Flexing the Intellectual Muscle

I often have friends ask me why I count my time in Oxford as one of the most shaping periods of my life, especially when they learn that it wasn’t the classes with Oxford professors or ‘being abroad’ that impacted me the most. When I share about the Oxford Study Centre’s unique worldviews course, naturally the curiosity of my friends is piqued. Some of them have taken a worldviews course before so they wonder if there is anything different about the course with the Oxford Study Centre. Others question if traveling to England is really necessary. Surely, they think, I should be able to learn the same sort of material somewhere closer to home.

Yet it is exactly the setting of the Oxford Study Centre that infuses its worldviews course with the exhilarating elixir of that heady Oxford intellectualism. Oxford draws students who are truly passionate about learning, and this drive for knowledge and understanding underlays every conversation throughout the term. The search for truth and knowledge that pulses through the City of Dreaming Spires is an inimitable aspect of the Oxford Study Center. At the Bywater home, the intensified learning experience of each student’s Oxford tutorials spills over into the worldviews course’s faith-based discussions leading to the end result of a deep and profound understanding of Christianity.

Perhaps Dr. Michael Ward sums it up the best, “The Oxford term is only 8 weeks long and in those 8 weeks you’re undergoing a really intense process of learning and you begin to put on intellectual muscle because you know you’re going to have to defend your ideas personally…”1 In this quote Dr. Ward is describing the unique one-on-one tutorial style of learning an Oxford student undertakes. Interestingly enough, the result of the intellectual muscle built up during the student’s tutorials goes on to then display itself in every aspect of the student’s life.

Personally, I remember a few occasions where my intellectual muscle was tested. One such instance occurred towards the end of the term as we were seated around the large table in the Bywater home for our usual Friday afternoon learning time. My friend Parker was talking about the idea of consciousness and was explaining an analogy he had been thinking through. It was a bit complex and I do not remember the details however he somehow related the mind to a black box with different variables inputted by the external environment and subjective experience.

A moment at the Table
A glimpse of Hunter and I during one of the Friday afternoon learning times at the Bywater Home.

How the mind works was something Parker and I had discussed fairly often over the course of the term. We had also had conversations regarding the idea of a ‘computational neural code’ and the likelihood of a neuroscientist one day discovering an algorithm for the brain with another dear friend of mine, Hunter, who was a neuroscience major. These conservations were shaped by our different areas of learning; me: mathematics & philosophy, Parker: biochemistry, and of course Hunter: neuroscience. Parker and I also brought our fledging interest in computer science into the mix.

Throughout these conversations, I found that just listening to Parker and Hunter’s insight and thinking through my own thoughts regarding their opinions was a time of intellectual weight training. Yet these conversations and others like them were run of the mill for us during that period of our lives. It was like consistently carrying a ten-pound weight around. We could be walking home, waiting for a bus, or riding a train while discussing any sort of thought-provoking quandary. (As a side note– I think this casual foray into big ideas is something I miss most about Oxford, especially now that I am out of college. I do still find myself having these sorts of conversations but they are all too few and far between.)

Since it was the end of the term when Parker brought up the black box analogy, I was feeling pretty comfortable with the Kevin (the director) and the other students. And, being familiar with Parker’s views on the subject, I quickly voiced my opinion on the matter. I don’t remember what exactly my thoughts were, but I do remember that whatever I had said was poorly expressed. Kevin seemed to pounce on my vague response and quickly asked me a question that upended all the words that had nebulously flowed from my mouth.

“Oh you know what I mean!” I sputtered to Kevin in response. Perhaps he did, or perhaps he didn’t (Although by the playful look on his face when he asked his question I have always suspected that he did know exactly what I was trying to say). Regardless, the point he made was that it is on me to say what I mean in such a way that there is little to no room for misinterpretation. A mix of emotions filled me in that moment. On one hand I was annoyed that Kevin had, in a way, called me out, and I also felt a bit embarrassed. However the larger part of me felt that Kevin had not called me out, but rather called me up– up to a higher standard. I was inspired to use my words more adeptly in my conversations.

At the Baths
My beautiful and smart flatmates (Sarah and Tes) and I on an excursion to Bath.

Sometimes the conversations I had were in an academic setting, such as during the worldviews course or in my tutorials. During these times, my awareness was already heightened to be cognizant of expressing my ideas in a lucid manner. However, a bit unexpectedly, as my intellectual muscle grew I found myself keenly observant of my words in my day-to-day conversations. So when I was discussing personal views and beliefs with my flat-mates, I held to the same higher standard of speaking that I tried to achieve in my academic conversations.

To be honest, I found the whole process to be challenging but also surprisingly fun! Instead of being tense or unpleasant, serious conversations were almost like playing chess with my mind. Overall, by minding my words and trying to understand the other person’s point of view so that I could adequately and appropriately respond, we had discussions that were interesting and productive. It also helped that most of the people I talked with, I’m sure, were also having the same overflow of intellectual muscle from their tutorials into their daily life. I enjoyed it so much that I must admit Hunter and I even spent one evening having fake debates about political issues where we would take turns playing a side and having a disputation regarding the topic.

Just like any other muscle, if the intellect isn’t worked out, it will start to lose the strength it has built up. Over the last five years, the might of my mind has waxed and waned depending on the self-discipline I have had to train it during different seasons of my life. Despite this flux, the foundation of solid thinking that I built up throughout my time in England and learning through the Oxford Study Centre has remained. In fact it has subtly inspired me to reach and surpass the higher standard I had for my thoughts and words while I was there. Perhaps I will one day soon reach that goal.

Share with me: When have you flexed your intellectual muscle? Would you be interested in ‘playing chess with your mind’? Seriously, call me up, write me a note, send me a message or comment somewhere. I would love to hear your thoughts.

  1. This quote is from the Oxford Study Centre’s short video below.
  2. The beautiful drawing of the Radcliffe Camera in the featured image for this post is by my friend Lizzy Dalla Betta.



This is part four in a series chronicling my time in Oxford and learning through the Oxford Study Centre. To see part three click here. Part five will be posted next week.

For more information about the program I studied with, the Oxford Study Centre, please visit their website and take some time to look around the wealth of information on Kevin Bywater’s personal website.