Stay Informed and Carry On
The question was a big one, and in the face of its size my referential reflex kicked in. It was during our once-a-week meeting for my "Ethics of War" tutorial, and my tutor, a former soldier in the Israeli army and current graduate student of law, had asked me if torture was ever permissible. Doing a mental scan of the arguments from that week's reading list, I started by summarizing the points I had read: "Well, McMahan posits that-" I began, yet stopped as my tutor held up his hand.
"I know what McMahan thinks," he said, "but what do you think?"
So it goes. "Welcome to Oxford," were the next words out of his mouth.
Now, since our meeting on that typically raw English February day, I certainly haven't become comfortable answering some of the most difficult questions of our time, but I have come to appreciate the structure of academics here far beyond its worth for being able to crank out papers each week. (For background, Oxford's tutorial system has students take on a reading list with one question to answer each week, and you meet one-on-one to discuss the essay you've written on the topic.) Indeed, as the term unfolded, I realized that every "reading list" would perhaps better be dubbed a "thinker's toolbox," in the sense that what I was reading was intentionally hand picked to stretch my brain in all directions. Hence, to extend the analogy, if doing the reading was like being plied, twisted, or - when it got to be a lot - put in a vice, then writing was seeing what shape emerged when you simply left your mutable medium-yourself-on the work bench. Sometimes the shape was coherent on its own, sometimes it resembled a hammer or wrench too much (if you repeated others' points), or sometimes (although hopefully not) it was freakishly out-of-whack.
Of course, it would be foolish to assert that Colby doesn't do the same in its classes (that is, ask us what we as students think), but what I intend to emphasize is the care that the Oxford system allows one to give to each essay question - a quality certainly amplified by the time one has to work on them. Let's call it "cognitive space." Indeed, when all you have are books to read and an essay to write (and once you're done playing darts, watching Six Nations rugby, listening to live local music, sampling the best sandwich shops in town, enjoying a warm pint, etc.), you better take some time to reflect. In the words of Winston Churchill, "the farther backward you can look, the farther forward you can see" - just replace "farther" with "better," and one nears a sense of clarity.
Still, this clarity from reflection must extend beyond the tutorials if we are to truly learn, and in that sense I find no better arena in which to test it than in politics. Fortunately, on May 6, the United Kingdom will hold a general election to decide the new members of Parliament and potentially a new Prime Minister; thus, media election coverage is plentiful. And as each of the major party leaders: Tory David Cameron, Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg, and Labour's Gordon Brown (the incumbent PM) states his position and attacks those of others, the time for British citizens to hear all sides and make an informed decision is near. Call the tutorial "Educated Voting," and here's the best part: your tutor is the BBC.
The British Broadcasting Corporation is the world's largest broadcast organization and is funded for the most part domestically by an annual "TV tax" paid by all UK households. It thus stands autonomously as a news source, and although it is not without its fair share of criticism for bias (both left and right) or controversy, it does do the "read, reflect, think" thing quite well in the political waters. (These seas can often be muddied with jargon and spin.) Indeed, go to the BBC's "Election 2010" page and versions of the phrase "make it clear" appear on two links, along with a bold "Where They Stand" and perhaps the best feature of all, the "Reality Check," where the BBC takes one issue, breaks down each candidate's position, and provides the pertinent numbers and facts, asking questions such as "Who's right on national insurance?," "Can the Tories find 12 billion pounds in efficiencies?," "Did British jobs go to British workers under Labour?" and "Lib Dem tax: winners and losers." Of course, I'm not going to go so far as to claim that everything from the BBC is foolproof, but it certainly is refreshing to see such a well-thought out approach, and certainly refreshing to see all contenders examined equally.
Which brings me back to cognitive space. Indeed, it can be hard when life gets hectic, finals are bearing down, and the line for pizza in Bob's is out the door, but nowadays more than ever it's important to not merely internalize the world around us in a disorganized fashion but to make sense of it to our absolute best abilities - which involves understanding contrary viewpoints, evaluating validity, and moving forward with our own informed opinions. I'm not saying it's solely a British thing, but it can only serve us well in the States. During World War II, when the British government feared a Nazi invasion, they made propaganda posters for the country that have since become ubiquitous gift-shop graphics. Still, I like the phrase on the posters, especially for use after one simply thinks things through: "Keep Calm and Carry On."