Oxford’s “dreaming spires” have earned the admiration of many throughout its near-millennial tenure. Matthew Arnold’s lauding verses from “Thrysis” are perhaps the most renowned:
“And that sweet city with her dreaming spires,
She needs not June for beauty’s heightening”
But for students like me, that admiration is often paired with intimidation. For us, Oxford’s spires can seem like unreachable pedestals, characterized by a sublimity that says ‘welcome to the big leagues’. So it was that, when I first set foot in Oxford last Fall, I was expecting to be overwhelmed with misgivings. Much to my surprise, I had no such feelings. In fact, I felt quite at home. Despite its exalted setting, there was something deeply familiar about Oxford. It wasn’t until weeks later that the reason became apparent: my Oxford education was only a continuation of my classical education.
Before you think I’m mad for comparing my secondary schooling to Oxford’s undergraduate curriculum, let me explain what makes the Oxbridge pedagogy so unique and, frankly, daunting. In the Oxbridge system, there are no classes in the conventional sense. Students meet with tutors—Oxford lingo for ‘professors’—individually to discuss and debate weekly essays on a particular topic. Essays are short—anywhere from 8 to 12 pages. Though the questions may vary from the highly specific to the vague or abstract, all require copious research and deep thinking. For those of you who wrote and defended a thesis to finish your classical, secondary education, think of that, but on a weekly basis and with a world-leading expert. And students often take two of these ‘tutorials’ at a time. These are Herculean labors for any aspiring scholar.
Despite its reputed rigor, there are clear ways in which my classical education prepared me academically for Oxford. Undoubtedly, it provided me with excellent training in logic and rhetoric. We are often reminded of the importance of “communication skills” to one’s professional success. An education in not only thinking well—that is, critically and imaginatively—but also speaking and writing with acumen and precision is, however, frequently overlooked for its personal and intellectual merits. Classical education satisfies the former, practical prerequisite by seeking the latter, nobler ideal. I’ve become especially grateful for this teaching while at Oxford. It’s the perfect training for the intellectual ‘rugby scrum’ of a debate-filled, Oxford tutorial.
Importantly, however, my classical education also gifted me with an appreciation for, and understanding of, the Western intellectual tradition. This is to say that it equipped me with a kind of primer in Western thought with which I can not only recognize the names and works of prominent ‘men (and women) of letters’ within their respective intellectual movements, but comprehend their ideas, arguments, and relations to one another. Such a historical and philosophical understanding is paramount to further, critical study in the Humanities. But it’s a privilege that few undergraduates can claim to have.
Though my classical education provided superb training for my later academic pursuits, to say that it “prepared” or “equipped me for success” at Davidson College and Oxford limits the scope of its formative influence. My classical education was no skills-based training. Nor were its merits strictly academic. Like any aspiring ‘man of letters’, the Oxford student needs more than mere logos and intellectual horse-power. He requires pathos and ethos as well as a cultivated affection for the ideas and questions with which he wrestles. Oxford’s tutors seek to nurture all of these in their students. So did my classical educators. They cultivated not only the skills required to excel at Oxford, but love of wisdom necessary for a satisfying life of the mind. Therein lies the shared pedagogical concern of Oxford tutors and classical educators.
When I left my classical school after twelve years, I was assured that my classical education had not ended with the turn of a tassel. As a long-time mentor had prudently advised me, rhetoric was no mere art of persuasion; it was an art of living. And my training in this, the most important phase of classical education, was only beginning. At the time, his advice seemed the hackneyed expression of any classical educator. Three years later, however, my teacher’s words have rung true. Not only do I feel as though I’m returning to the ‘Harkness table’ when I step inside my tutors’ rooms, but I rest assured knowing that my tutors aim to cultivate wisdom and virtue through their teaching.
Amidst the dense readings, hastily written essays, and debate-filled tutorials, my classical education reminds to find joy in the ideas and questions that I encounter along the way. For the aim is a noble one. To put it succinctly, my classical education taught me not to live by the Kantian maxim “sapere aude,” but to embrace that oft-quoted, Socratic adage: “Wisdom begins in wonder.” It’s the love of learning, the greatest gift of a classical education, which gives one joy when wondering, rather than presuming to know. And it’s that attitude which makes even Oxford’s spires—despite the rigor and prestige they connote—a little less daunting. They’re “dreaming” after all, not daring.