The following special article was written for the Crimson by Clarence Crane Brinton, Ph.D. Dr. Brinton graduated from Harvard in 1919 and later pursued his education at Oxford University. He is now an instructor and Tutor in the department of History at the University.
The article deals with the system of education at Oxford, including the tutorial method.
American imitation has always been something more than flattery, possibly because of our happy ability to forget the origins of our imitations. Of late years sophistication has produced a school that will have nothing that is not indigenous. In the resulting quarrel between the imitators and the originators the subject matter has often been forgotten in the delight of dispute. This is true even of a place so remote from the rest of America as Harvard. The "Oxford tutorial system" has been praised or decried, but not studied. It is not of course desirable that the Oxford system be separated in practice from the needs and hopes of those who are remoulding Harvard, but merely that it be studied as something real in itself rather than used as a phrase to spread still vaguer phrases
"Ideal, not factual content", "by thought, not by rote" and all the rest. It is suggested, not that we try to act toward Harvard without prejudice, which would be calamitous, but that we try to learn about Oxford without prejudice. We are not after all trying to make over Oxford.
Social Differences Are Extreme
The older English universities are still socially run in a way difficult for Americans to understand. Their members all belong to, or aspire to, a ruling class. Their freshmen have received a secondary education that puts them some eighteen months ahead of ours. No one works his way through Oxford or Cambridge. Almost everyone can look forward to a safe future. Leisure is thus essential in preparation for a life in which struggle is tempered by privilege. All this is perhaps changing; but in comparison with Harvard it will long the true.
Oxford and Cambridge are universities each composed of some twenty-odd colleges. It is difficult to describe in brief the relation between the university and the colleges. We shall not be far wrong if we consider the university as a federation of colleges possessing in themselves a large measure of autonomy. The university provides lectures, gives examinations, and grants degree; the college provides instruction and residence. Admission to the University is gained by an entrance examination known as Responsious; admission to a college--quite a separate matter--by family influence, recommendation, competitive examination, and even by election to a Rhodes Scholarship. The year is divided into three terms of eight weeks each. A certain amount of work is usually done in the vacations.
Principal Examinations Are Finals
Let us assume a young man comes to Oxford to "read" for honours in Modern History. Once admitted to the university, he faces two sets of examinations, one about half-way through his three-year course, the other at the end. The first set, or "History Previous" is comparatively easy, and serves to keep the student in the proper path and to hold him up to his modern language requirement. The final examinations, most of three hours, on English political history, English constitutional history, a period of general history since 285, political science, economic history, and a minute special field, such as the Age of Hildebrand. There is also a viva voce examination held in public before a board of examiners. In addition to these university examinations almost all colleges have their own examinations, or "collections", at fairly frequent intervals, designed to keep their undergraduates to the mark or to serve as dress rehearsals for the final examinations.
Attendance Is Optional at Lectures
The university not only examines and grants degrees: it also provides lecturers. These are given either by professors, who are university officers and do no tutoring or by fellows of colleges who also act as tutors in their own colleges. Most of these lectures are on special subjects not to be got out of text-books, such as "The Law of Nature in the Scholastic Philosophy". But there are many lectures that make such subjects as English constitutional law or the French Revolution appear easier than they are, and these are well and faithfully followed. Attendance is not usually required, although a few dons have been known to expect their own pupils to attend their lectures; and it is hard to cut one's own tutor in his capacity as a lecturer. There are no quizzes in connection with the lectures, no required reading, and no examinations. Most men attend lectures recommended by their tutors as helpful in preparing for their final examinations, usually not more than five hours a week for a clever man and ten hours for a stupid one. Some people do go to more because they like to; but lecturing is so bad, especially as to fluency and dramatic effectiveness, that not even the stupid men are tempted.
Teaching Done By Tutorial Method
The college is a place of residence and instruction. As a place of residence its qualities are no doubt sufficiently familiar. We probably have a less erroneous idea of Oxford social life than the middle Westerner has of Harvard social life. The teaching of the college is in the hands of its fellows, the "dons", and is now done wholly by the tutorial method. The student of history has in any one term of eight weeks one, or perhaps two, tutors, with whom he studies a particular part of his field. He sees his tutor once a week for one hour. At the beginning of the term the tutor decides what his pupil is going to read--though the order of subjects is more or less set by custom. He then assigns an essay subject, and gives a generous list of suggested reading. The subject is usually controversial, not to be written from text-books. It ought, however, to imply the study of important events and of a fairly long period, so that a series of eight essays approximates a connected study of what we should call a course. Such, for example, as "Was Magna Carta a reactionary fuedal document?" or "What was the effect of the French Revolution on English Politics and on the reform movement?" The essay should take some sixteen hours of preparation. It is possible to scamp the work a bit, but it is hard to believe that an Oxford tutor could be made to accept an essay taken bodily from the Encyclopedia Britanica, a thing which certainly has been done at Harvard. The pupil reads the essay aloud to his tutor, which takes about half the hour. The tutor then spends the rest of the hour picking the essay to pieces or discussing ideas suggested by it. Everything here depends on the tutor. The dull ones--who are numerous--can do little more than all in omitted details. The good ones can drive a pupil to despair and learning. Most tutors provide their pupils with tea, lunch, or dinner at suitable intervals. Where this is not perfunctory, it is very pleasant. College beer is often good, and always useful.
Anarchy Illusion Is Dispelled
It will be well here to descend from objectivity and point out from this brief outline some of the commoner illusions about Oxford current among us. Many Oxford tutors do set up final examinations as a goal in themselves. Their pupils are not left in a sort of philosophic anarchy until the final examinations. They are kept to the line by the "collections" set by the colleges, and their work in each honour school is rigorously prescribed even to the "set" books. Grades are not known, for the tutors mark their dress rehearsal examination in a complicated way--Alpha, Alpha Beta, Beta Alpha, Beta, or satis, non satis, vix satis, vix vix satis. Some of the lectures are very close to our condemned survey courses. There is a degree of specialization that is hardly safe except in a very civilized community. The man who studies history studies nothing else at Oxford. It is assumed that his public school has given him an education sufficiently broad to permit him to follow out his own interests, and that his conversation with his fellows will complete the process. The student of history will read his Jane Austen like any other educated man, and will not need English 29 to encourage him to do so. But in many colleges this assumption is untrue. One of the best of Oxford colleges has recently instituted a system of general essays for its undergraduates, on such subjects as "Is the cinema an art," in order to take them out of their narrow specialities. This is dangerously near distribution.
Tutorial System Is Not A Panacea
There are in Oxford sufficient traces of the same evils found in Harvard is prove that the tutorial system in itself is not a guarantee for anything. It is better than the lecture system if the tutors are very good and if the undergraduates have a thorough secondary education and sufficient leisure not a demand immediate results. After all, the best of Oxford is not due to a system but to a civilization. Perhaps the two will never be incidental.