It is Saturday, and I’m in the Museum Hotel located on St. Aldates Street in Oxford, England. This morning I’ve got my complimentary coffee and a complimentary croissant that I’ve slathered with strawberry preserves spooned from a tiny (complimentary) tub stating, “By appointment to Her Majesty the Queen.”
It is graduation week here in Oxford and, from where I’m sitting, I can see hundreds of students working their way up St. Aldates Street — most from Christ Church College.
Graduation brings events that require formal attire. Last night we saw young men in bow ties and tuxedos; young women in strapless gowns showing lots of shoulder, clavicle and cleavage.
Yesterday, Sheila Ephraim — who is a tutor in English and Social History — gave us a tour of Oxford and several of its colleges.
Each college generally features a well-manicured quadrangle surrounded by rooms that resemble a 13th-century abbey where monks might spend their time illuminating the Gospels.
These days these rooms are occupied by young, robe-wearing students who enjoy the privilege of one-on-one learning. These folks do not suffer a graduate assistant in a 1,000-seat auditorium. They meet with their tutor in small, carpeted, comfortably-appointed rooms discussing the prose of Emily Bronte or the fundamentals of international finance. This will be followed by essays, and then a critique by their teacher.
For hundreds of years this has been the methodology of an Oxford education. These young men and women will be branded as the best of their generation and their diplomas remain a reliable passport into the upper echelons of medicine, law, finance and diplomacy.
But now there is criticism of Oxford and its cream-colored, crenelated buildings in the form of a new book titled “Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tories Took Over the UK.”
Simon Kuper says that for many years the Tories were in disarray. But in 1984, the Falklands War, Margaret Thatcher and “Brideshead Revisited” conspired to re-invigorate the rich and privileged students who had always been part of Oxford’s student body. Suddenly students like David Cameron, Theresa May and Boris Johnson had a voice.
In the past the Oxford boys who rose to prominence at Westminster had fought, seen death in person and were changed by that experience. This new (1984) crowd came from young Brits who had not experienced war and still dreamed dreams getting back their Lost Empire.
Boris Johnson — one of these young dreamers — got a platform at the Oxford Union in 1986 where he became a regular speaker at the debating club. He was, however, different from his peers in his debating style. Rather than meet the arguments put forth by his opponents head on, he simply ignored their arguments offering a mixture of “carefully timed jokes, calculated lowering of the voice, and ad hominem jibes.” Using these techniques he won the presidency of the Union.
Johnson’s style was calculated to raise the emotional temperature of the room, raise guffaws from his supporters, but these Tories-in-the-making didn’t have a cause. But eventually they found common purpose in a collective loathing of Brussels and Britain’s submission to the trade regulations of the European Union. And these young Oxford graduates carried their loathing right into the halls of Westminster Abbey.
“Chums” makes the case that “Brexit” began its incubation in the late 80s with Oxford graduates providing its nutritional mother’s milk. As these young men (and women) climbed the ladder of British politics they found that the bureaucracy in Brussels was low-hanging fruit. They went to that well often and, incredibly, won the Referendum (to leave) when the time was right.
“Chums” also paints Oxford as elitist where one’s accent, dress and way of walking classified that student as a “toff” (aristocrat); a “tug” or a “stain” (something lesser).
Since “Chums” was published in April there have been calls to end undergraduate study and turn Oxford into a graduate school — much like All Souls College. There has also been the allegation that the one-on-one tutorials produce a student who can read, write and “jabber,” but who is not adept at science or economics.
And yet it’s hard to dismiss a list of graduates that includes Albert Einstein, Adam Smith, Roger Bacon, Indira Gandhi and Bill Clinton. It’s hard to sit in the ancient cathedral at Christ Church College, listening to their choir fill that vaulted space with Evensong, and not say, “I wish I was a part of this place.”
Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.