What makes Oxford University Great?

Beauty, Grace and Superabundance in Education When I was studying in painting and drawing in Florence I started to wonder why we haven’t yet seen a modern Master. We all knew that we weren’t up to the standards of the past great Masters, such as Velazquez or Reni. Judge for yourself, I have attached photos of my own work. I must admit I am quite pleased with them and it is an amazing improvement in only one year of training and as such a tribute to the quality of the teaching in the school. But I know I’m no Velazquez.

My story aside, why don’t we see better artists coming through? Many in Florence felt that some of the training methods had been lost. Others suggested that we didn’t train for long enough and didn't start early enough in life. There might be some truth in this but I don’t think these are the main reasons. When I thought about it, something intrigued me: Velazquez surpassed the skills of his teacher (a man called Francesco Pacheco). I had always thought of education as a process of a teacher passing on knowledge and advice to a pupil on the basis of experience and their own education. If this was so, I realized, education would necessarily mean a diminution of knowledge from one generation to the next. No one can pass on everything they know so they are always necessarily passing on directly less than they were given. One would expect Pacheco to be better than Velazquez. Why was the reverse true?

The answer, it seems to me, is grace. Some might say not grace, genius. But then the question as to what genius is arises and I think that points to the same answer. A genius has a special gift from God and the ability to direct it well under the guidance of inspiration. Every education, whatever is being taught, therefore, should be designed so as to maximize inspiration from God during the process.  Velazquez’s training took place in a Christian society that understood how an artistic training could engender openness to inspiration and the humility to cooperate with it when it comes. First, specific to art, the baroque tradition was understood to be Christian (although not called ‘baroque’ yet), so the artists understood how to use the visual vocabulary they were being taught. I was taught the stylistic elements justified by an appeal to the tradition and good taste, not to theology. So we knew what the masters did, but not why. Second, the environment is made as beautiful as possible in accordance with tradition harmony and proportion, which is a physical manifestation of the rhythms of the prayer of the Church, the liturgy. And third, they prayed for inspiration in accordance with these rhythms.

I found out later that all education during this period and prior to the Enlightenment followed certain patterns. Exactly the same principles of beauty and prayer were the basis of the education in Oxford and Cambridge. The educational community of each college prayed the daily rhythms of the liturgy of the hours throughout the day. Furthermore, at Oxford and Cambridge this continued even after the Reformation and, perhaps surprisingly, continues to this day. The Anglican office of Evensong is sung regularly at the colleges of the university and the grace that this bring into the establishment for the benefit of the students should not be underestimated. It has often struck me as strange that these two universities should still be rated so highly in the world when they are relatively small by modern standards, and in a country that is no longer as influential as it once was. They punch well above their weight. Part of the answer is the sheer beauty of the buildings of the university. People want to go and live there, and so they attract better teachers and better students. But it is also, I would say that they maintain the form of a liturgical rhythm in their academic year, built around Christmas and Easter; and in the daily structures by having the liturgy of the hours in Anglican form. What we are seeing is the ordering of time and space according to heavenly principles for the benefit of the students (though I doubt more than a handful at Oxford are aware of this). They stand out today because these structures were abolished in continental Europe with the Napoleonic occupation and modern American universities, on the whole followed the continental model of university when they were established.

It should be said that of course God can inspire whomsoever he pleases and is not limited by the sacraments. There is no accounting for who might be able to cooperate with grace in this regard, even if they seem to resist it in all areas of life. For this reason, there is always the possibility of a wonderful artist, for example, popping up out of nowhere, even today. But as a principle of education that will give us more than the occasional genius it makes sense to create an institution that makes it easier for the student, rather than more difficult, to cooperate with grace.

The principle that is being invoked is one of superabundance – the creation of something good out of nothing. It was described by Pope Benedict in his latest encyclical, Caritas in Veritate. Just as it is possible to harness it to make a better education in a university, it can be used in any institution. In his encyclical, the Pope was talking about business and the creation of wealth. He was giving us a clue to a life of great abundance, yet few from what I could tell seemed to see it as I did. I refer to this in more detail in the same article referenced above.

We have done our best to invoke these principles at Thomas More College. Not just in our art classes for the undergraduates and the summer program, but also in the life of the students. We communicate the value of the full liturgical experience to every aspect of their lives. Lauds and Vespers take place daily during the term and students are encouraged to participate. It is important that there is no sense of obligation in this regard, outside what is necessary to the teaching of it. It must be something that is freely participated in, in order to have value. Our experience is that a core few come as often as they can, some others come regularly but not daily and of course some never come. However, I am sure that the fact that it is happening is helping the whole community, even those who don’t participate. This is fine. I unknowingly benefited from this at Oxford where I was a student for four years, never once even entering the chapel the whole time I was there. But perhaps this is in part what drew me to a later conversion. Certainly on leaving Oxford where I felt part of a community in a way I never felt before, I felt a sense of desolation that increased and only left me once I converted. Then it was replaced by the full source of joy, something even greater, rooted in the Church.

The photographs, incidentally, are of Oxford. At the top we have the grand Magdalen College, and the two at the bottom are of the smaller but charming front quad of my college, St Edmund Hall.