Today is my 28th birthday, and as a treat, I sat in bed this morning rereading Humphrey Carpenter’s biography of J. R. R. Tolkien. Specifically, the chapters about his arrival at Oxford and years as an undergraduate studying philology. I have a slight infatuation with academia, even though in most such settings I feel like an imposter.
Example number one: As an English major at Grove City College, I put my hours in at the Henry Buhl library writing essays on Keats and Edwards. An encouraging word from a professor sent me into academic orbit: in many ways I lived for that A on an exam paper. But the more profound joy came when I and my fellow students gathered in the home of one of the professors. I remember being deeply impressed by a reproduction of “The Unicorn in Captivity” displayed in the English department Chair’s home. In these small gatherings I caught a glimpse of what C. S. Lewis describes as “the inner ring,” and soon I realized this inner ring existed back on campus, too.
I wasn’t what you would call an idealistic student. The love of learning for its own sake was, for me, often eclipsed by stress over the next assignment. I felt that there was something wrong with this state of affairs but wasn’t sure how to combat it. One of the reasons to study (or as the British would have it, “read”) English literature is to allow yourself to be shaped by the great thinkers and writers of the past. Perhaps that happened occasionally, but to be honest I think I was using these texts as grist for the mill of good grades. Put poetry in, papers and exams come out.
For the inner ring, though, I sensed things were different. Here were people who wouldn’t hesitate to forgo studying to stay up late reading plays and discussing philosophy. It was all terribly erudite and appealing. But I never quite fit, and for reasons that still aren’t clear. Lewis says,
As long as you are governed by that desire [to achieve the inner ring] you will never get what you want. You are trying to peel an onion; if you succeed there will be nothing left. Until you conquer the fear of being an outsider, an outsider you will remain.1
So I graduated with a few glimpses of this inner ring, but still convinced of my outsider status. Ironically, within a year I began studying in Oxford, perhaps the mecca for academic inner circles. But I was most definitely on the outside, almost comically so, for in every conversation I had to qualify, “I’m at Oxford Brookes University” (a.k.a. not the REAL Oxford). That year not-at-the-real-Oxford was in many ways the best year of my life; my status at an inferior university mattered very little. I’ll always remember being awed at The Bodleian Library’s munificence in granting us Brookes students the famed “Bod card” and access to the libraries, including The Radcliffe Camera (pictured above).
Oxford is an embarrassment of riches. There were so many events to attend, from student-union sponsored lectures to an exhibition of Tolkien artwork to a memorable debate between Christopher Hitchens and John Haldane. Most of the friends I made at both universities were graduate students, and not inclined toward snobbishness. I felt only the tiniest bit sad to be studying a modern and businesslike digital publishing course rather than immersing myself in original research or classical languages or historical archives. It was enough simply to be surrounded by people who were.
I chose to study at Oxford Brookes in part because of their one-year Master’s program. While many friends stayed on to pursue their studies or to work in England, I went home at the end of a year to find a job and live in the same country as my newly minted boyfriend (a “real Oxford” man). Soon academia was very far away; I felt in many ways my studies had reached their end point. I had reached the goal I’d had since I was 15: to work as an editor for a Christian publisher.
Five and a half years later, I work for the same company, although in a different division doing something that would have been antithetical to my English-major self: marketing! I’m learning every day, and grateful for an incredible boss and colleagues. For almost the first time, I’ve had the opportunity to write and publish as part of my job. “Inner rings” don’t really exist (or at least I haven’t found them yet), and I have a feeling they wouldn’t appeal to me anyway.
Every so often, though, I wonder about which academic subject I would take up if I had the opportunity. Not for the love of good grades or to be part of the inner ring, but for the love of the craft. Almost ten years after starting college, I think I finally understand which is most important.