In the Bond film, “Skyfall,” there’s a scene in which M is brought before a parliamentary committee to defend MI6 — to argue why it’s still relevant to modern times and able to protect England from terrorist attacks. Derided as a relic from another age, M pleads that old espionage is crucial to fight threats that are growing more invisible and more dangerous every day. She even recites a Tennyson poem for the committee to ponder, evoking both a nostalgia for the past and a faith in the dogged grit of current generations:
We are not now that strength which in old days
Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are;
One equal temper of heroic hearts,
Made weak by time and fate, but strong in will
To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.
The film is of course about James Bond, but it’s also about England; all the traditions, symbols and ideas that give it character; and the role it has to play in a chaotic and uncertain present. It’s about the old and the new — how they conflict and how they coexist. Even Bond’s childhood home — the eponymous “Skyfall” — haunts him like a ghost throughout his story. Oxford, like the College of William and Mary, is a Skyfall of sorts.
Oxford is an inheritance. Even as a visiting American, you read in libraries built in medieval times and learn under a tutorial system that seems plucked from the Victorian era. At formal dinners, students and teachers wear black robes which were designed when Elizabeth was Queen, and at some church services, the chaplains still speak in Latin. Students at Oxford don’t feel like this can change easily. We are restrained by humility and humbled by awe. The weathered stones the city is built from, after all, have been through much to look the way they do. They’ve earned their discolor and their scars. All along, through centuries of cultural change difficult to comprehend, Oxford has remained constant. And our American college, named after a King and Queen of England, shares this historical ethos. By living and studying at the College with its red brick buildings and its colonial charter, we’re walking in the footsteps of people whom we will never meet, but with whom we share a kindred bond of community.
At Oxford, past and present combine. That’s where its aura comes from. Even during late nights finishing a paper on Edmund Burke or in the last stretches of a rowing regatta, when you’re out of breath and can’t feel your arms, you feel honored to participate in a culture that transcends time. People come and go, often from many places across the world, but the school’s soul carries on, etched in the stone and weathervanes of the college spires, the aged wood of the Bodleian library and the muddy water of the river Thames. Oxford is old, but not outdated; it has something to say in the 21st century. Scholarship, athleticism and communication are strong in most places, but Oxford offers a sense of memory that preserves the core of its character. It will continue to be what it has always been: a city of strivers and seekers, caretakers of an old wisdom that always has new lessons to teach.