Few places evoke more fervent proprietary feelings in visitors and residents than the town of Oxford. The polyphony of bells, the honey-veined stone quadrangles, the abundance of books, the languid cushioned river punts, and the zeal of conversation distance the worlds of commerce and industry and give it an air of what one don called ''learned leisure.''
Oxford was an ''Enchantress'' to Andrew Lang; but to Milton, it was the ''Mother of arts and eloquence.'' It was to yet another Oxford that North American secondary school students were introduced this past summer at venerable Christ Church College.
Four two-week sessions of the Oxford Vacation Course were held between June 29 and Aug. 30. (Month-long sessions are under consideration for 1982.)
The maximum number of students was 40 per session; most had fewer. The course was intended for US and Canadian secondary school students aged 16 to 18. They received certificates of attendance at the conclusion indicating achievement level.
Term time at Oxford is not intended to be purely academic, but to comprise varied pursuits: social, athletic, theatrical, political, religious.
Jeremy Wayne, an Oxford BA (Hons.) from New College who directs the Vacation Course, emphasizes his ''deep-seated belief in experience being the cornerstone of any education.'' With the hope of giving a ''potted version of life as an Oxford undergraduate,'' he organized a syllabus whose academic nucleus was extended in many directions by excursions, speakers, and social gatherings.
The North Americans could take: English literature, given by Gareth Adams, fellow of St. Edmund Hall; history of art, including a survey of Oxford architecture, given by Alex de Marais of Warwick University; and a history of English drama, given by Nigel Warrington, a professional theater director whose credits include productions at the Glyndebourne opera festival.
The usual undergraduate timetable was followed, with morning lectures and optional excursions and speakers in the afternoons and evenings. There were visits to Chatsworth, Blenheim, the Cotswolds, and other places. A private tour of 14th-century Broughton Castle, Banbury, was offered; the group was received by Lady Saye and Sele.
Evening speakers included Jane Cameron, assistant restorer at the Bodleian Library, who spoke on conservation problems, and Malcolm Sinclair, an actor who with Nigel Warrington presented a dramatic interpretation of the tradition of satiric poetry in English literature.
Students saw ''Love's Labour's Lost'' (Keble College Gardens) and ''The Winter's Tale'' (Stratford).
Course participants lived at Christ Church and took breakfast and dinner in the 16th-century hall which is one of Oxford's most opulent. It is 115 feet long , with a high carved roof and paneled walls hung with portraits. Single and double accommodations were offered.
Wayne and his assistants, Jonathan Burnham and Peter Reid, maintained a small common room and were accessible to students just off Tom Quad, Oxford's largest quadrangle.
Great Tom, the bell in Wren's Tom Tower, still peals 101 strokes each night at 9:05, one for each member of the original foundation. This once signaled the closing of the gates; they are now closed at midnight.
How did the students find the course?
Most gave it resounding approval. Ellen von der Heyden and Elizabeth Scheetz of Pittsburgh liked the independence gained and felt the young staff (largely under 35) created a convivial atmosphere.
Sarah Lehman of Vancouver, British Columbia, found that ''meeting people from all over North America and making close friends'' was the strongest positive aspect, but cautioned that students expecting ''heavy studying'' might be disappointed. She would have preferred a more academic emphasis and found some of the courses too general. An exception for her was the ''superb'' course given by Gareth Adams.
Mr. Adams states, ''One of the ideas behind the course was that learning could be fun, and it was felt that a rigid school regime might injure this aim; we found that our more relaxed approach did not damage the educational purpose of the course.''
He felt the students were well read, with a ''commendable breadth of knowledge. The idea of connecting all of it upon a deeper level they seemed to find novel and exciting.'' He believed the course succeeded in opening new avenues of thought which the student would go on ''to consolidate, out of choice.'' He thinks future applicants might benefit from a list of background texts and ''grounding books.''
John Osborne of Reading, Pa., a senior at Penn Center Academy in Philadelphia , left Oxford with the greatest reluctance. ''It was a wonderful growth experience,'' he says, ''to study in the atmosphere of the university, where so much history was made and where so many seeds of American culture were sown.'' He liked the instructors and found Adams's course particularly valuable.
For information about the 1982 Oxford Vacation Course, write Jeremy Wayne, BA , Oxford Vacation Courses, 1 Vere Street, London, W.1., England.