Oxford Up There Again

The Times has written a blog-article on the proportion of the new UK government who went to Oxford (in fairness, I must point out that some proportion went to the Other Place, which is also rumored to be quite good). A perennial topic. I enjoyed reading the comments. But then I wondered whether the question could be seriously answered, and decided to have a go. (People may see the beginnings of an answer right there.)

My first degree: Oxford; my others: UC Berkeley (also a top tenner). I taught very briefly at Stanford, have worked at unis in Switzerland, France, Scotland and, for 15 years now, in Germany. I think I have a basis for comparison.

I felt like an outsider in Oxford, oppressed by the pressure of trying to achieve, and feeling that I wasn’t up to it, a feeling that it took me another decade to learn to ignore. But 40 years later, most of my matriculating class, including 5 of 7 maths people, turn up every few years for the reunions (one has died, and the Wykehamist disappeared during the course – is that what they learn there? Good prep for a career in offshore finance, I would think :-) ). Two of us turn up for the Maths Institute Garden Party every so often. Contact with pals at UC Berkeley lasted longer, for I was there more than twice as long; but I make only occasional email contact with one or the other.

Last year, there was a reunion to celebrate 40 years of my Oxford degree course, in Maths and Philosophy, and lots of people turned up, including all those still alive – two of them octogenarians – who were responsible for setting it up, as well as all the holders over the decades of the associated Chair. There were more intense discussions over those two days than I have experienced at most conferences. It was my most delightful intellectual experience of the last decade (here, my heartfelt thanks to Hilary Priestley, Dan Isaacson, and Jochen Königsmann for organising it!).

Compare. My Bielefeld colleague, Ipke Wachsmuth, a delightful man whom everybody likes, just celebrated his 60th with a symposium and fun party at which he played lots of blues harmonica (about which I learnt that the hard part is picking the kit that fits the tune). Lots of people there, but just four of us Informatics faculty, out of fourteen. And the oldest of us is 60 (him). It ain’t the same as in Oxford.

So what are the factors? First, some commentators said “contacts”. It is more than that. The college system somehow fosters bonds of shared experience, which may well directly benefit those who go into banking, law, or politics, which are all about trust. (Unlike Maths, which is about being faster than the next guy or gal, and Philosophy, which is about calling other people idiots as politely as possible, a skill only half of which I learnt.)

In the case of those in my small degree program, it is also a matter of shared intellectual value – value fostered by the founders, John Lucas, Sir Michael Dummett, the late Robin Gandy; the first holders of the chair, Dana Scott, Angus Macintyre; and Robin’s successor Alex Wilkie. People at the very top of their field, world-wide, with whom undergrads like me could sit down to tea and discussion a few times a week. That doesn’t happen elsewhere to anywhere near the same extent. But maybe it is invalid to generalise from my degree program to all those at Oxford.

Second, the tutorial system of teaching is unique and structurally supports “thinking outside the box”, if that’s what you can and want to do. The work is much less routine than, say, handing in the weekly homework exercises for a Stanford course, and it is always demanding because tutors tailor it to you – they have to do so, to keep their own interest up. Ah, yes, those tutors who spend more time teaching fewer students than any academics anywhere else in the world. Thank you, people, for your devotion! In my case, especially Ian Macdonald, who encouraged my interest in logic and encouraged me to switch to the “right” degree course, the eccentric Mark Broido, who set the hardest problems but pointed out that the only person who really cared if I solved them was me, an important lesson for a 19-year-old expecting to be told what to do, and Ralph C.S. Walker, who talked me down for two hours after I had royally blown the first paper in Finals, thereby enabling me to do passably on the rest.

Finally, a more diffuse factor. Do I care that the Nobel-Memorial Econ went to UCB last year? A little bit, yes, as with all those other Nobel Prize/Fields Medal/Turing Award winners there. Do I care that 4 out of 24 current UK cabinet members, plus the Attorney General, went to my Oxford college, Magdalen? Yes, most definitely. I am quite proud, even though I know none of them. So, third, the system seems to foster pride in one’s notionally shared common experience. That is a main bonding mechanism in successful governments, isn’t it? And how many experiences in life foster that? Like it or loathe it, it could be a factor. It seems to happen in France, too.

BTW, I am far more Whig than Tory and I guess the cabinet’s now both – does one say Whory, or is that too rude?.
BTW, II, the Other Place is organised more or less the same way, so similar observations hold, but of course just not as well…..
BTW, III, someone pointed out that “the Other Place” should be capitalised. Maybe; I’ve done so. Sorry.


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