Last year, Great Books expanded the program to the Oxford University campus. We asked David Ward, Co-Founder and President of the Great Books Summer Program, to look back at the inaugural year, share some personal highlights, and take a look forward to this summer:
Great Books Summer Program: What did you read to prepare for the trip?
David Ward: We dusted off our Shakespeare first folio paperbacks and found some good histories and maps of Oxford. We knew it would be a highlight to go to Stratford-upon-Avon to see the Royal Shakespeare Company, but the experience was exceptional! We were 2 rows from the actors and the staging was breathtaking. One of the happiest evenings of my year! All’s Well that Ends Well.
GBSP: What assigned texts for the Oxford campus were unique to that campus as compared to the Amherst and Stanford campuses? And, which prompted the most interesting discussion?
DW: We had a lot of fun with great mythic stories of Britain and Europe–Grendel, El Cid, The Tales of King Arthur. I loved these stories and the chance to re-visit them in such an appreciative happy way. But my favorite single session was an hour on Faust. I think we all glimpsed the frailties and pitfalls of the human experience in that discussion. And then what a pleasure to return from there to the heroes of the Round Table!
GBSP: What was your favorite excursion?
DW: I loved the walking tours of Oxford! Yes there really are three dozen colleges at Oxford! And the ancient streets connecting them all are alive with music and theater in the summertime. We saw the majestic and extraordinary 15th century Christ Church campus and glorious Magdalen right on the Thames and we toured the walking paths along the old canals that were the former trade corridors and highways of this part of England. I think all of us enjoyed taking in the street-fair-like excitement of “town” on our daily walks after class.
GBSP: What was the most surprising aspect of the Oxford program?
DW: It was not a surprise per se, but my greatest pleasure was that the level of conversation and insight was superb. Ilan [Stavans] has a rapport with every class that I have grown to expect, but watching him barefoot in the middle of our circle discussions at Somerville was a new reward. We made excitement and fun together. The barriers fall. The issues take hold. Discussion is heartfelt and well-reasoned. That’s the GBSP magic!
GBSP: What are your expectations for this year’s program?
DW: We are very excited to have Ilan and Peter Temes and Gabe Baker heading up discussion for this two-week session. And for me, it’s brilliant to be together with Ilan and Peter, my fellow founders. It doesn’t happen often that we all get to be on the same campus together! We are pretty excited about going castle hunting too. London, Stratford, Bath, and castles!
GBSP: Any other anecdotes or points you want to focus on?
DW: I think Great Books at Oxford brings something entirely new to the GBSP experience. This is where we ALL have 2 weeks to share and to be a team of readers and journeyers together in a landscape that is as rich in history and literature as any could be. Oxford feels limitless and deep in a way that just might offer a new approach to our GB adventure: going to the great wellsprings of world culture and “pitching our GBSP tent” to be on-site and immersed in big things!