An Oxford Education isn’t Enough, But Neither is Liberal Arts

In light of Wheaton’s current curriculum review, I’d like to offer an alternative to our current class structure by advocating the incorporation of the tutorial system.

36 essays. 36 tutorials. 24 weeks. This brief list most succinctly summarizes my academic year studying abroad at Mansfield College, part of the University of Oxford in England. As an English major in my final year at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, I knew this year across the pond would be unlike anything I had ever experienced.

Last October I became one of nearly 12,000 undergraduates at the University of Oxford who battle the rigorous tutorial system every year.

Instead of attending numerous class meetings and participating in group discussions as I had at Wheaton, I completed independent research that result in writing roughly two essays every week. Rather than dropping in to speak with professors and hoping they were free, I met one-one-one with my tutors for an hour each week. Gone were the days of detailed syllabi with step-by-step instructions on how to complete each assignment; in place of answers came more questions, more avenues by which I was compelled to form my own arguments and draw my own conclusions.

Upon returning to the States, many of my peers and professors asked which more of education I preferred; Wheaton’s broad liberal arts curriculum or Oxford’s traditional tutorial system. What at first may seem like an ambiguous stance is actually, for me, a definite one: I prefer both.

There are significant advantages and disadvantages to both systems. Wheaton’s liberal arts curriculum allows students to take a variety of classes in disciplines beyond their chosen majors; however, this forced exploration can make students feel as though their major is an insignificant, limited aspect of their overall education. Yet while I appreciated my opportunity to delve deeper into English literature at Oxford at a more intense level, I felt burnt out and exhausted by the end of the final term. I couldn’t imagine completing two more years of education under such a system, as is required of matriculated Oxford undergraduates. In fact, my experience in this system actually made me decide to pursue a career in law rather than one in academia. There is something to be said for the intensity, independence, and intellectual rigor of a tutorial system; yet there is also value in having room to explore new paths and combine different interests in ways that spark innovation and creativity.

The solution? Combine them. There is no use subjecting students to a single flawed education system when they could experience two different systems that balance each other out. Merging these methods could look like the study abroad opportunity Mansfield College offers international students each year. Applying a liberal arts background within the confines of a rigidly structured system is a challenge that would make any student grow, both intellectually and in terms of “a blending of hard and soft skills” that is “the future of work,” according to senior writer Scott Carlson at The Chronicle of Higher Education. Employers seek well-rounded students; yet it’s the student who has shown success in a high-pressure environment–like a tutorial system–who is especially sought after.

Of course, it’s impossible to send every American liberal arts student to study at Oxford for a year. Fortunately, several U.S. schools have found a way around this conundrum by incorporating tutorials into their existing liberal arts curriculums.

Williams College in Massachusetts, ranked the number one liberal arts college in the country by U.S. News, offers tutorials as part of their general curriculum. According to Williams College, these tutorial meetings include two students and one professor having “an in-depth conversation, fueled by intellectual curiosity and the spirit of debate, that takes place over the course of an entire semester.” “Adapted from the Oxford University style of education,” tutorials are offered across the entire curriculum and boast a more than fifty-percent participation rate by Williams students. In this way, students are able to reap the benefits of the tutorial system without sacrificing the exploratory, far-reaching nature of a liberal arts curriculum.

Michel Foucault once argued for the accessibility of education in “The Masked Philosopher,” asserting that “we should now see teaching in such a way that it allows the individual to change at will, which is possible only on condition that teaching is always a possibility being offered.” I would go a step further and propose that a variety of education styles should also always be a possibility. My year at Oxford helped me grow both as a student and as an individual; yet I likely would not have been as prepared without my Wheaton education prompting me to ask questions, think broadly, and engage with material from different perspectives.

This dual system may sound like an idealized vision, but both Wheaton College and Mansfield College made it a reality for me. By instituting a blend of tutorial and liberal arts curriculum in our U.S. colleges, the same could also be said for countless students to come.