Stanford vs Oxford

Ken Auletta’s great article in The New Yorker, asking whether Stanford’s close ties to Silicon Valley are to the detriment of  the University’s educational mission, made me think about the differences in values of universities separated by the Atlantic.

The most obvious contrast is the flexibility that the American  system affords to the average (undergraduate) student. High schoolers apply to a school, not to a program within that school, even though some students will apply to schools knowing which programs are strong within that institution. First- and second-year undergraduates can sample courses from different disciplines; essentially, they can explore, and make up their own mind about what intellectual direction is right for them.  After two years, they settle down, choosing a major, but with a little bit of diversity – they also get to keep working in a second, minor, discipline.

In the UK, however, we grant places to students who have chosen their discipline,  sometimes, if they do law or medicine, pigeon-holing them into a single career at the age of seventeen or eighteen. We allow them very little room to explore outside that subject, and it is often a struggle to change your degree course, meaning that if you make the wrong choice, there’s not a lot you can do except to start again.

The UK higher education sector is one, it seems, that is designed to produce scholars. Your tutors might have a cursory interest in your development as a human being, or your employability, but the courses are structured the same way as they might have been 500 years ago: those who get the most out of their degrees are those who go on to paid positions within the very same institutions. At no point in the last 200 years, as the intake of our universities has expanded and it has become a standard route for young people to prepare themselves for the workplace, has anyone sat down and had a meaningful conversation about what our universities are for.

Of course there is value in education for it’s own sake, and it would be sad to see our HEIs going down a utilitarian path. But my argument isn’t really about that.

My argument is about the permissibility of students making mistakes. The quote that really struck me from Auletta’s piece was a student’s academic adviser telling them the following in their first year: “I want you to have a messy career at Stanford. I want to see you try things, to discover the parts of yourself that you didn’t know existed.” This is the organising principle of the undergraduate experience at American universities: it is accepted, even expected, that you can dabble in philosophy and neuroscience before realising that what you really want to do is be a mechanical engineer, but keeping up the French on the side. In these institutions, it is not expected that you know on day one what your calling is; mis-steps and mistakes are all part of the game.

I can’t imagine anyone being instructed to have a “messy” time at Oxford. Here, you stay firmly within the narrow confines of your single (if you’re lucky, you get two) discipline, and it’s rare that you get much choice within that. The quality of your academic work is regulated tightly, and any qualities that makes you more broadly “employable” are gained from your experiences outside your degree.

I think that the flexibility inherent within the American system produces better graduates; it helps young people to grow and develop in ways that will make them more well-rounded, more comfortable with themselves and of greater benefit to the society and the economy that they will be working within. They will have the benefit of both the knowledge and the skills gained from time spent studying a number of different scholarly fields.

But, as well as producing better job-ready graduates, I think it would also, perhaps counter-intuitively, produce better scholars. Instead of students pigeon-holing themselves into a subject as early as 17, they will have time to shop around and discover for themselves the relative merits of their eventual chosen field. They will have gained a greater understanding of the priorities, methods and content of other fields, which will, eventually, make them more productive and effective in their contributions to scholarship.


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