Title: Looking for Class: Days and Nights at Oxford and Cambridge
Author: Bruce Feiler
Release Date: June 3, 2003
Publisher: Harper Perennial
Rating: 4 out of 5
From the back cover:
An irresistible, entertaining peek into the privileged realm of Wordsworth and Wodehouse, Chelsea Clinton and Hugh Grant, Looking for Class offers a hilarious account of one man’s year at Oxford and Cambridge — the garden parties and formal balls, the high-minded debates and drinking Olympics. From rowing in an exclusive regatta to learning lessons in love from a Rhodes Scholar, Bruce Feiler’s enlightening, eye-popping adventure will forever change your view of the British upper class, a world romanticized but rarely seen.
I’ve really enjoyed Bruce Feiler’s non-fiction books, so when I found out he wrote a book about Oxbridge (the term used to refer to Oxford and Cambridge), I was really excited. I’m going to be in Oxford for the month of July studying abroad, and when I got my acceptance, I bought myself this book as a treat. After all, as a bibliophile, what’s better than reading about a place before you go there?
I have to say, I was a little disappointed by this book. Not because of the writing or anything like that, but because Bruce Feiler studied and lived at Cambridge, not Oxford. Though Oxford is mentioned often in the book, he never actually traveled there, at least not while he was writing Looking for Class. Had I known that, I probably wouldn’t have been in such a hurry to read this book. I have to wonder why Oxford is even in the title if the book itself is about Cambridge?
Once I got past that reservation, I really enjoyed Looking for Class. It was funny, honest, and very entertaining. I was interested in the differences in the school systems between Cambridge and the United States. At universities in the US, students are required to complete certain “core” classes; basically, these are classes that are usually unrelated to your field of study. However, the American system believes that a good foundation in many subjects is beneficial for students.
On the other hand, at Cambridge, the students study only their selected topic. There are no distribution classes; studying other areas actually isn’t really possible. Cambridge believes that this makes their students experts, but Feiler disagrees, saying that they might know a lot about one thing but if they can’t relate it to anything else, then the knowledge isn’t really that useful. (I definitely agree – what’s the point in knowing the the ins and out of the Industrial Revolution in England if you can’t calculate the tip at a restaurant?)
However, there are definitely similarities between the youth of Cambridge and the youth of an American university – namely that they are primarily interested in sex. It’s called “sharking” at Cambridge and seems to be a bona fide activity – “Hey, let’s go sharking tonight!” The term leads to some of the most humorous moments of the book.
I definitely enjoyed Looking for Class, though I feel like it’s weaker than Feiler’s other books. Still, if you’ll be going to Cambridge it’s definitely worth reading, if only for the humor within its pages. As for Oxford, I need to continue on my book search. Next up? Brideshead Revisited.