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At Oxford, Graham Students Explore Churchill’s Life and Legacy

A group of Graham learners finds inspiration, unforgettable experiences, and fast friendships during the School's June 2022 Fortnight in Oxford trip.

Blenheim Palace

Since retiring as a paint chemist in 2017, Chicago resident Linda Cassil has been on an ambitious learning adventure, taking nearly 20 history and literature classes at the University of Chicago Graham School.

Cityscape of Oxford City. Oxfordshire, England, UK.

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“There’s so much I don’t know and the more I get exposed to new ideas and figures, the more I want to know,” Cassil says.

While her husband, Don, a still-working director of a design and engineering department, has not attended any classes with Cassil, he nevertheless forwarded her an email from Graham earlier this year. The message promoted an upcoming experiential course on legendary British statesman Winston Churchill at England’s famed University of Oxford. Don, who enjoys deep dives into history, was interested in enrolling and Cassil beamed at the prospects of attending, too.

“You don’t get a thousand opportunities to study at Oxford,” Cassil says.

In June, the Cassils joined 21 others in traveling to England for the Graham School’s latest Fortnight in Oxford, a two-week learning experience powered by the decades-long partnership between the Graham School and Oxford’s Department for Continuing Education.

From June 5-18, the students enjoyed – despite the ever-present specter of Covid-19 – classroom lessons on one of two seminar tracks, lively discussions, evening lectures, and guided tours of local sites designed to stimulate deeper connections to the classroom content.

Investigating Churchill

While the Fortnight’s literature and culture seminar explored the “Roaring Twenties” and the emergence of two prominent literary figures in the post-World War I era – Americans F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, the Fortnight’s history and politics seminar investigated the life of Churchill and his decorated career as a solider, politician, journalist, and historian.

Under the direction of Oxford-based tutor Dr. Michael Redley, the students examined Churchill’s early life and rise to prominence, his work defending – and later reasserting – liberalism, and his still-robust legacy in the U.K. and around the globe. His fascinating life, packed with inspirational speeches, courageous strategy, and a few controversial perspectives, stirred vibrant conversations and earnest reflection among Fortnight students.

“You’re in an environment charged with intellectual energy and that has a positive effect on everybody,” says Al Wayne, a Churchill seminar participant attending his third Fortnight in Oxford. “You’re engaging in rich discussions with classmates interested in learning and that makes for such a dynamic experience and fast friendships.”

Beyond the classroom, many Churchill seminar participants toured places like Bletchley Park, the top-secret home of World War II codebreakers, and Blenheim Palace, Churchill’s ancestral home – and his physical birthplace. Jan Watson, the associate director for Graham’s Basic Program who also helps direct the School’s travel study opportunities, recalls students’ silence as they stood in the Blenheim Palace room where Churchill was born.

“It was an amazing and remarkable moment of appreciation,” Watson says.

A one-of-a-kind experience

As the Churchill seminar neared its conclusion, Redley challenged students to make a short presentation on a particularly compelling aspect of the course. Wayne responded by crafting a one-act play imagining Fitzgerald interviewing Churchill in the days prior to his 1929 visit to the U.S. Weaving in historical facts and unique character foibles, Wayne’s one-act play was performed before both Fortnight seminar classes in the courtyard of Rewley House, the home base for Oxford’s Department for Continuing Education. Redley himself played the role of Churchill.

“It was a fun capstone to the course and a way to bring in subjects from both of the Fortnight seminars,” Wayne says.

Cassil called her Fortnight experience “wonderful and enriching,” enhanced by the rarefied air of Oxford, arguably the world’s foremost academic institution. An epicenter for learning across 11 different centuries, Oxford has housed the likes of philosopher John Locke and economist Adam Smith, treasured authors like Jonathan Swift and J.R.R. Tolkien, and groundbreaking scientists like Stephen Hawking and UChicago alumnus Edwin Hubble.

And now, Cassil can add her name to the list of those who have studied at Oxford.

“I’m not sure I could have had this tremendous experience any other way but through the University of Chicago, Graham, and Oxford,” she says. “It exceeded every expectation I had.”

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Daniel P. Smith

Freelance Writer

Daniel P. Smith is a freelance writer at the Graham School.

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