American dreams inspired by the UK's fabled spires

Liberal-arts bodies echo Oxbridge's buildings, teaching and traditions. Jon Marcus reports

March 4, 2010

Amid dense woods, lakes and bluffs atop Tennessee's Cumberland Plateau is the incongruous sight of dreaming spires.

Here, between the cities of Nashville and Chattanooga, a small US institution has created a version of the University of Oxford.

The Gothic-style buildings are arranged in quadrangles, the chapel includes a replica of the Great Tower of Magdalen College, Oxford, and faculty wear academic gowns that echo those worn by dons on the Isis.

The University of the South at Sewanee is one of several US universities that maintain traditions with Oxbridge roots.

In some cases, customs endure at these institutions - transported across the Atlantic by varied and often obscure means - that the ancient universities of Oxford and Cambridge themselves have long since abandoned.

"In the US, Oxford and Cambridge have almost a mythical quality to them as the essence of higher education," said Michael Peters, president of St John's College in Santa Fe, New Mexico, which claims to use a variation of the Oxbridge tutorial system.

Tutors at St John's and other universities that employ the approach typically work with students, not one on one, but in small seminar groups. However, many also meet individually with students at other times: the booths in the St John's campus snack bar are equipped with chalk and blackboards for this purpose.

Sewanee's connection to Oxford appears to date back farthest. The relationship was formed just after the American Civil War, when Oxford donated books to help Sewanee establish a library.

"Clearly there was a simpatico relationship between many in the South and British institutions because of the perception that the British were more on the Southern side than the Northern side, whether that was true or not," said Sam Williamson, the university's former vice-chancellor.

"It was also good merchandising, reassuring people that although they were coming to Tennessee, Sewanee was a serious institution."

Close ties between the Episcopal-affiliated university and the Anglican Church reinforced the appeal of the Oxford system.

The campus was built to mimic Magdalen, and even the university's governing structure is similar to Oxford's: the chancellor is a figurehead, while the vice-chancellor leads the institution. Until the 1960s, there was talk of going further by dividing Sewanee into separate colleges on Oxbridge lines, but the plan proved to be unaffordable.

Sewanee's curriculum still emphasises British literature and history, and sends more Rhodes scholars to Oxford per capita than almost any other US liberal-arts university.

Small is beautiful

The fact that versions of the Oxbridge model of education continue to exist in the nooks and crannies of American higher education is particularly noteworthy at a time when the sector is stressing specialisation and making classes bigger, not smaller.

John Mark Reynolds, director of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University in southern California, said that an Oxbridge-style tutorial system was "very expensive".

Yet the universities that follow such methodologies report resurgent interest.

"If you have a choice of being given a humanistic education or one that is based on a factory model, the former option is very attractive," Dr Reynolds said.

Employers like the results, said Michael McLean, president of Thomas Aquinas College in California, which also uses a tutorial system.

"One of the virtues of this pedagogy is that students are practising daily the arts of analysis, inquiry, careful reading, listening to one another, and engaging in serious conversations about serious issues.

"We've had a number of chief executives and other employers telling us that they really value young people who have those skills."

One approach used to maintain standards are sessions known as "don rags", in which tutors meet to discuss a student's progress, usually in the third person, with the student present. US proponents explicitly trace the idea to Oxford, stressing the connection in their promotional literature.

However, an Oxford spokeswoman said that she had never heard of it, adding: "If the don rag ever was a tradition here, it has long since vanished."

She said the custom known as the "master's collection", in which a tutor reads a student's report to the master of the college in the student's presence, may be the closest match.

Dr Peters said his research showed that two scholars returning from Oxford in the 1920s brought the tradition back with them to St John's, suggesting that "when these guys were at Oxford, they did have don rags".

However, shedding light on the potential for distortions of old traditions, Dr McLean said that at Thomas Aquinas, "we just borrowed it from St John's".

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