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I held back on commenting on this Guardian article by noted Oxbridge-cynic Elly Nowell, not least because it is the kind of non-story that is perpetuated by people like me getting needlessly involved, and the girl doesn’t really deserve to have a private joke raked over by the “intelligentsia” (sic) of the UK. Also, this comment pretty much said what I would have said if I ever did such foolish things as get involved with the snake-pit of Comment is Free.
But then I read this even more clueless article in The Independent, and I just couldn’t help myself. So, for the record, here is my thought:
It’s the obsession with architecture that baffles me.
Oxbridge colleges were not designed to look like Harry Potter sets in order to instill a sense of ‘otherworldliness’ - they look like they were built centuries ago because they were built centuries ago. Is this really something an 800-year old institution needs to apologise for? Can we really no longer distinguish between outdated pomp that preserves class privilege and the positive aspects of cultural heritage and tradition?
The distribution of wealth and power remain massively skewed in this country, and there are many mechanisms, superstitions and institutions that perpetuate that. But ceding ownership of every aspect of tradition to an imagined caricature of the upper classes is not going to help change the situation. With all the museums, cathedrals, castles and stately homes open to the public, surely it comes down to a personal choice as to whether to take ownership of the historical legacy of your own country or to pretend it all still belongs to rich barons and exists only to ‘intimidate’ you.
As for “a finishing school for the rich and powerful” - the idea that Oxbridge is primarily inhabited by weathy aristocrats who went to public schools is, of course, demonstrably untrue. They are there in disproportionate numbers, but still a very small minority. And, yes, many students do use the cachet of the Oxbridge brand to secure a start to ‘high-flying’ careers, but there are also those who valued the education for its own sake, and went on to become teachers, doctors, charity workers, underpaid academics, social workers, activists and, yes, even journalists.
Inverse snobbery is still snobbery. If we don’t soon learn the difference between plutocratic casteism and positive elitism - “the belief or attitude that a select group of people with intellect, specialized training or experience are those whose views on a matter are to be taken the most seriously or carry the most weight” - we will be in danger of allowing ‘anti-elitist’ demagoguery to empower the true forces of tyranny, enabling them to sweep away those last vestiges of culture, tradition and civility that still help to restrain their worst excesses.