Sunday, 20 November 2011

College Profile: Oriel College

It's been several decades now since a certain set of Bible translations came out, and you'll notice a pattern: the New English Bible, the New American Standard Bible, and the New International Version, to name a few. It's really funny. I suspect we'll still be calling them "new this" and "new that" a hundred years from now. Much like New College at Oxford. Do you know when New College was founded? Any guesses? New College was new in 1379.
         —Larry Wall, creator of the Perl programming language

Reading the above quote, in high school, was the first time I ever heard of New College. It immediately led me to wonder what on earth passed for an "Old College" at Oxford!

The answer is this one, the college more commonly known as Oriel, although it has also been known as "King's College", and its official name is The House of the Blessed Mary the Virgin in Oxford, commonly called Oriel College, of the Foundation of Edward the Second of famous memory, sometime King of England. New College, you see, is also dedicated to Our Lady, and it is because there would otherwise be two St. Mary's Colleges that they are both called by other names, to distinguish them. The name Oriel is not entirely understood: it could refer to the oriel windows (an architectural term), but seems most likely to refer to the large tavern called "La Oriole" that stood on the site before the college was built.

As can be inferred from the preceding discussion, that was a long time ago. Begun in 1324 and chartered in 1326, to be precise, Oriel is the oldest college in Oxford of royal foundation, and its coat of arms, a differenced version of the royal arms of England, testifies to Oriel's kingly pedigree. It is a very traditional college: the last to admit women, it holds formal hall six nights a week (with more formality, and better food, than most colleges), and has been nicknamed T'Oriel for the perceived Tory leanings of its student body.

In actual fact, though, Oriel's small student body leads many people of all backgrounds to choose it, because of its friendliness and strong feeling of community. (And some women choose it precisely because it was the last to admit them!) The respect for Oxford traditions at Oriel is not so much a sign of conservatism as it is a recognition of the common desire of those at Oxford to live the university's unique experiences to the fullest. Showing up to formal hall in jeans and a t-shirt, which some colleges allow, cannot but cheapen the experience for everyone present. For me personally, the traditions and history of Oxford are key ingredients of what makes it great, just as much as the brilliant academics. Therefore it only made sense to select a college that would allow me to experience to the utmost all those things that make Oxford "Oxford".

Oriel's reputation university-wide, though, is more than anything associated with its dominance in sport. Oriel has dominated the Head of the River in Eight's Week, Oxford's most important sporting fixture, winning the headship in the majority of the years I've been alive—a phenomenal achievement, given how competitive collegiate racing is at Oxford.

The college, accordingly, features prominently, if inaccurately, in the 1984 Rob Lowe film Oxford Blues. If that were not fantastic enough as college trivia, Oriel was also the setting for Hugh Grant's first film, Privileged—I don't think you can get more 'typically Oxbridge' than that!

With three main quads, all different architecturally, the college buildings are varied and ample, without seeming too large or too small. The "secret passage" to O'Brian quad also helps give the college some character, as does the MCR, already quite large by traditional college standards, and recently enlarged by the addition of a study room on the floor directly above it. The hall, complete with a mediæval two-handed longsword, the music room, and the elegant SCR also deserve mention.

Oriel also provided an outstanding library, holding over 100,000 volumes and open 24 hours a day. The college had multiple copies of all the textbooks I needed for my course. This meant that not only did I not have to buy any textbooks, but I was even able to check out one set, to keep in my room, while still keeping another full set in the library, so I could study at either location without having to carry any books around! That alone made a lot of my non-Oriel classmates pretty envious, I can tell you.

Oriel was my first choice college for a number of reasons: there is the location (being so old, and being founded de facto by the rector of the University Church of St. Mary's, Oriel sits right in the centre of everything at Oxford), there is the history, and the respect for Oxford traditions, which I was eager to experience in person. More than any of that, though, it was two sets of alumni that really made me choose Oriel.

First, although Oriel today may have a reputation more for brawn than brains (by Oxford standards, anyway), in Victorian times it was acknowledged as the preëminent college intellectually (a position now held by All Souls'—although I should point out that the Warden of that college is himself an Orielensis). This put it at the heart of the Tractarian movement, with E.B. Pusey, John Keble, and John Henry Newman all fellows of the college at that time. Since this was a period I studied extensively while at McGill, I came to the college selection process with the foreknowledge (repeated ad nauseam in nineteenth-century sources and biographies), that Oriel was the most prestigious college of the university. Beside that, there was a considerable sentimental incentive to actually become a member of the college that sat at the centre of the "Oxford movement", the very place where the Tracts for the Times were written, and where Newman lived and rose to fame. Dining in the same hall he dined in, arguing with friends over some of the same topics he debated with his, and completing my journey following in the same steps he did, was a profoundly significant experience for me.

In my orientation as an MBA student, though, two other, very different, Oriel alumni stood out: Sir Walter Raleigh, and Cecil Rhodes. Indeed, more than any other degree an MBA is about learning to do, to achieve—not to be content with theories or knowledge for its own sake. Leadership ability, entrepreneurial spirit, and real-world results are what we want to get from our MBA experience, and the academic knowledge we gain is sought in order to facilitate and enable that. Raleigh and Rhodes are both figures who may have been controversial, but not even their most vocal critics can deny that they were men of action, and impressive leaders, whose lives literally altered the face of the globe.

I am not suggesting that my intended career path will look anything like either one of those men's, but having their portraits staring down on us was a pretty good motivator to remind us that, once we leave Oriel, we have the potential to change the world.

Floreat Oriel.
Posted by jon at 12:01 AM in Oxford 

Comments on this entry:

Left by Mom at Sun, 20 Nov 4:35 PM

At last--I'd been looking forward to the Oriel segment! Had to google (as always) to learn about the Tractarian movement. Yes, you were meant for Oriel in so many ways. Loved the long official name!!

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