's victory was hailed with vicarious, supplicant glee by flying the American flag on the college tower. The most memorable college anecdote is the mind-numbingly dull story of how Clinton visited the college for a walkabout ("three indentical helicopters landed in Christ Church Meadwo--and then he shook all our hands!")
Not a week passes without some reference in lectures to this-or-that development in America--and as often as not, the work of some Harvard professor is admired. It is almost as if Britain, grasping at its historical ties to America, hopes to bask in some type of parental glory.
Last week, as the last vestiges of Empire slipped away with the return of Hong Kong, most Oxonians didn't want to watch. They shuddered to think of the evaporation of such a great past, and preferred instead to place their hopes on one of Britain's long-shot competitors at Wimbledon, Oxfor's Tim Henman.
At least the idea of Oxford provides isolated relief against reality, even if the functioning of the university itself does not. No wonder so many complain bitterly, but simultaneously feel such loyalty to the idea of Oxford: it tempts us with the myths we want to own.
After all, only a small elite in the world is able to look at most of the forty colleges and identify them by name, or understand what "mods" and "sub-fusc" and "bumps" mean, much less experience them Few people can look upon the ornate Victorian spires of Keble College looming over the University Parks on a sunny summer evening, and feel a sense of belonging and entitlement. Few students have the opportunity to meet such talented, fascinating and sometimes like-minded peers, and to form lifelong friendships with them. All these things are beautiful.
There is something irresistible about Oxford, despite the radical decentralization of the university and subsequent bankruptcy of several colleges and student resources, the poorly-veiled hostility of libraries, and the continual stomping-down of student inititative (last year's annual college report began euphemistically: "A spirit of cooperation has begun to replace the acrimonious Governing Body - JCR relations of previous years"). In the context of Britain, Oxford is still a repository of lost dreams and attitudes, with a life only as long as the memories that sustain it.
Buoyed by a collective resolve to love it, Oxford continues to float lightly, seemingly invincible to the world outside.
Patrick S. Chung '96 loves being at Oxford--really. He is studying for a Master's degree in enviromental policy as a Commonwealth Scholar.