Hating the elite

I went to Oxford University. Twice. It’s a good school. You may have heard of it.

Unbelievable as it may sound, there are some people in my country who do not like Oxford (or Cambridge). They think it is elitist, full of snobs and silly traditions. Did you know that you have to wear a white bow-tie to take an exam? Guffaw.

Chris Patten, chancellor of Oxford and former governor of Hong Kong, gave a speech yesterday to the Headmasters’ and Headmistresses’ Conference, a body which represents the principals of leading UK independent schools. As head of Oxford, Patten feels the pressure of a government target to increase the amount of places given to state school pupils. He rightly finds this policy lamentable. As do I.

For the record, I was educated in a state school, as was my niece who recently graduated, and my good mate Mr. Fowles whose friendship I found during our time at Oxford. Oxford does not exclude kids from state schools, it includes those deemed the brightest and most able to cope with its academic pressures. And those pressures are immense. Do not imagine time spent idly punting on the river or sitting quietly at the back of a lecture by Dawkins or McGrath (although there is some of that). Instead, imagine the ferocity of seminars where your paper wilts under the gaze of a ruthless don. A weekly viva, if you like.

Quotas for admission to such schools are ridiculous. If privately-educated children tend to be deemed more suitable, this is an indictment of state school failure, not Oxbridgian snobbery. As Patten says, Oxford is not a social charity.

To be learned is good, surely.

(N.B. I am, of course, not suggesting one needs an Oxford degree, or even to be a graduate, to be “learned.” The leading reader in my family did not go to university.)

Comments

  1. Jonathan Green says:

    I knew it all along, Ronan. I bet you’re French, too.

  2. Elitist prig.

  3. Steve Evans says:

    Ronan, I think you’d have a stronger argument if prior academic acheivement were the only way of getting in to these schools.

  4. “Did you know that you have to wear a white bow-tie to take an exam? “

    Makes BYU facial hair complaints sound pretty silly, I guess.

    Can I ask for a little more information: what does Oxford (or any other British university) consider for admissions?

    In Kenya, which fancies itself a “British” system, the only thing that matters is the student’s score on a single (albeit weeks long) set of exams. This really is MOST unfair when you compare rich city kids who attend first-world private schools to orphans who beg their way through schools that lack electricity and plumbing let alone microscopes and books. I assume the disparities are not quite so stark in the UK?

  5. John Mansfield says:

    “this is an indictment of state school failure”

    “Failure” seems a bit strong. Perhaps it is based on a view that all students, given the right opportunities and character, could accomplish the significant educational feats that Ronan has. Many students don’t have that capacity, though, and the state schools are not “failing” if they accomplish well a task an educational task appropriate for the students they serve.

    A little quibbling on my part. However, it must be asked: Why is Ronan worried about quotas that would send unqualified students to Oxford? Why would their presence diminish his education or that of future qualified students, and since it wouldn’t, then how can he object that unqualified students should become part of that institution?

  6. Mark Brown says:

    Ronan,

    Be assured, I do no hate you.

    This post underscores the degraded nature of our political discourse in the U.S. Here, we simply could not have the conversation Ronan describes. Anything that even hints at a meritocracy is bad, and university presidents wouldn’t dare defend it. Anyone who did would have his I.Q. compared unfavorably to that of Sarah Palin.

    By the way, Ronan, at Oxford they probably don’t watch King of the Hill, but it is their loss for missing out on this memorable exchange:

    Bobby to his father, who just announced that he hates soccer because he doesn’t understand it): Dad, just because you don’t understand something doesn’t mean that you have to hate it.

    Hank, to Bobby: I don’t hate you, son.

  7. Oxford is not a social charity.

    It is national charity. The number of spaces allotted for international school at most colleges in Oxbridge is absurdly low. I can count a dozen students of mine in the last five years who have been told that if they were British they’d have a place, but as they are Russian or Korean or Saudi, they don’t.

    Sorry to be contrary, but it’s a sore point with me and mine.

  8. Last Lemming says:

    So how many Americans are wondering why the English have rivers running through their football fields?

  9. Peter LLC says:

    I call cahoots. As a cog in the machine churning out Oxford applicants recuse thyself!

  10. Peter LLC says:

    Do not imagine time spent idly punting on the river…. Instead, imagine the ferocity of seminars where your paper wilts under the gaze of a ruthless don.

    So are you saying an Oxford education is worth the paper it’s printed on? I think Iran’s interior minister would disagree:

    Mr. Kordan said he had been victimized by a man who introduced himself eight years ago as a representative of Oxford and had given him the fake degree in return for a thesis he had written previously.

