Oxford, Woolf and Privilege

Writing from the basement in Connaught Hall, Bloomsbury

Visiting Magdalen College, one of the colleges in the University of Oxford, was quite different than I had expected. The buildings were breathtaking, the gardening was cultivated; what about the education? In the chapter titled “Woolf, English studies, and the making of the (new) common reader,” Melba Cuddy-Keane explains some of what Virginia Woolf felt about education and where it needed to go. Both the visit to Oxford and Cuddy-Keane’s chapter frame how I think about education and how it has progressed today.

Cuddy-Keane tells us some of Woolf’s views on education, which are expected from the way she writes about it, saying “education not be constrained or governed by class..been the domain of a privileged class, and the universities had long been formed by those privileged classes” (59). While touring Magdalen College, we were informed that it’s incredibly expensive to attend the college (and the primary school run by Oxford) and amount of students studying there is small. Someone that graduates from one of the colleges at Oxford University is perceived as exceedingly intelligent and successful; this education comes at literally a high price, which makes it available to those that can afford it. Does this keep people from certain economic positions unable to attend, regardless of their intelligence? Or are there scholarships designed to help equal out the opportunity for all students to compete for a spot on the same level? Of course, I forgot to ask these important questions while in Magdalen College (or any questions at all, for that matter) and I’m left to speculate on my own.

In the radio broadcast “Are Too Many Books Being Published?” Cuddy-Keane informs the reader that in the broadcast, “Virginia suggests that the need is not for fewer books but for more writers producing fewer books each…She welcomes an overall increase of publication, however, as a way to broaden the field of writing, away from its current domination by the professional class” (66). Woolf was portraying one extreme side in the conversation about the publication of books, but this excerpt seems to echo some of the themes in A Room of One’s Own. In that essay Woolf encourages women to continuously write and create so that women can develop their own writing style and voice in the literary world. Substitute the phrase “professional class” with “male authors” and it sounds like a quote taken from A Room. The production of literature and knowledge, in Woolf’s time, was dominated by men. Cuddy-Keane observes that Leonard and Virginia:

draw very different implications from the same scenario, largely because Leonard focuses on what has been lost from the past while Virginia speculates on what could be gained in the future…Leonard appears as the static straight-man, nostalgically confined to the past, while Virginia moves increasingly toward a visionary future (66-67).

If we view Leonard as a symbol of the history of male dominated literature and Virginia as the symbol of future female literature, themes from A Room are again heard. Knowledge needs to shift from being only in the hands of the privileged and become a place where everyone has access to, whether to learn it, add to or challenge it.

But what does this have to do with my trip to Oxford? That’s I’m not 100% sure of. The style of teaching at Oxford is still one on one tutoring according to our guide, Reverend Dr. Michael Piret, though there are some disciplines that have groups of two or three students tutored at a time. Once more, this echoes A Room of One’s Own, in which Cuddy-Keane explains that “A Room of One’s Own launches a radical critique of the exclusionary practices on which Oxford and Cambridge were founded, expressing Woolf’s frustration as a woman at being locked out and depicting the deformity caused by the male fellows’ being locked in” (68). The exclusion of women seems to have lessened over the years (though I cannot say that with certainty because I haven’t researched it at all; this assumption is based solely on the fact that women are now allowed to attend the college); what I’m focusing on is the latter statement, that the fellows are being locked in. Both the fellows and the students at Oxford seem to exist in a sort of seclusion from one another, at least in terms of academic work. Reverend Dr. Piret told the group that it’s typical to have an hour meeting with the professor based on discussion, then go read a novel or two and write a paper by the next week. Unlike class dynamics that I’m used to, where there is lively discussion and interaction between students and the professor, the style at Oxford seems, as Woolf put it, “locked in” and away from other happenings in the world. Circling back to privilege, it seems that the both the cost of the college and the function of the college is encased in privilege unattainable by many.