Elitism, David Mitchell and other things..
I suspect that there might be a few people this morning reading the papers, or checking the news sites and making comment on the jailing if the guy who swam his way through the boat race this spring.
In my mind's eye I can hear people tutting that he has been jailed for his noble affront to the elitism of Oxbridge. We should applaud him they may tweet.
Allow me to rebuff.
First anyone who swims in the Thames is undeniably brave or daft.
Second anyone who swims near 16 axe shaped pieces of carbon fibre, adds to the daft evidence.
Third, and more importantly, the premise of the protest is wrong.
I don't believe that Oxbridge is essentially elitist in a class or social status way. David Mitchell agrees.. (Guardian Sat 20th Oct).
"Well, my feeling is you have to draw a distinction between people who are successful coming from Oxford and Cambridge and people who are successful coming from Eton and Harrow. Because with Oxford and Cambridge, certainly in the era I was there, no one was paying any fees, so it was about the academic grades," he says. "I'm not saying that privilege doesn't come into it in the Oxbridge-success link, but it's much less of a factor than it is in the Eton-Harrow-Westminster-success link. Eton and Cambridge are often lazily lumped together in a way that harms our whole civilisation."
I was at university at the same time as Mitchell. We probably shivered near the same radiators in the architecturally challenged Seeley Library. Mitchell's parents were lecturers and for him, like me, it was about the grades.
When I went to university (see I can't even bring myself to use the name lest I be struck down as an elitist snob) my dad had been made redundant and was out of work. My parents have three O'levels between them. I went to a normal school and a normal sixth form college where I was taught A-levels in classes of 25.
I applied to Cambridge, was interviewed and got in. No-one asked if I was was a Smith of the famous Smiths.. they just asked me about my essay on Ho Chi Minh.
My university years were a huge cultural eye opener. Yes, there were some people who seemed to own whole counties. Yes, there were people who had affluent (but more normally highly educated) parents. But mainly there were people who had got the grades and shown that they really wanted to study.
In terms of the 'elite' sport of rowing. Most of us had never rowed before- and got up early and sat on a very cold riverside just for the sheer experience. I was sat at dinner one day when someone in the year above sat beside me and started to talk about the 'development squad'- a team of people with long levers who were offered the chance to get really good at this rowing thing. I don't think my height is about privilege.
I know things have probably changed. I matriculated 20 years ago. But I note that Cambridge fees are no more than some of the red brick universities. I note that still the criteria comes down to grades. I note that there is still an effort to engage people from 'normal' schools.
Those efforts are hindered by the endless cries of elitism- young people from normal state schools who don't want to got through the rejection ('you will never get in you're not posh enough') and or the ridicule. We might argue that they don't want it enough, but then we don't encourage anyone that it is worth wanting (its not that special I had a much better time at.. )
Cambridge University takes clever people. That is not elitist.
Of course, what we do after Cambridge is another matter. And another blog post.