On the third of June, I submitted my master’s thesis. Six weeks or so later, a grade came back from the mysterious black box that is the examination system. I attended a leavers’ dinner. I said some goodbyes. I sang my last chapel evensong. I walked along the Thames from a meadow near Cirencester to the other side of the M25. This weekend I am visiting friends in Cambridge, and when I come back I will go to evensong in the Cathedral. I will take all my belongings out of the cupboards and bookshelves and put them on the floor. I will have my thesis hardbound and send it to be deposited in the Bodleian. I will put the belongings into boxes and suitcases and give them to the UPS man. I will say goodbye to Boar’s Hill, Iffley Church, the Natural History Museum, the Ashmolean, Trinity, Corpus. I will graduate, and my degree will go in the suitcases that aren’t going to the UPS man, along with the print of nineteenth-century Corpus I bought in an antiques shop, an extra copy of the hardbound thesis, my academic gown, a soft toy hedgehog called Harold, and maybe one or two of the books by John Addington Symonds I can’t bear to let out of my sight. I will sit in the front of the bus to Heathrow, as I did the first time I left, three years ago, and find the right song to put on my iPod, calculated to make me cry as my last glimpse of Magdalen tower fades out of view. But unlike last time, this time I am really leaving, because this time, I think, has ended in a parting of the ways between me and my beloved Oxford. I am a historian, but I think unlike many people who have a strong emotional investment in the past, I wouldn’t want to live myself in any era other than now—and Oxford is not a place, an institution, a culture, a way of life, that will allow me to move forward into a twenty-first-century adulthood.
Today a friend posted on Facebook a kind of bizarre, adoring profile of Oxford philosophy couple Derek Parfit and Janet Radcliffe-Richards. A magazine writer so enamoured of his subjects that he refers to them by their first names throughout would grate in any circumstance, but as I look ahead to my last week in an entity which has had one of the greatest emotional impacts of anything upon my life, this is the pullquote that jumped out at me:
Derek had lived almost his entire life in institutions—he was a scholarship boy at Eton, then went to Oxford as an undergraduate, to study history, and after winning a Prize Fellowship at All Souls aged 25 he never left. All Souls is a unique Oxford institution in having no undergraduates, only academic researchers.
“Derek has no idea what it is for a building to exist without a manciple and domestic bursar,” says Janet.
This alone speaks volumes about what, to any adult who wishes to lead an adult life, but particularly perhaps to women and to foreigners, is elusive and impenetrable and sometimes downright wrong about how Oxford works. But I also got that sense from the rest of the piece, which fetishizes obsessive, all-consuming academic work and a lack of social and emotional intelligence, and implies that both are indicative of someone being a better thinker and perhaps a better or more interesting person than others.
When I was writing my undergraduate thesis, a year beset by intense emotions of various kinds, I had on my carrel desk all year the New Yorker containing Larissa MacFarquhar’s piece about Parfit and his book On What Matters. I was moved by its account of Parfit and Radcliffe-Richards’ relationship, because it offered me hope that adults who are not especially beautiful or emotionally intelligent might still be able to find other people with whom to share their lives, and that our age offers not only different visions of family structure, marriage, etc. but different possibilities for the emotional content of an intimate partnership.
However, after two years in Oxford I see the institutional and structural side to this story rather than the personal. I see a set of values that I don’t think encourages people to be their best selves. And I find it difficult to understand how serious and huge ideas about how we should live and what the future of our planet is can be given shape within the confines of a microcosm which must first posit the existence of a manciple and a domestic bursar.
After I say goodbye, setting off for Canada and then, semi-permanently, New York City, I will be undertaking a serious literary essay about my Oxford, this long relationship. I hope that the essay will offer some way to move forward from the impasse at which I now find myself, of wholesale rejection of Oxford’s idiom as incompatible with the wider practical, and moral, trappings of modern life. I want to think seriously about what is extraordinary—and redeemable—about this unique institution, as well as what about it is reprehensible and out of keeping with the twenty-first century. In the course of this I hope to offer at least some aspect of my own beliefs about the meaning, value, and future of liberal-arts education: grounded in nineteenth-century British history; in the cultural superstructure since built up around reformed Oxford, the greatest educational institution of 19th-century Britain; and in one graduate student’s take on learning, love, and late-adolescence.