Princeton and Oxford are often compared to one another because of Woodrow Wilson's use of Oxford as a model to transform Princeton during his tenure as Princeton's president. Sherif Girgis '08, a philosophy major now studying philosophy at Oxford, provides a modern look at the similarities and differences between the two universities.
In some ways, you’d expect Princeton and Oxford to converge a good deal. As president of Princeton, Woodrow Wilson paid a visit to the city of dreaming spires, and the results are clear, if the scales are a bit different. Oxford has some 40 colleges --- medieval towns unto themselves, with a dining hall, dorms, seminar rooms and a chapel; Princeton has six residential colleges, with almost the same elements. Oxford’s tutorials feature a professor and one student; Princeton’s preceptorials feature an instructor and 10 students. Oxford has Gothic buildings dating to the 1520s; Princeton has Gothic revival buildings dating to the 1920s. Keeping a venerable Oxford tradition, students take exams in white tie and gowns; keeping a venerable Princeton tradition, students take exams in sweatshirts and slippers.
Both can boast some of the best professors in most areas where they have any professors, as well as some of the sharpest students in the Anglophone world.
But if you’re trying to decide between the two, it’s the differences that you need to know. Now I can’t contrast these multifaceted universities in themselves, only my experiences of them. And that I can do best by contrasting the moments that typify, at least for me, the spirit of each.
From the first year, Oxford trains its undergraduates almost exclusively in their field’s literature, so it offers far more specialization. But for all its academic rigors, the quintessential Oxford moments are primarily aesthetic: The world-class New College choir harmonizes evensong prayers against an overpopulated reredos; the sun sets over the public grazing grounds on your evening stroll to a 17th century pub.
Even centrally intellectual moments --- tutorial in your professor’s office --- are permeated by the aesthetic: Your tutor’s soft upper-class accent, the mess of books arrayed just so, the gratuitously placed fireplace, the conspicuously placed cigar box. In social moments, too --- like a pub outing with friends --- the sensory is salient: the golden-brown lighting, the vague smell of old leather, the lukewarm ale lining your mouth like a liquid loaf.
(Here’s a good indicator: Despite my lifelong laziness about taking pictures, Oxford’s beauty has inspired --- forced --- me to carry a camera everywhere I go. My Facebook albums rival those of at least the average sorority girl.)
Quintessentially Princetonian moments, on the other hand, are primarily social: You stay up late debating the (de)merits of relativism and relish the solidarity of the next morning’s fatigue; you celebrate finishing Italian 1025 with an in-class bottle of Chianti (grazie, Professor Weinapple); you walk back from a Thursday night of rich discussions at Terrace Club expressing, in merrier terms than usual, affection for your quadmates; you spend that halcyon post-thesis season cementing the young foundations of friendships built for a lifetime.
Of course, this distinction is a little absurd. Princeton has its beautiful moments and places, and Oxford, its drab ones. An Oxford career, too, is a wellspring of friendship, while Princetonians aren’t untouched by loneliness. I’ve only picked out the scenes that each place first evokes, in the hope of communicating what brochures and tours may not. And the divergence does ramify in other areas: Princeton’s academic experience seems more collegial, involving more active cooperation from peers, and direction and feedback from professors, while at Oxford, certain cultural aspects of extracurricular life --- the wine-tasting clubs; the famously theatrical, prime minister-pumping debate society --- are a tad more vibrant. (Those, and the storied crew teams: Every third Oxonian is a rower.)
I could go on elaborating and hedging and abstracting until not one stone of Firestone (or the Bodleian) Library is left standing upon another, and still fail to capture either place’s genius. Choosing between Princeton and Oxford is like choosing between adjacent vineyards in Tuscany: While their prices and climes may vary, outsiders just see them as interchangeable plots in paradise. But despite the toil of cultivating them well, and the occasional dry or sour fruit, each inspires in its patrons a fierce pride and jealous affection --- and likely would in you, too.
Editor's Note: The last paragraph was left off of the original post. It has now been corrected.