An `Oxbridge' University Trilogy

THE ILLUSTRATED HISTORY OF OXFORD UNIVERSITY Edited by John Prest Oxford University Press 404 pp., $35.

LOOKING FOR CLASS: SEEKING WISDOM AND ROMANCE AT OXFORD AND CAMBRIDGE By Bruce Feiler Random House, 330 pp., $23.

UP AT OXFORD By Ved Mehta W. W. Norton, 432 pp., $25.

THE Indian writer Ved Mehta, in ``Up At Oxford'' (which recounts his experiences as a student during the latter half of the 1950s), recalls a visionary moment: Early in his first year, ``walking down past Christ Church and into the Christ Church Meadow'' he suddenly had ``a wave of feeling that I couldn't bear it if I were not at Oxford.'' Even as a child in India, he tells us, there was no place he had wanted to go to more than Oxford.

The American writer Bruce Feiler went to the other place - Cambridge. His time there is more recent than Mehta's at Oxford: It coincided with the Gulf war. Feiler chose Cambridge over Oxford, not for ``romantic'' reasons but because he reckoned that Oxford has taken a different path in postgraduate studies from its rival sister university by the River Cam, emphasizing humanities rather than ``more practical programs'' like engineering or law. Or international relations - which was the subject he wanted to study.

Though 30-odd years come between the experiences of these two overseas students at ``Oxbridge,'' there remains much common ground in their two stories. Change is slow at these 700- to 800-year-old places of learning.

Mehta is surely right to point out the innocence, particularly in sexual mores, of students of his period compared with Feiler's. But Feiler, too, looks for a kind of ``romanc,'' which he finds to some extent with a female Rhodes Scholar at Oxford, so justifying the mention of Oxford in his book's title, ``Looking for Class: Seeking Wisdom and Romance at Oxford and Cambridge.'' He also agonizes over finding a partner - any partner - for the May Ball.

Feiler's college accommodations may have been marginally less spartan today than Mehta's in the stringency of post-war England. But they similarly felt that they had to some extent entered a boarding school after the freedoms of college life both had previously experienced in the United States.

Feiler's is the less academic voice of the two, more concerned with life as it is rudely and wildly lived by Cambridge students (and visiting Americans). Mehta lays greater stress, perhaps, on the obsessive dedication with which he pursued his studies; being blind, all his research had to be with the help of readers, and, though he never asks for it, it is impossible to withhold admiration for his clear determination not to be handicapped or different. And he sometimes let his hair down with surprising exuberance.

The fact is that as ``foreign students'' both Mehta and Feiler were - by design or fortune - outside observers of everyone's favorite subject: the eccentricity of the British and the decided peculiarities of their two major universities. Mehta, almost desperately, wanted to feel like an insider. But his an-Indian-at-Oxford story meticulously traces a growing disenchantment with that dream in spite of an increasing number of friends (all of whom like him but not each other) and a keenness to be clubable.

Feiler, on the other hand, was always the observing visitor. He spoke at the Cambridge Union Society in favor of the resolution that ``This House Would Rather Be Young, Free, and American.'' The humor of his debating style was heavier-handed than his frolicky way of putting a book together. He tried to sway the Union with awful chestnuts about English weather and food, and it is little wonder the opposition won hands down.

But in his book, he does manage a number of pointed assessments of the British and their approach to university education that are serious enough.

Most originally he finds himself seeing parallels between the British and the Japanese. For instance, ``both countries boast a powerful national pride that verges on the xenophobic. Both ... have gone out of their way to avoid immigration, integration.... In the year that I was a student at Clare [one of the loose federation of colleges out of which both Oxford and Cambridge are built], the college had no blacks, no Indians, and only one half-Japanese, half-English student in an undergraduate population of over three hundred. If Cambridge ... is that exclusive, imagine the corridors of power.''

Both Japan and Britain are islands already intensely overpopulated of course; nevertheless Feiler has a point.

In ``The Illustrated History of Oxford University,'' a book that covers many facets of Oxford's history in a factual and impeccably academic way, is a chapter called ``The Growth of an International University.'' Oxford, it is argued, has become far more international in outlook, in teaching methods, and in intake of students than it ever was.

These changes have been wrought, however, against entrenched reluctance by persistent outside pressure, some of it in the form of vast financial generosity from overseas. Nevertheless, the author of this chapter, John Darwin, (one of the 10 scholars who have written the separate essays in this book) cannot help concluding that ``we may suspect that much of what makes Oxford attractive and influential abroad really derives from its continuing success in drawing to itself some of the ablest products of British schools.''

If that were not so, why would people like Feiler or Mehta want to attend Oxford or Cambridge in the first place?

With disarming frankness Mehta acknowledges at one point that ``at the time, in my heart of hearts I wished that I had been born an Englishman and that I had all the intellectual equipment, with the accompanying symbols of privilege and power, of the best of the English.''

And he apparently never doubted - even though many of the ``best undergraduates'' he knew had troubled later lives - that the place to encounter the best of the English was at Oxford.

Or, presumably, the other place.

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