From Oxford, Rhodes Scholar Charlie Tyson Reflects on His UVA Education

Charlie Tyson graduated from UVA in 2014 with a B.A. in political and social thought, with highest distinction, and in English. He is currently working toward his second master’s degree at the University of Oxford.
November 23, 2015

Editor’s note: Charlie Tyson, a member of the University of Virginia’s Class of 2014, is attending the University of Oxford on a Rhodes Scholarship. He contributed this reflection, just as current fourth-year student Russell Bogue was selected Sunday to follow in his footsteps.

Most mornings upon waking I pull on my sneakers – they call them “trainers” here – and head to the river.

This time of year at Oxford, the sun rises late and sets early. My walk to the boathouse is lit by moonlight. I follow a trail, canopied by trees, that juts between two tributaries. The water on one side is placid but pure, a meeting place for the ducks and geese that stream past my feet. The other tributary is clotted with filmy moss. Birds halfheartedly peck at the green sludge, and then flutter on.

Sometimes, when I get to the river, the banks are draped in mist. Through the fog I hear faint shouts from teams heaving their boats on the water.

How did I get here? To England, to Oxford, to rising early to row for my college? The rowing question yields a practical answer. My clumsiness, lack of coordination and general physical mediocrity leave me fit only for sports based on endurance and hard work rather than agility or adroitness. (Hence my high school years spent running cross country, in North Carolina heat, for a coach who extolled vomit as the visible evidence of a race well run.) The environment I now inhabit – old, alien, yet suffused with peculiar charm – is distant in so many ways from the Charlottesville I love. But some striking parallels exist between my undergraduate education at UVA and the time at Oxford I spend training on the water.

Rowing, it turns out, is highly aesthetic. The sport relies on many of the same skills I honed as an undergraduate earning a humanities degree. In developing an analogy between rowing and a humanities education, however, I will note one important difference between these two endeavors: that rowing is a luxury, whereas a humanities education is not. This difference, I think, cuts to the heart of what makes UVA distinctively valuable as an institution.

College rowing involves eight (sometimes four) people moving in tandem: rolling forward to place the blades of their oars, cocked, in the water behind them; pressing back, straining against the footplates, to propel the blades through the water. I knew none of this when I arrived at Oxford last year. Learning to row, like attaining familiarity with an academic subject, requires rigorous practice and coaching.

Rowing, however, demands more than comprehension of the mechanics involved. To row well, one needs to cultivate certain habits of attention. A lapse in concentration can set the boat off balance. At all times, one must be aware of one’s posture, the height of one’s hands, one’s position on the slide.

As I continued to row, it became clear to me that the sport required not just attention but, specifically, a form of aesthetic attention – not unlike the capacities that my undergraduate coursework in literature sought to hone. When people say that rowing is a “beautiful” sport, there are reasons for taking this assessment literally. The boat heaves, as if breathing, as everyone rolls up and presses back in synchrony. The rhythm of each person’s movement meets a parallel rhythm: one’s heartbeat, which accelerates as the boat gains speed. And the boat, a bounded whole, cuts through the water, the blades of the oars scuttling across the surface, charting a path along sinuous banks and yawning trees that dip their branches in the water like spindly fingers.

Rowing’s aesthetic attributes – tempo, symmetry, balance, repetition and unity – are not accidental. By contrast, they are essential to the sport. A crew that is asymmetrical in power – with rowers on one side possessing more strength than their counterparts – will steer off course. A team that falls out of synchrony becomes inefficient. A stroke that traces an elegant arc before dipping cleanly into the water is not just a beautiful stroke; it is a powerful one. In rowing, athletic success and aesthetic success are intertwined.

Rowing, like much of my humanities coursework at UVA, takes as one of its central premises the idea that the aesthetic is a worthy object of careful study. (I’m thinking specifically of my coursework in literature and art history; in other humanities subjects, such as history and philosophy, the aesthetic is not a central feature.) And rowing, much like an undergraduate literature class, instills the belief that such study entails developing certain habits of attention. Both endeavors – learning to row and earning a literature degree – require a keen awareness of what artists and writers call “form.” Although in rowing “form” refers to body positioning, rather than genre, texture or anything else literature and art critics might speak of, in both cases “form” connotes an aesthetic shape essential to the enterprise at hand: the motion of the boat, the beauty of the poem.

Most mornings, then, I do two things at once: I row, and I drift into aesthetic contemplation. (Sometimes to a fault: “Eyes in the boat, Tyson!” my coach will shout.) This conjunction brings me to an important fault line in my analogy between rowing and an education in the humanities.

There is a broad perception in American culture that both rowing and aesthetic inquiry are luxuries: inessential and restricted to a leisured class. Rowing is, I think, a genuine luxury. The boats and equipment require staggering capital investment. The sport tends to thrive at posh secondary schools in the U.S. and at institutions like Oxford, where one of my teammates (who, I hasten to add, is a lovely person) told me he was thinking about buying an island – islands off the Scottish coast apparently sell for around 20,000 pounds – but decided it was a poor investment because of climate change.

The view that aesthetic contemplation is a luxury is, by contrast, false – and especially pernicious when applied to liberal arts education. UVA’s resistance to this view is what enabled me to make it to Oxford in the first place.

I attended public school in North Carolina and then matriculated at UVA, a public university. At each location, but especially at UVA, teachers encouraged me to pursue my interest in literature. My professors pressed me to approach literature not as an avenue for self-indulgent reverie, but as a way of gaining insight into matters of urgent, daily significance in human lives: issues such as self-understanding, social disenfranchisement and moral obligation. Few people can say they received a world-class humanities education at a public institution. That I received such an education testifies to the hard work of my professors and the seriousness of UVA’s commitments to the liberal arts.

Of the seven Rhodes Scholars selected from UVA in the last 10 years, four – Meghan Sullivan, Laura Nelson, Evan Behrle and me – have either embarked upon, or are strongly considering, an academic career in the humanities. A fifth, Justin Mutter, majored in modern literature and religious studies while an undergraduate here. This sample is too small, and the Rhodes selection process too random, for us to draw unqualified conclusions. But it seems indisputable that UVA’s humanities departments mark an area of strength that Rhodes selection committees have, in recent years, recognized.

That UVA, a university for the people, continues to lay such emphasis on humanistic education is a fact that deserves praise. Without UVA’s understanding of aesthetic inquiry not as a luxury, but as a vital human good, I doubt I would be at Oxford today. My hope is that my alma mater retains this commitment so as to help other students, from any background, follow me to Oxford. Maybe one day I’ll walk down that trail again, and I’ll see them on the river – rowing in tempo, but every so often snatching glances at the sky.

Charlie Tyson graduated in 2014 with a B.A. in political and social thought, with highest distinction, and in English. Last year at Oxford he earned an M.St. in English literature with distinction; this year, he is reading for the M.Sc. in history of science, medicine and technology.

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