Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Oxford University and SDSU: A Cultural Comparison

      Oxford has been imprinted on American psyche as symbolic with Great Britain ever since I can remember.   No other university can claim that distinction for me.   It’s iconic nature leaves one to place it on a pedestal in the intellectual world.  My background is Scientific and Engineering but even then, Oxford remains high on my awareness list. 
The comparisons between Oxford and SDSU illustrate noticeable differences between the cultures.   Institutional age is a major difference between the two.  Oxford was started several hundred years before SDSU.   Because of that, it has a much longer tradition tied with the established Monarchy.   Physically the two campuses have major differences.  SDSU is concentrated mostly on one piece of land within a large city.  SDSU has a ceremonial way, leading to an iconic building in the center of campus.    

Oxford has no such central section of land or ceremonial way.  Instead it is fragmented onto several separate land plots mixed in with the city with no common entrance.  That was a complete surprise to me that entrance to each college is a small door inside a larger door.

The learning environment is also markedly different.   At Oxford, it is much slower paced than at SDSU.   There is much more intimacy due to smaller class sizes.   The high ratio of faculty to students allows for mentoring, which fits in with the older traditions of learning established long ago.   Oxford uses independent study methods, relying less on classroom lectures whereas SDSU has a much larger student to faculty ratio and large (up to several hundred) student classrooms.  Mentoring is possible at SDSU but is much harder at the undergraduate level.  Only at the graduate level would smaller classrooms and independent study be available to students in the way it is mostly used at Oxford. 
Early specialization is a major difference between Oxford and SDSU.  This has pros and cons.   The pros are when a person wisely and luckily predicts the field of specialization for their degree.    Cons are if they need to make a change due to changing interests as well as changes in the world.  This has a high degree of probability of occurring, due to the accelerating rate of change in the world.  Perhaps Oxford’s early specialization is due to tradition carried over from a much simpler world that was less interconnected, interdisciplinary and multi cultural.   SDSU differs greatly in this area, not allowing for specialization early in the college curriculum.  SDSU is more encouraging of diversity, allowing for multiple majors and broader majors such as interdisciplinary studies.   
Social life between the two are quite different.  At SDSU there are many opportunities to interact and meet other students for example in fraternities in addition to having more opportunities to meet classmates due to the sheer numbers.  The small infrequent meetings of Oxford students with faculty seems to imply more solitary work.  This implies less project working in teams compared to many classes at SDSU which require group presentation to the chagrin of many!  Social skills are important to learn to be able to survive in today’s complex world.  The student prospectus says that over 600 clubs and societies exist but these seem to be outside of class.   That may be a barrier to those that might be shy, encouraging the solitary life.  
The other major difference is the presence of religious chapels in each of Oxford’s colleges.   Several of the colleges are named after saints.  At SDSU and most public funded universities, there are no religious institutions due to the US government’s rule of the separation of church and state.  Again, a major cultural difference between Britain and the US, not only at universities but government wide.  Oxford is a prime example of this difference.
Another surprising difference to me is that tuition and fees are the same across the public funded universities in the UK.  I expected Oxford, due to its prestige to be much higher.   In the US, there is a wider variation of fees and types of public funded universities.

This comparison has highlighted a surprising number of differences, providing a good example from which to learn on a deeper level about British Culture.

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