Celina Durgin on a Term with
the Oxford Study Centre
The Oxford Study Centre* does not simply fulfill items on the bucket list of your own small life. Everything about the experience—from the centuries-old cathedrals and cobblestone streets, to evensong after a hard day’s work, to long hours reading classic primary texts, to Kevin’s repeated reminder during discussions that God has always hated idolatry, immorality, and injustice—invites you out of your own little story and into the Great Conversation. Oxford is still dedicated to the best ideas that have been thought throughout all history, and the Oxford Study Centre‘s program is dedicated to these ideas’ context within God’s grand story, which is but history rightly conceived.
The august university had impressed itself upon me in a way I likely share with many American Christians. Namely, I knew it as the geographical locus of the works of C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien, whose stories and ideas had made the Christian tradition seem not only vital and relevant during the postmodern cultural implosion, but also deeply enchanting. Call me a cliché, but it was reading The Chronicles of Narnia at age ten and beginning Lewis’s nonfiction classics at age twelve that awakened me to something I call the Thoughtful Christian Life. This life combines moral and intellectual seriousness with the hopeful and clear-eyed imagination characteristic of human sub-creators who know they are redeemed. Having harbored for at least seven years an inkling of romanticized desire to study at Oxford, one would think I would inevitably be disappointed. On the contrary, nearly everything exceeded my expectations. The grass was longer and greener, the architecture more magnificent and old, the accents more posh, the food fresher and heartier, the tutorials harder, and the company dearer than I had imagined.
I was disarmed at being welcomed into Kevin’s home and encouraged to befriend him and his family in that setting. I was astounded by the sheer number of volumes he kept in his study—a new book arrived in the post almost daily. Here was a true scholar and gentleman. I’d expected a very academic approach to Christian worldview studies at the Oxford Study Centre program. There was that, but there were also Kevin’s exhortations to love and serve one’s family and friends faithfully, to be kind, to have courage and humility before opposition, and always to be faithful, loyal, holding our allegiance to Christ. From Kevin’s mouth, these words of wisdom were not abstract instructions but living realities. His attentiveness to his dimpled children with charming half-American, half-English accents, and his obvious love for his wife evinced the possibility of deep satisfaction even on earth. We enjoyed the privilege of Bywater family hospitality. Chopping thick carrots and setting the table for dinner with Mrs. Bywater and the kids were respite from the grind of my studies.
And about those studies: My tutorials were Philosophy of Logic and Language and Medieval Metaphysics. They were about as difficult as they sound, compounded by the fact that I hadn’t taken as much logic as I really should have in order to be prepared. To an extent, you can design a tutorial to fit your level of experience, but some subjects are just inherently advanced. So be aware. I was still able to do well in my tutorials, but there was more than one night when my friends went exploring in the evening while I stayed home reading the same 50-page article I had been meticulously poring over all day. (My tutor assured me that even professional philosophers can spend more than a day perusing one 30-to-50-page philosophy essay). I hyperbolized to my parents when the term was over, “Everything sort of feels easy, now, compared with my tutorials.” But I regret nothing. During this one term, my analytical thinking, reading comprehension, attention to nuance, and writing skills accelerated markedly.
So will tutorials be different from American college classes? Yes. I had regular one-on-one sessions with tutors for each of my two subjects. Every session was effectively an oral exam. I had to know the material well enough to converse productively and somewhat intelligently with my tutors. Speaking aloud about material you’ve read is a different skill from writing about it, so it was a unique challenge. But there certainly was no shortage of writing. Since all I had to do besides attending the hour-long weekly and biweekly sessions was read and write, I thought churning out essays wouldn’t be too taxing. As it happened, sometimes it was very taxing. The nights were long and the mornings were early. Others didn’t struggle so much; again, your experience depends largely on the subjects you choose and the background you have and your abilities.
I think there are distinct benefits to the typical American class setting and to Oxford’s tutorial tradition. And the benefits of tutorials are many. Is there a particular work, author, or niche you’d love to probe more deeply than ever before? Do you want a chance to study a topic at a faster pace? Do you simply want to experience the one-on-one attention and guidance from a master on a subject you adore? These are probably all good reasons to try the tutorial system. One thing is sure, though: Those who thrive in this system are self-motivated and capable of managing their time.
Much of the Oxford experience involves simply being there. The Oxfordian aura is solemn and subtle, secretive and silent. So much time I spent in the bowels of the Bodleian Library seeking tomes of old scholarship. In my college’s library, I scaled spiral staircases up to narrow walkways abutting bookshelves that lined the full length of the walls. Everything was old, solid, wooden, stone, marble, iron, tall, detailed, thick. Effulgent sunlight streamed through stained glass, and spires stretched heavenward, straining after the whispers from the God of all knowledge and wisdom.
Something strange and out-of-time occurs in Oxford, something numinous moves between those high-walled structures, the remnant of a culture and a period that comprehended things we do not, or at least not nearly so well. There will be plenty of notes and essays and friends and skills to bring home from Oxford. But there will also almost surely be a quiet internal change, a new knowing, which cannot be quantified or even fully described.
A term studying at Oxford had been to me only a vague dream right until a month or so before I applied to study with the Oxford Study Centre . Perhaps it can be the same for you: something that becomes even more than a memory.
Celina Durgin is a Collegiate Network fellow at the National Review in New York City, and a 2015 graduate of The King’s College. She completed the Oxford Study Centre‘s program in the spring of 2014.