Debate and discussion are at the heart of the teaching system at Oxford, with students learning not only from lectures, practicals and seminars, but also from small group tutorials. In these sessions students are asked to present arguments, debate with each other and defend their ideas from their tutors for over an hour in what is generally considered the most important part of an Oxford education. It’s hardly surprising therefore that many students take their debating outside of the classroom, and spend their spare time debating either in one of the many political societies or at the Oxford Union: the university’s dedicated debating society.
The chamber at the Oxford Union
The union has played host to a plethora of world leaders, philosophers, activists and even the occasional celebrity over its 194 year history, and hosts weekly debates on motions both timeless and modern. For example last year the union played host to Nigel Farage and Nick Clegg as they debated whether or not Britain should remain in the European Union, while in 1933 the union argued over the motion ‘This House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country’ in the build up to World War II.
In these debates it is a tradition that teams are composed of both invited guests and students, and they also involve a floor debate in which members are invited to ask questions directly to speakers. In this way, students are able to debate issues of the day directly with the politicians involved in making these decisions, and it is no surprise that a huge number of politicians, both British and international have cut their teeth arguing in the union’s famous chamber.
Inter-university debating is also a popular activity at Oxford, with teams regularly reaching the finals of national, European and world-wide competitions. There is even a yearly medical ethics varsity debate, which Oxford won this year: arguing that “This house regrets the rise of direct to consumer genetic testing”.
However, besides these formal examples of debating, it is also developed as a skill through an Oxford education. The ability to synthesise an argument from reading a variety of sources, present that to another student or a tutor and then defend it from questions is developed through both the tutorial system and seminar discussions. Whether that skill is then used in formal competitive debating or in a subsequent career, it remains transferrable and useful for life.
Oxford Summer Courses host regular debate nights as part of the courses, with students debating topics as varied as the legalisation of drugs, the part time occupations of politicians and the storage of DNA records by the state. Using a similar format to the Union students present their arguments and answer questions in a floor debate, before winners are chosen by a vote and a panel of staff judges. It’s normally a great chance to get stuck into one of Oxford’s favourite activities and to both learn from and discuss with other students from around the world.
People all over the world associate Oxford with the literary giants and their books, Lewis Carroll’s, Alice in Wonderland, J.R.R Tolkien’s, The Lord of the Rings and C.S. Lewis’s, The Chronicles of Narnia. Any tour of Oxford will point out the tree that Lewis Carroll sat under and imagined the Cheshire Cat; the carving of a lion’s face that sparked the idea of Aslan, the lion in The Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe; and The Eagle and Child pub where the group of author-academics including Tolkien and C.S Lewis met to exchange ideas and discuss literature.
I’ll wait for you to come to Oxford and see those for yourself – I want to introduce you to a few other authors and their works from throughout the ages, which have connections to the beautiful city of Oxford, but which may not be so familiar to you
Currently lives in Oxford
The Diamond of Drury Lane, Winner of the Nestle Children’s Book Prize Gold Award and the Waterstone’s Children’s Book Prize 2006
Catherine ‘Cat’ Royal is a 13-year-old girl, orphaned and living at the Theatre Royal, after which she is named. One night she overhears a discussion about a valuable diamond, hidden in the very theatre that she knows so well. Cat befriends Pedro, a violinist, Johnny, a political cartoonist and the aristocratic Avon family as she adventures through 18th-century London, having run-ins with the local gangs and the officers of the law, all in search of this mysterious diamond that could bring untold wealth…
Thomas De Quincey
(1785-1859) , attended Worcester College
Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821)
De Quincey was all set to attend Oxford University by the age of 15, because of his incredible intelligence. However, while studying at Manchester Grammar School with the aim of gaining a scholarship to Oxford he ran away from school and lived for several months wandering the roads and paths of England and Wales, ending up in London where he lived on the point of starvation. Completely by luck, friends found him there, brought him home, and he was sent to Worcester College.
After leaving Oxford without graduating he got to know the major literary figures of the age, including William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Throughout his life, despite his achievements as a writer, he suffered with an opium addiction and was weighed down by debt. It is this profoundly difficult life that is described and expressed in his Confessions of an English Opium Eater, a vivid, beautifully written, and moving account of the terror that the drug and physical and psychological pain can wreak on somebody’s life.
(1903-1966), attended Hertford College, Oxford
A Handful of Dust (1934)
A country gentleman called Tony Last lives in his ancestral home, Hetton Abbey with his wife and son. He is oblivious to the fact that this idyllic family life is actually falling apart, with a suffocated and dissatisfied wife. When things do reach an unavoidable head for him and he finds himself on the point of bankruptcy…he decides to go travelling in the Amazon rainforest, accompanied by an entirely incompetent explorer. Oscillating between hilarity and tragedy, this book satirises the complacency of the well-off British man at the beginning of the 20th-century.
An incredibly successful author, anything by Waugh is definitely worth picking up and giving a go!
(1903-1966), Bangladeshi-born British writer, attended Wadham College, Oxford
Brick Lane (2003), shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, film adaptation 2007
Monica Ali’s first novel is a detailed portrayal of Nazneen, arriving in London to meet her husband of an arranged marriage, and struggling to make a life for herself as part of the East End community. Her domestic environment is a complex place that can be comic, tragic and deeply political, while every character we meet is precise and complex – nobody is easy to dismiss as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, as various motivations and psychologies come to light. Alongside this portrait of British life are glimpses of life in Bangladesh, shown through letters from Nazneen’s sister, who faces similar uncertainties and choices, as both women attempt to survive and create a sense of themselves.