Demystifying Oxbridge education (III)

May 18, 2022 10:23
Photo: Reuters

So here’s to the final chapter in the series. We’ve spent the past two articles discussing the myths – and misprojections – concerning education at Oxbridge. I want to end on a more personal note.

Many have asked me the following question: “You’ve spent 7 years – soon to become 8 years at Oxford. By the time you graduate, you will have had a BA (MA), MPhil, and DPhil (PhD) from Oxford. Do you regret not having spent time elsewhere?”

That’s a fair question, and one that resonates deeply with me. Now, if you will, allow me to engage in a tad of sentimental indulgence, I assure you that the following would eventually emerge to be relevant to the topic of our discourse today.

When merely a high school student at my alma mater, I’d never expected to study at Oxford – let alone, enroll in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the university. I’d equally failed to anticipate where life would take me – of all the options that appealed to me as a 14-year-old, academia seemed rather remote. The law had seemed all the more attractive then, as a lucrative industry for ambitious young’uns. All was well.

It was through a combination of highly sincere, ardent, and devoted persuasion from my mentors and teachers at school (for which I remain indubitably grateful), and encouragement from my peers, that I’d decided to apply for PPE at Oxford in 2014. And the rest was, well, as the saying goes, history.

8 years later, it’s now 2022, and I’m in my second year of my DPhil. I’ve spent years trying to become a better political theorist and scientist and – at that – a better person. And it is only rather recently (upon my return to Oxford), that I’ve come to the following conclusion. On the contrary to those who suggest that I might have lost out on an education of variety, I’m instead of the view that the years I have and will spend here have not been, and certainly will not be monochromatic in their consistency.

The Oxford experience has been eclectic – not only because I’ve transitioned from being an undergrad (who is taught), to a Masters (which required both engaging with tutorials as a ‘taught’ student and rigorous research as a ‘research’-centric early career academic), and, finally now, to a DPhil (which involves both teaching and extensive research). These years have been anything but uniform – with segments spent in Hong Kong, and weeks spent travelling across the world for all kinds of reasons. Above all, however, such eclecticity stems from, I have concluded, the quality and calibre of academic peers and comrades to which I am exposed – the faculty, the tutors, the fellow researchers and early-career academics who have equipped me with invaluable feedback throughout workshops and seminars. To them, I remain all the more grateful. And it is also thanks to their originality, innovative sincerity, and dexterity, that I have found the near-decade-long Oxford experience anything but a constrictive bore.

These are challenging times, for all kinds of reason. Structural racism, inward-looking isolationism, and nativist Sinophobia have rendered international academic spaces hostile in parts, and alien in others, to folks like myself – Chinese students studying abroad. Yet concurrently, ideological zealotry and jingoistic bigotry, as manifested through myopic commentators and thinkers who seem to think that obsequiousness about one’s country equates patriotism, are threatening to engender one of the worst episodes of decoupling in the history of international education. Campuses being closed down, international students being turned away, and globally minded and oriented faculty being driven away and out by those who find kowtowing to sycophancy more lucrative (they’re right about that), and more dignifying (they’re awfully wrong about that). Some of the academics and intellectuals I respect the most, hold radically divergent views concerning affairs and issues for which I care very deeply – they and I may not see eye to eye on my country, on the world, on political ideology and ideals.

Yet they are respectable – not despite their views, not because of their views, but because of the steadfast rigour and analytical strength with which they approach and justify their opinions. True academics do not pander to the (often-madding) crowds. True academics are not populists, seeking to climb ahead and along the greasy pole, lined with the sweat and tears and body fats and oil of those who have been skinned, so that orthodoxy prevails. Genuine intellectuals will not, and shall not, succumb to the temptations of money. They act in accordance with what is right, what is truthful, and what is just. And that makes them all the more respectable.

The Oxbridge education is not for everyone – it is not for those who come from privileged backgrounds, who see Oxbridge as merely another box to tick on their CVs. I’ve seen plenty of such folks, who end up miserable wherever they go. They’re unable to channel what Oxbridge truly stands for – its integrity and grit; at best, they are phantoms and mimics of the ethos undergirding these august institutions. Those who truly belong to these bastions of knowledge, are those for whom knowing more would never hurt, and who would be willing and capable of speaking – tactfully yet candidly – truth to power.

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Assistant Professor, HKU