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An Ancient University in the modern world

"The University and City of Oxford are seated on fine rising ground in the midst of a pleasant and fruitful valley… The city is adorned with so many towers, spires and pinnacles, and the sides of the neighbouring hills so sprinkled with trees and villas that scarce any place equals the prospect". Thus wrote John Aycliffe at the beginning of the eighteenth century, and the visitor to Oxford who arrives by train today can see the same spires and pinnacles across a fruitful (and frequently flooded) valley.

The city is obviously small. It is possible to walk to the centre from the railway station down the High Street to the eighteenth-century bridge across the small river separating the old city from its newer suburbs in twenty-five minutes. During that walk the visitor passes many beautiful stone buildings - mediaeval, Renaissance, neo-classical-some with shops on the ground floor, others with doorways leading to ancient courtyards.

If the visitor is a stranger, he will probably ask someone to direct him to "the university". To this apparently simple question there seems to be no simple answer. Libraries, lecture rooms, museums, the botanical gardens: they are all parts of the university, but they are not exactly its "centre". But if the visitor asks for a particular college, he will be directed at once to a specific group of buildings. Those doorways and court-yards belong to "colleges" which have an actual, physical existence. The "university" is more elusive concept.

History and development

Nobody knows exactly when Oxford University "began". We know that lectures were being delivered in Oxford at the very beginning of the twelfth century. The students, mostly teenagers, lived wherever they could find lodgings. The learned men who taught them gathered together in small communities, and whenever they could raise the money they built homes for themselves on the monastic pattern. By the fifteenth century most students were living in colleges alongside their teachers, and so they continue to do today. The oldest college buildings still used as rooms for tutors and students are nearly seven hundred years old.

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The structure of Oxford University (together with Cambridge) is unique in that it preserves the mediaeval university organization. In contrast, almost all other British universities are similar to Russian ones, with a central administration in the main building, various faculties, and within the faculties, various departments. Professors run the departments, deans rule the faculties, and at the top of the hierarchy is the Vice Chancellor, equivalent to Rector. He or she has some kind of council to help govern the university.

Oxford and Cambridge, however, are quite different. You must imagine a federation of autonomous republics with a common foreign policy (dealing with the government and other universities) and with a common budget (money from the government and from other national and international sources) and a set of common values (the teaching of undergraduates and graduates and the pursuit of scholarly research), which are at the same time fiercely independent "republics" with their own funds, their own students, their own projects and enthusiasms.

Despite its venerable age, Oxford is not a museum. Each building is occupied and alive. Even more important, both the university and its colleges are very democratic institutions. Every member of the university is also a member of a college. The 3,200 senior members of the university (that is, those engaged in teaching and research) vote for the Vice Chancellor, who is appointed for four years only and cannot be reelected; they also vote for the two governing councils, for the faculty committees, the library committees, and the administrators. At the same time, as "Fellows" of their own college, they appoint new fellows, select students from the many who apply to enter the university, organize the finances and take on many practical responsibilities.

Nobody is boss, but almost everybody helps to run the university as well as their own individual departments. And because the tutors do so much individual teaching, they, in general, work far longer hours than most of their colleagues in the rest of Europe, including Russia. No wonder they look exhausted at the end of the term, in spite of their comfortable and beautiful surroundings!

Student life

What is it like, being a student at Oxford? Like all British universities, Oxford is a state university, not a private one. Students are selected on the basis of their results in the national examinations or the special Oxford entrance examinations. There are many applicants, and nobody can get a place by paying a fee. Successful candidates are admitted to a specified college of the university; that will be their home for the next three years (the normal period for an undergraduate degree); and for longer if they are admitted to study for a postgraduate degree. They will be mostly taught by tutors from their own college.

Teaching is pleasantly informal and personal: a typical undergraduate (apart from those in the natural sciences who spend all day in the laboratories) will spend an hour a week with his or her "tutor", perhaps in the company of one other student. Each of them will have written an essay for the tutor, which serves as the basis for discussion, argument, the exposition of ideas and academic methods. At the end of the hour the students go away with a new essay title and a list of books that might be helpful in preparing for the essay.

Other kinds of teaching such as lectures and seminars are normally optional: popular lectures can attract audiences from several faculties, while others may find themselves speaking to two or three loyal students, or maybe to no-one at all. So, in theory, if you are good at reading, thinking and writing quickly, you can spend five days out of seven being idle: sleeping, taking part in sports, in student clubs, in acting and singing, in arguing, drinking, having parties. In practice, most students at Oxford are enthusiastic about the academic life, and many of the more conscientious ones work for days at each essay, sometimes sitting up through the night with a wet towel round their heads.

At the end at three years, all students face a dreadful ordeal, "Finals", the final examinations. The victims are obliged to dress up for the occasion in black and white, an old-fashioned ritual that may help to calm the nerves. They crowd into the huge, bleak examination building and sit for three hours writing what they hope is beautiful prose on half-remembered or strangely forgotten subjects. In the afternoon they assemble for another three hours of writing. After four or five days of this torture they emerge, blinking into the sunlight, and stagger off for the biggest party of them all.

Postgraduates (often just called graduates) are mostly busy with research for their theses, and they spend days in their college libraries or in the richly endowed, four-hundred-year-old Bodleian library. The Bodleian is one of great national libraries, but until recently the cataloguing was somewhat primitive. Little slips of paper with the details of each volume were stuck on to the blank pages of very heavy leather-bound books in (approximate) alphabetical order. Fortunately, eighteenth-century glue was very powerful, and most of these handwritten slips, many of them 300 years old or more, are still safely in place.

Recently they have begun to computerize the catalogue, and though some older senior members are alarmed, postgraduates realize that it should soon be possible to trace the millions of books scattered around the hundred-year-old small and large libraries in our decentralized university. Is this progress? Or is it another insidious step to centralization of the autonomous republics? In principle, in Oxford, everyone is on both sides at once!

(Adapted from the Internet sites)



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