A wise father gives good advice to his children.
My oldest joins the scores of Torrey Honors students who have spent a semester taking classes in the excellent Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities exchange program in Oxford. As a good father, I have tried to do research in order to give my son and any other current or future Biola student at Oxford advice on how to handle their academic careers this term.
My research centered on A Yank at Oxford a 1938 romantic comedy starring Robert Taylor, Vivien Leigh, and Lionel Barrymore. If you would like to see It’s A Wonderful Life’s Mr. Potter as a good guy, watch this film. If you want to see a reference to Gone With the Wind in a film with Vivien Leigh before she was in Gone With the Wind, see this film. If you, like my wife, simply want to see Robert Taylor in running shorts, watch this film.
There are three reasons for choosing A Yank at Oxford as the basis for my advice. First, I enjoyed watching it and the American education system has taught me that my enjoyment of a project is a good measure of the value of that experience for my education. Second, my wife enjoys any film with Robert Taylor and I enjoy any film with Vivien Leigh so it helped my marriage. As John Wesley of Oxford said it is always valuable when you can do well while doing good. Finally, the film itself centers on the lessons that Oxford taught a yank at Oxford! Since I am writing about yanks at Oxford I could not have asked for a more relevant source.
This advice comes based on two unshakable convictions: Hollywood would never lie to us and Great Britain has not changed much since 1938. The first assumption has proved itself out as we have avoided numerous weird diseases through frequently watching House on television. The second premise is more scientific since the buildings of Oxford appear (to me) relatively unchanged when I compare the film images to my tour bus trip through the Oxford colleges. Watching Designed to Sell has shown that changing a house is easy than changing a person, so since the building of Oxford are unchanged, the people must be also.
Of course I am no expert on English colleges and a few things may have changed, but here is my advice to my son based on an entire Saturday morning spent viewing A Yank at Oxford.
Ten Commandments for a Yank in Oxford (With One Thrown In For Good Measure):
1. First, brush up your Latin. Even when engaged in college pranks (which will make up a major part of your life in College), you will discover Oxford students breaking out into Latin. Many a jokester will try to humiliate you with a well-placed Ciceronian quip.
Don’t let this happen! Remember our very money has Latin printed on it. Point this out and mention that our money is the reserve fund of the world. Make jokes about Britain failing to be in the Eurozone or express your republican values in jokes about the folly of the monarchy.
Brits sputter helplessly when attacked and so you can survive any temporary embarrassment. By all means simply use your fists to get out of a difficult situation. The British gentleman (or lady) appreciates a fine manly display and will tolerate much more violence from Americans, they think us prone to it, than they would from one of their own.
2. Second, students will make frequent references to the First World War, which they will call the Great War. Here we can safely assume that a post-1938 Oxford will have assimilated the Second World War as well, though from my research any references to any non-Classical events will be met with stony indifference or even ignorance from tutors.
Oxford students will frequently regale you with songs. Apparently the entire student body is given to singing at all occasions. You will often be greeted with Over There. Hearing this tune will be an excellent chance to point out that our nation “saved Great Britain” more times in the last century than they have won the World Cup.
British folk will resent this, perhaps, but then they will resent your wealth, your dental care, your corn fed wholesome charm, and the cut of your suits. If this resentment begins to grate, you might choose to mention the size of Britain. Brits think a distance that is an average LA daily commute enormous. Point this out and mention that Great Britain would fit into our state of Nebraska.
You will make many social errors, because Brits have so many charming and odd little folk ways it is impossible to keep up with them. Brits walk and drive on the wrong side of the road and they wear trousers and not pants. Making mistakes in this area will make you the butt of many jokes, but they appear to be unavoidable errors on the part of a Yank in Oxford.
3. Third, female Oxford students are called “co-eds” and enjoy a patronizing attitude from you if you are manly. While students in America call dating by such fun terms as “pitching woo,” the British student is more staid. Kissing is a prelude to marriage and to be seen eating together before the bans are read next unto adultery.
There exists something called “The Family” to which every Oxford student must answer. Do not confuse this with your family, because this is a British institution. “The Family” is a primary motive for moral (or immoral!) behavior at Oxford. They may send funds, but will intervene if you attempt to marry one of their sons or daughters.
You have been warned.
One thing that might work if you are confronted with The Family or any other problem at Oxford: homespun American parents coming and being homespun and American. Since the days of Ben Franklin, British people have found the frontier honesty of the American solon irresistible.
American parents with money can do much, American parents in overalls can do more. British ways are so complex that often the Gordian Knot of their manners can be cut by the application of the simplest American proverb.
Female faculty all look like Dorothy Sayers and male faculty all are all old and a bit forgetful. Biblical references, usually in the King James, will abound in their conversation and they will have little or no interest in the world outside of “Oxbridge.”
Both sorts of faculty will refer to America as the colonies or make remarks about the relative youth of our culture frequently. Do not expect them to drive cars and when they want to catch the omnibus, they simply mean a bus. They will have offices full of beautiful woodwork and Victorian fireplaces, but they will sit hunched over papers at wooden desks.
They will forgive anything if you manage to contribute to beating Cambridge. (Cambridge is the Yale of Great Britain to Oxford’s Harvard. Bring this comparison up in either place and you will see what I mean.)
4. Fourth, Oxford is very moralistic. A student will be “sent down” if found drinking in public houses or having a woman in his room.
