by Jan Morris (Oxford University Press 1965, revised 1978 and 1987).
We think of borders as sharp lines, but most are hazy mists.
There’s a mark on the map where the color changes from yellow to pink, but that’s a fiction. The delineated and reinforced borders – North from South Korea, Israel from the Palestinian Authority – are the exceptions. On the ground, most borders are fluid, porous and little more than nuisances to the people who live and work near them. Somewhere on Borneo, for example, Indonesia becomes Malaysia
, but the jungle doesn’t care.
For the travel writer, an ambiguous border is a greater opportunity than a distinct one. When the boundary between here and there is obvious, the only dramatic tension is whether the authorities will let you cross. Vague borders raise more intriguing questions: What is a border? Where are the sides? Why are there sides, since so many people disregard them? Once you’ve crossed a faint border, does it matter?
Oxford, the university town in southern England, is a case study in nebulous borders. No one can say with certainty where the university ends and the town begins. There is no defined campus or ceremonial core, only hundreds of academic buildings – sometimes in clusters, sometimes alone -- owned or operated by a bewildering number of trusts, colleges, corporations, associations, foundations and venerable societies for the pious advancement of learning.
Not even the date of the university’s foundation – the border between existence and non-existence – is known. As related by the incomparable travel writer Jan Morris in her book Oxford
, the legend that Alfred the Great sponsored the university in the 800s is an unsubstantiated myth. The university claims
that the earliest evidence of “teaching at Oxford” dates to 1096, with an explosion of growth in 1167, when King Henry II banned Englishmen from studying at the University of Paris.
“Whatever its origins, colonies of masters and students appeared here in the Middle Ages, gradually evolving their own guilds and privileges, establishing themselves in halls of residence, coalescing by the end of the twelfth century into a full-blown Universitas Magistrorum et Scholarium
,” Morris wrote. “Oxford’s first students were often poor, dirty and obstreperous, and the city understandably resented their arrival. There were bloody battles between Town and Gown, quarrels between northerners and southerners, assaults upon the Jews, lawsuits, petitions, papal interdictions. Through it all learning fitfully flourished.”
Medieval Oxford was characterized by the halls of residence, private institutions which housed and fed the students and enjoyed names such as Ape Hall, Perilous Hall and Worm Hall. Over time, some of the halls hired tutors, attracted benefactors and successfully applied for charters, transforming themselves into colleges.
The strange relationship between Oxford University and its colleges is perhaps the hardest concept to grasp. In the United States (and in most places, I assume), a college is an inseparable part of a university. For example, the College of Communication
is a part of Boston University; it may enjoy a certain academic or financial autonomy, but COM (as it’s known) has to abide by the rules and directions and, ultimately, the ownership of the university, the same way that a line agency like the State Department has to abide by the orders of the president. COM can’t decide to pick up, move across the Charles River and become part of M.I.T.
Not so the 44 Oxford colleges. Each college is an independent entity, with its own income, property and endowment. Each college selects its own students, hires tutors and administrators, and decides whether or not it wants to become, or remain, a constituent of Oxford University. Colleges have their own personas, histories and stereotypes; Balliol
is full of leftist government types, Jesus
is the Welsh college, Oriel
is for Tories, and The Queen’s College
traditionally recruits from northern England.
At the undergraduate level, much of the teaching is done “in college,” and undergrads often consider themselves to be students of Brasenose
or St. Catherine’s
more than of Oxford University. And, in a ripe head-scratcher, the university is a public (i.e.
, government-funded) institution, although the colleges of which it is composed are private corporations.
Everywhere, the borders are messy. The colleges are not confined to their quadrangles; they own properties all over town, and a few have multiple sites. Students live next to locals in the neighborhoods of Jericho, Summertown and Cowley Road. Charities, like Oxfam
, set up shop in the city. So do various think tanks
, some of which become “Recognized Independent Centres of the University,” further confusing the issue. Students at nearby educational institutions, such as Oxford Brookes University
(a regional polytechnic) and Ruskin College
(for students lacking traditional qualifications), have the right to attend Oxford University lectures and to use the libraries. Con men take advantage of the blurred lines by creating wholly unaffiliated colleges, which are marketed to naïve students who think they’re paying to attend Christ Church
Morris’ approach is heavy on facts, a cascade of specifics used to impart the complexity and longevity of the place, but she retains her wit. In this paragraph, she discusses one of my favorite topics:
For Oxford is built upon books – books being read, books being written, books being published, books in the dozen bookshops of the city, books littered through a labyrinth of libraries. The Clarendon Building, now the headquarters of the University, was actually built with the royalties from the Earl of Clarendon’s History of the Rebellion -- the author is portrayed in a statue on the west wall, contemplating with satisfaction what I have always enviously assumed to be his sales reports.
Morris, who wrote an excellent book on Hong Kong
, does not have a central human character or arc on which to peg her story, understandable in a book that spans a thousand years. Instead, her chapters are thematic and arranged in a roughly chronological order. All feature her shimmering, graceful prose, which informs and entertains in equal measure.
If the book were to be revised again today, there might be a central storyline, that of the rise and decline of the Oxford colleges. In the past decades, these once fiercely independent institutions have been ceding power to the university. Many colleges are now glorified dorms. The cost of equipment and laboratories has pushed medical, science and engineering instruction out of the colleges and into the university. College life is largely irrelevant to the university’s thousands of graduate students, who work in their departments or in the Bodleian Library
A trait that made Oxford University special – that the barely governable whole was greater than the sum of its many incongruous parts – may be slipping away. In another 50 years, it might be just another centralized university, N.Y.U. with Gothic architecture. The borders are shifting.
Pictured: High Street, Oxford, in the 1890s.