  11. Righty-o.

    Steve/ESO,
    To get to Oxford you have to score highly on your “A-levels” (or international equivalent) and pass an interview. The interview aims to see how well you can cope in a public academic setting.

    How else do you get in?

    Tuition is £3,000 p.a., with a sliding-scale of exemptions according to income. It is true that kids at good schools (be they state or private) will tend to achieve more highly, but what on earth can be done about that? Meritocracies (what Oxford most certainly is) will still favour the privileged.

    John Mansfield,
    Thick kids would die at Oxford. It is absolutely an academically elitist place. Their presence would be a hindrance to other students in a seminar, and would represent a colossal waste of time and money.

    Norbert,
    We can trade anecdotes, I suppose. Oxford receives some state funding, it is true, and must therefore continue to educate the British. However, the sheer diversity among the student body testifies to the fact that the university likes foreigners who, if they are from outside of the EU, have to pay 3x/4x the tuition.

  12. My concern, Ronan, based on my observations within similar institutions, is that non-academic considerations play a surprisingly important role in selection independent of these quotas. You need look no further than the current US president, a “high-functioning moron” according to the characterization of many, who is credentialed by both Yale and Harvard. Such institutions often have a non-trivial showing in that department.

    Note also that quotas do not require taking inferior students–they do require looking harder within state school systems to find the really brilliant poor kids. Harvard College has begun to do a really impressive job in the last two decades, not admittedly from externally imposed quotas, but out of a sensibility that mediocre highly wealthy minds should be counterbalanced by better, less wealthy minds. (oops, did I just make a reference to Election 2008?)

    These institutions don’t need mediocre minds, either from the wealthy or the non-wealthy. I’m comfortable with having intellectually elite institutions. I think they are in constant danger of mistakenly merging socioeconomic with intellectual elitism, and something like quotas may be adequate to remind them of their core mission, which is intellectual/academic.

  13. My sister-in-law went to a below average comprehensive in Essex and got straight A’s at GCSE and at A-level. Really bright, very hard working. And I would suggest an A from a rough comp where class sizes are 30+ is worth more than an A from a private school with a class size of 15. She didn’t get in. Maybe she flunked the interview, but I doubt it. I think Oxbridge have a right to take who they like – I’m not a fan of quotas either. But I don’t buy the idea that it is a meritocracy devoid of snobbery.

  14. smb,
    I do take your point, but as the quota system is exactly what is being proposed for Oxford by the (failed) Labour government, it is exactly this stupidly blunt hammer which must be attacked.

  15. Maybe she flunked the interview, but I doubt it.

    But who can tell?

  16. It is true that kids at good schools (be they state or private) will tend to achieve more highly, but what on earth can be done about that?

    In your evaluation of applicants you can give bonus points to people who come from disadvantaged backgrounds. This would take into account the fact that between a rich kid and a poor kid who get the same score on a qualifying exam, the poor kid is probably more innately talented or harder working. You still get great students while at the same time increasing social mobility.

  17. Tom,
    Oxford already claims to do that. They just don’t want quotas, nor be used by the government as an engine of social justice.

  18. Then I agree. Quotas of any kind are lame.

    It’s my sense that the entirety of the U.S. higher education system is being used as an engine of social justice. I don’t know if it’s been diminished by that effort, but I’m pretty sure that it’s not working.

  19. How to balance the need to increase continually the endowment by accepting kids from families who will contribute to it with large donations (and kids who intend to make lots of money and contribute to it themselves), while becoming more accessible to bright students from poor backgrounds is not an easy question for many elite schools. I know in the late-80′s to early-90′s Harvard bragged that 70% of its students were on some kind of financial assistance, but that includes those who received any kind of grant or had some kind of loan – no matter how small. (I don’t know the current stats; haven’t kept up on it.) That means that nearly 1/3 of the student body was paying full cost, which at that time was around $35K/year – more than my father’s annual salary to raise eight kids.

    This difficulty is exacerbated for colleges with need-blind admissions, forcing them often to admit heavily from high schools where they can be fairly certain they are drawing from a pool of students who generally can afford to pay full tuition. Without those students and their families, it would be next to impossible to increase the endowment and continue to subsidize the education of the poorer students.

    It’s not an easy situation, and I understand the frustration of the post.

  20. The entirety of the U.S. higher education system is being used as an engine of social justice.

    It wouldn’t surprise me. Seems to me that you start with the schools and let everything flow from there. 18 is awfully late.

  21. 18 is awfully late.

    Totally. Inner city public schools won’t be fixed by intervention at the college level.

  22. Well, we have the same thing over here (hating the Ivies). From where I sit, I don’t think Ivy hating exists because of the quality of the students (I maintain that the top 4000 students at any top public university in America are equal to the student body at the top Ivies), the instruction (how many state schools have Ivy grads teaching there), or the cost (if you want to pay $45K, be my guest).

