Anyone, who rummaged the massive file of the British parliamentary debate and brooded over the University Education Bill on 11 March 1873 from which the words of Benjamin Disraeli (1804-1881) are quoted as the title, will be struck by Disraeli’s erudite and eloquent contention against the controversial Bill which the ruling Liberal Party was attempting to enact. Then the Liberal Prime Minister, William E. Gladstone (1809-1898), was trying to ratify the Education Bill which would enable the British government to establish a new university with a single faculty in Dublin, by interdicting the study of some of its equally important branches. The proposed university would neither have the faculty of Theology, nor offer the courses of Modern History, Ethics, and Metaphysics. Instead, it would entirely devote to the teaching of Arts. In this juncture, opposing the proposal which Disraeli described as politically “despotic,” the former Prime Minster pronounced that “A university should be a place of light, of liberty, and of learning.” Moving on a step further, he stressed that a university is “a place for the cultivation of the intellect, for invention, for research.” These words, although delivered more than a quarter and a century ago, still ring true in the university in which I had worked for several years for my doctorate thesis in the faculty of English Language and Literature at Oxford.
The University of Oxford, which perhaps Disraeli had in his mind when he expounded his idea of a university, started with four faculties; Theology, Liberal Arts, Medicine, and Jurisprudence as early as around the end of the twelfth century. It is, of course, one of the oldest universities in Europe and has grown steadily to boast more than seventy academic departments. Among other things in its excellency, the University has one of the finest libraries, the true centre of intellectual activities, in the world. The central Bodleian Library, which initially opened in the fifteenth century and whose name was taken from its main benefactor, Sir Thomas Bodley (1545-1613), houses more than eleven million printed items, in addition to 50,000 e-journals and vast quantities of materials in many other formats. Ever since it became a copyright library in 1610, the Bodleian Library has enjoyed a privilege of receiving a copy of any printed books registered at Stationers’ Hall. For a literature student, who studies the expression of thought, ideas, feelings, views and reasoning in English language, there will be no better place than Oxford. Despite the fact that the Bodleian Library holds every book printed in England and Ireland, however, when a student cannot find a book in the Library such as an unpublished thesis, or a foreign book, the Library can provide it through an inter-library loan scheme as fast as it can. Apart from the Bodleian Library, the University has more than one hundred libraries, including college libraries, faculty libraries, as well as institutional libraries associated with the University, which are available to any member of the University. Oxford University is certainly a place of books; a treasure house of learning. Nonetheless, if these books are not read and studied, they are simply printed letters on dusty papers. They will remain in murk and put on the thicker clothes of dust every year; only through diligent reading, thinking, and creating, books and libraries will fulfill their purposes and justify their raison d’etre.
For a brief visitor to Oxford, the University may fail to satisfy his immediate expectations. He, who thinks of education merely as a classroom lecture and a vocational training, will be certainly disappointed. The job training will be the last concern if the University education has any interest in discipline, and class attendance is not compulsory. There is no mid-term and final exams in each semester as in elsewhere. Nonetheless, in the faculty of English Language and Literature, each of three terms in a whole academic year offers more or less one hundred-fifty formal lectures, except for various informal seminars, special lectures, and literary talks to which any student is easily accessible. Lectures are open to any member of the University and often to the townspeople from time to time. This does not imply that the student has no required subjects to study during the particular term. On the contrary, there are rigorous compulsory courses any postgraduate should take, whereas the undergraduate program has been traditionally tutored according to the student’s major field.
In case of a postgraduate admitted to the English faculty as a probationer MLitt, he is supposed in his first year to take four compulsory courses such as Bibliography, Textual Criticism, Palaeography and Writing a Thesis, in addition to a 5,000 word essay. Before the first academic year ends, the student will be given written examinations on the compulsory subjects as well as a viva, an oral examination, on each required subject. If he passes successfully the examinations termed as the “qualifying exam,” his status can be transferred to Full M Litt in the second year. Then, if he wishes to transfer to DPhil status at the end of the required residency, he must submit a DPhil Thesis proposal, which requires a high standard of originality, along with at least the two chapters (not exceeding 20,000 words) of his thesis to the graduate committee for approval. Once acquired a DPhil status, he can launch his own journey of research, a major part of his education and a real strength of the University’s academic system, until the completion of his thesis. Each student should be the master of his own research subject: he can decide any subject he wishes to. Supervisors are only academic counselors, impartial judges and faithful guides to the very end of the dim, uncertain intellectual journey for truth. To make his journey easy and certain, he can attend any lecture the University offers, and even get private tutorials from a specialist on the issue he wants to learn more and to strengthen his ground. All in all, he can enjoy the full liberty of choosing his thesis topic, lectures, tutorials, and books under guiding supervision. However it is mandatory for the student to submit his thesis within maximum seven years.
This is a somewhat crude delineation of the academic process which any DPhil student cannot avoid at the University. Will this process satisfy Disraeli’s prescription of an ideal university? Unfortunately, Disraeli did not live up to see the first Oxford DPhil produced in 1919. However, there is no doubt that Disraeli would have approved Oxford education as an ideal one. As a serious student of English literature who had once gone through a various stage of academic purgatory at Oxford★, I can confidently say that the University of Oxford offers to any zealous student almost everything that an ideal university can offer as a place of learning. That is why a student and a scholar, carrying their own sacred embers for illuminating the darkness of the world, have thronged to Oxford from every corner of the world, and why the University has maintained its proud excellency with its unceasing history of eight hundred years.
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