Forget any experience you have had in America. Oxford (if what I saw in the 1938 film is true) is more pious than Biola University. As Biola is to UCLA in terms of behavior, so Oxford is to Biola. Morals are downright old fashioned! For example, the elderly are treated with reverence.
You will find Oxford: Christian, patriotic, nationalistic, and full of self-confidence. Don’t bring your politically correct attitudes with you from the states. Remember that true love of diversity means respecting the fact that Britain has retained the best parts of Victorian and Edwardian culture, right down to “the stiff upper lip.”
Would you really want to go abroad to study if there was some generic University culture that made British Oxford look like American UCLA? Tolerate and even be charmed by a nation that still wears hats, tips them to their betters, and is nearly crime free.
You might prefer some parts of the American experience to what you will see in Oxford, but remember that just because we are allowed to drink in public at all hours and they are not, does not mean we are better.
5. Fifth, at Oxford studying should be treated as a pleasant interlude twixt sporting events and “pitching woo.” Simply being at Oxford means that you are smart and you should not spend too much time studying lest you be seen as a “stuffed shirt.”
The idea is to study enough, usually chewing a pencil, to find your place, but not so much as to cause discomfort to anyone else. Work hard, but not too hard. Sweating over anything is out at Oxford, everything should be done well, but with as little effort as possible.
All manual labor will be done for you by the college shooter. This person will have the bearing of Sam in Lord of the Rings and you will be his Mr. Frodo. He delights in the most menial task. Do not take it from him by folding your own shirts. You will see more of the shooter than any professor and he will dispense invaluable advice from his time spent “shooting” for former prime ministers and governors general.
Listen to him and you will do well. Ignore him and you might as well leave Oxford on the first day.
6. Sixth, unlike America the British sports fan is more interested in what he calls “fair play” than in winning. Play hard, but play fair. English fans are much more sedate than our American types and hate excessive celebration or display.
Remember: the Brit would rather lose with grace, than win at the cost of manners.
These lessons are particularly important when you attend public exhibitions of sport, which you will do daily whilst at Oxford. Wear at least a suit and tie. Sit and only stand at the most exciting moments. Never boo and never “put down” the other side, though a Latin quip against Cambridge is always in good taste!
The British sports fan has a global reputation for manners, diffidence, and sobriety. Don’t shame the states by bringing loutish behavior to his quiet land.
This brings us to the issue of dress.
7. Seventh, dress like a typical American college student and you will look worse than the bum at the station to your British peer (and recall many of them are literal peers!).
British students always wear ties and generally dress for dinner. As a poorer nation, you will have more clothes than your British counterpart, but they will generally be “flash.” British men wear dark colors and British women modest dresses most of the time. Do likewise or you will be marked out as the worst sort of Yankee Doodle!
You will need at least one dinner jacket, though I suspect tails are out of fashion. White tie is normal at any good size dinner. Tweed is for the country and not for class! A suit will do for most of the day and you should get a good dinner jacket for lounging about with your chums in your “digs.”
Women should always wear dresses to dinner, but may wear skirts to class. Trousers are for men and pants are not to be mentioned. T-shirts are only worn by men under a dress shirt and are not for public display.
For most of you, the amount of hat wearing will be shocking. Hats are worn to everything and you will need the proper hat for the proper occasion. Don’t be afraid, for example, to wear a beanie. Brits do.
Women have more choices in the range of hats, but too much elaboration can mark you out as “the wrong sort of woman.”
This can lead to a meeting with The Family.
Whatever you may have learned through watching Brideshead remember you are a student at college not at a shooting match in the country. If you are invited to a shooting match in the country, men should think “What would Peter Wimsey wear?” Women should focus on Harriet Vane’s attire in Gaudy Night.
In fact, both Wimsey and Vane are ever helpful as guides in time of trouble. Ask yourself: am I pitching woo like Lord Peter would? Am I acting as Vane would act at this dinner party?
If my observations based on A Yank at Oxford are correct, you cannot go far wrong there.
8. Eighth, do not kick the dean in the seat of his pants. This will not be viewed as “student hijinks.”
Remember American men are better looking and stronger than British men. Don’t flaunt your power.
As for the women coming from America to Oxford, recall that American women have had the advantages of a more liberated culture and better beauty products. For every Vivien Leigh, you will meet five Mrs. Grundy types. Given your advantages, you can easily snare a British man, but recall that he will have a hollow chest, less manliness than you are used to seeing, and very oily hair.
9. Ninth, a significant portion of the Oxford student body is made up of lords, but do not be intimidated. You will find them lacking in manliness, in need of a rich wife, or wearing tweed at the wrong times.
10. Tenth, British students are diffident about personal accomplishments to the point of a disease. Under no circumstances boast about any achievements or “records” you have earned. Remember: the British Empire was built by men and women who would rather die than boast about the British Empire.
Read, quote, think like Kipling and you cannot go far wrong in modern Oxford.
Finally, at Oxford seasons pass quickly in a weird and startlingly quick manner. Time itself appears to slow down and speed up. The first few days at Oxford will pass in what will feel like real time, but classes will all rush on as if a montage of movie cuts. Winter in particular hardly lasts long enough to build a snow man with a co-ed.
Do not be deceived by literature. It never rains in Oxford on the day of sporting events.
All of this advice may seem intimidating to you, but listen to the bells of Oxford. If the film is any guide, the Oxford bells can pull you out of any sorrow or worry. Students may learn nothing in class, but learn a good bit from the bells.
I hope all this helps my son and future Torrey students who become Yanks at Oxford.