Oxford's happy history

March 12, 2009

We would like to thank Felipe Fernandez-Armesto for giving a fascinating talk to the Oxford University History Society. However, having hosted a number of successful speaker events this term, we were alarmed by our guest's cri de coeur (Opinion, 26 February).

Perhaps we should not have been surprised given that this was only the latest of several attacks on the University of Oxford that this former member has launched in recent years.

Much of the specific criticism aimed at the current Oxford experience is based on a misrepresentation and exaggeration of a handful of comments, and ignorance of what Oxford now is really like. For example, the history curriculum is much broader than it was in the days of Christopher Hill, Hugh Trevor-Roper and Fernandez-Armesto.

Do our illustrious term-cards and 460-member count prove that our society is "dreadfully solemn"? It is also interesting that our pride in our healthy budget and financial self-sufficiency has been spun into an unfounded attack on the history faculty: the university would support us if we needed it, but we do not.

The "grim" and "cheerless" picture painted does not represent the collective experience of tutors, students and other guests at this university: we too "rollicked with gusto" at our annual black-tie dinner; we had "uproarious fun" at our spring garden party; and we "laughed" and "cheered" - "glass in hand" - at the society's tenth anniversary celebrations.

The "dreariness" thesis is one based on less than an hour of socialising with 18 students at one particular speaker event: in other words, a rather narrow snapshot. If the university remembered by Fernandez-Armesto has changed, we think it is for the better. We are as fond of our Oxford as he is of his.

Thomas Barker and Omar El-Okdah on behalf of the Oxford University History Society.

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