A MacBook walks into the Library

Opinion by Uttara Sivaram
Jan. 16, 2014, 1:46 a.m.

I didn’t expect to feel this far from home in Britain. There are the immediate differences — women pushing strollers with one hand and smoking cigarettes in the another, cars hurtling at you from what must be the wrong direction, a weather with a wicked sense of humor and speed bumps referred to as “humped zebras.”

Quirky disparities like these aren’t necessarily unique to Britain; a week in Paris where everyone generally looks like they just came from a very chic funeral debunked my Copernican assumption that the world revolves entirely around American values and culture.

But then again, there are far more interesting blogs dedicated to these overt and often hilarious differences between our teenage nation and ancient European civilizations. I was actually thinking of making one after I asked my British friend whether it was cold enough to wear pants that day, unaware that in the U.K., the terms “pants” and “panties” are one and the same. Yet somehow, I feel obliged to share the (marginally) more meaningful aspects of my study abroad experience at Oxford University, the intellectual hub of the world, even after they stopped making Harry Potter movies.

American and British students take a fundamentally different approach to college, shaped by our respective high school systems. As high school juniors, British students have to narrow their course load to three or four “A-Level” subjects, which limit the majors they can apply for in college and, based on their final exam scores, which colleges they can apply to at all.

Whereas a student with a 3.4 high school GPA in the U.S. could apply to Harvard and pray very intently that his or her admissions officer is dyslexic, a student with merely average A-level scores would not be allowed to apply to top colleges in the U.K. Thus, upon entering college, the average British student is already locked into a major after years of academic funnels; my own schizophrenic path through majors would have been snuffed out before I got to Stanford.

But I never really saw what was wrong with a more eclectic approach to college until I turned in my first paper at Oxford. In classic British style, my professor stated dryly, “They call it a ‘well-rounded’ education because you spend most of your time making circles around the disciplines you love rather than simply studying them.”

We (the “American” students) had each written 10 superb pages about Margaret Thatcher’s legacy, pulling from modern perspectives, economics, biographical information, politics and media culture to create an excellent expose on the former Prime Minister.

“I asked you a question,” our professor said disapprovingly after grading the essays, “and instead of an answer, I got every piece of information about Thatcher except for perhaps the identity of her hairdresser.”

I should point out that said professor was so relentlessly sarcastic that I could never actually follow what he was actually trying to say; regardless, he had chosen this prime opportunity to criticize America’s insistence upon providing students with a broad education. He argued that what we gained in latitude, we lost in depth.

Perhaps this had some truth to it. Indeed, after shrinking in our seats for a full 30 minutes, we all resolved to be far more precise in our writing and absolutely never include the name of the hairdresser for Tony Blair, the subject of our next essay. We didn’t receive too much praise for that one either, although we were thankfully spared another tirade about “loosey-goosey” education.

That’s the other thing — it seems as though we’ve become very accustomed to praise following our work here at Stanford, whether it’s a grade, an award or even a pat on the back from your professor as you triumphantly exit class.

At Oxford, you’d be lucky to get a grade at all, much less any kind of verbal compliment. I found myself craving some kind of acknowledgment that I was doing OK — I started observing my professors’ facial movements so intently that I somehow decided that a nose twitch was bad and an eyebrow raise was good. To be honest, I think he just had allergies.

For a while, I was resentful of this strange and tiresome way of getting an education. I was writing long, inane essays on technical subjects that could’ve been aptly illustrated with a graph; I was sitting through lengthy, detailed lectures on post-war economic strategy, much of which was spent waiting for eyebrows to rise, and I was assigned countless readings that were never, ever available in e-book format. It simply wasn’t an efficient education.

I think that’s the crux of the difference between the education we’re receiving here, on this sun-soaked campus, and the education that our peers are receiving across the Atlantic. Scholarly “efficiency” is not only sub-optimal — it’s downright ignored at institutions like Oxford.

And while I’d like to pick a side and stubbornly argue its merits, comparing these two systems really is like comparing apples to oranges (both of which, I should point out, are generally unavailable in Britain, along with most vegetables of the green variety).

The most I could do was marvel at how different college life was for the standard British student. For example, it was stunning to wander into a cathedral and realize that it’s actually a library, with spiraling staircases and walls lined with books all the way to the ceiling. It’s even more remarkable to see students reading those books, pen and paper in hand, studying in minute detail the first principles of modern logic or the theme of immortality in Shakespeare’s 18th sonnet.

I couldn’t help but admire the way these students think and learn, as I sheepishly lugged my MacBook Pro to a corner of the gaping chamber and tried my best not to pull up the Wiki page for Wittgenstein or SparkNotes the assigned Nietzsche reading. From Oxford, I re-learned how to sit, open a book, read it, and if I was really motivated, use my own brain to interpret it.

This often resulted in a full day spent entirely upon dissecting a single page of text. But I started to realize that in the academic world, there is no opportunity cost, no Pareto inefficiency.

There’s a lot we can learn from Oxford’s example; conversely, there’s just as much my British friends could take away from a quarter spent at Stanford.

It’s a source of great pride for me that a Stanford philosophy major could outline the mechanics of an action potential while a pre-med student could just as easily engage in a conversation about Kant’s categorical imperative. The computer science department at Oxford was about the size of my apartment in Oak Creek and not nearly as populated on the weekdays, something I really do consider a shame, considering the massive relevance that CS has on today’s increasingly digital world.

Oxford University is an institution that prides itself upon tradition — indeed, after attending dinner in jeans and being seated nearly outside the dining hall, I began to understand the importance of custom, not only at Oxford, but also in the U.K. as a whole.

Yet just as a healthy dose of modernity is just what D.Phil ordered for the regal and lordly Oxford University, there is no doubt in my mind that we would benefit from returning to a more traditional form of education, and at least every now and then, sitting down, shutting up and being wholly unafraid to lose a few hours getting lost in something we love.

— Uttara Sivaram ’15

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