    I think Ivy-hating exists because of Ivy graduates’ snobbery and navel-gazing, that you don’t see at other places.

    (Disclaimer: I have many family members who are graduates of Ivies, that I care about. I’m just offering a perception of what I’ve often heard expressed, even if I don’t necessarily subscribe to that belief myself.)

  23. I am with Thomas Hobbes. For all practical reasons, we are equally strong because the weakest can kill the strongest and we are equally intelligent for intelligence is a function of education.

    To be sure, people have different talents and not everybody is best served with an academic education, much less an Oxford type university.

    On the other hand, the British system is too narrow to serve the country well. Such a system does not only perpetuate inequality but also economic waste by leaving too many people behind.

    The refusal to broaden the elite sufficiently explains to a large degree Britain’s relative decline vis a vis Germany and especially America.

    America, of course, enjoyed considerable geostrategic advantages but Germany did not.

    Germany made tremendous leaps when it provided an Oxford style education to seven or eight percent of its male population.

    Even today, Britain has the shortest life expectation, the highest child mortality rates, and the greatest inequality in Europe.

    Oxford and Cambridge are another indication of a mindset that is ultimately myopic and wasteful. Of course, higher education post World War II is a disaster in Germany but that does not change the fact that a country like Britain ought to be able to provide a Cambridge and Oxford style education to a much broader share of its population.

    So the debate about how to assign too few spots is misguided. Whatever the procedure may be, it does not change the fact that the allocation of education resources remains suboptimal and unjust.

    Hobbes is right. High standards and broad access are the most efficient and reflect human nature the best.

  24. Kind of funny, in that I’ve often heard some people say that the way to “fix” BYU (as if it really needed fixing) is to reduce the student body down to about 6000.

    Talk about an elitist outfit – I mean, they don’t even let in every seminary graduate… :)

  25. It wouldn’t surprise me. Seems to me that you start with the schools and let everything flow from there. 18 is awfully late.

    Not really. A human’s intelligence is not only determined by our brains but also by our socialization.

    Children without the necessary family background will usually reach beyond the model of their parents as teenagers. Some of them will develop the intellectual capacity to compete with the best.

    As a matter of developmental psychology, it seems that your claim is false. 18 is a great age to promote children from an unlikely backgrounds.

  26. Says Hellmut who belongs to an elite sword-fighting fraternity.

    Blaming the universities is stupid, Hellmut.

  27. Also, Hellmut, you speak as if Oxford and Cambridge are the only universities in the UK. There is room enough for everyone to receive a good, cheap education in a whole range of excellent institutions. Even Oxford only costs $5,000/year. But leave the elite for the elite.

  28. They think it is elitist, full of snobs and silly traditions.

    Hmm. What other institution of higher learning can we Mormons think of that frequently receives this label?

  29. I’m all for educational elitism! If people are extremely talented intellectually, they shouldn’t have to sit in a university where their minds should be thriving while the competition is lowered to pander to the trend and whims of politicians anymore than the best athletic teams should have to allow disadvantaged athletes (or the poor kids who just couldn’t afford the league teams when they were young) to play for the sake of equity and social justice.

  30. They think it is elitist, full of snobs and silly traditions.

    Hmm. What other institution of higher learning can we Mormons think of that frequently receives this label?

    I know what you’re thinking, but I that only applies to philosophy and pre-law majors. Those of us in science and engineering were there to do actual merit-based work. :)

  31. Peter LLC says:

    mmiles,

    What is it with mormons and sports metaphors?

  32. I don’t know if dueling fraternities are as much elitist as exclusive but the exclusivity is self-selective. If you are willing to duel and you are not a complete jerk, you have an excellent chance of being admitted.

    O, and you need to attend an institution of higher learning that awards doctoral degrees.

  33. They think it is elitist, full of snobs and silly traditions.

    But leave the elite for the elite.

    So they think it is…what it is?

  34. I went to Oxford University. Twice.

    Oh, the bloggernacle memories: I Was Awesome

  35. Ann,
    Well, yeah, but there’s an important pause in that comma between “elitist” and “snobs.” Those are not synonyms.

    C Jones,
    Not so awesome. They kicked me out and I had to come back.

  36. For what it’s worth, we well-educated elitists hate you under- (or state-)educated plebes. :)

  37. PeterLLC,
    Only those of us Mormons who are state educated. Elitist can think of better analogies, or even explain things without using them.

  38. #19 your tuition figure is off by at least $10k for that time frame, but point taken.

  39. Peter LLC says:

    Whoah, mmiles, I chose a third-rate state university over Oxford (what can I say–it was cheaper); no fair coming at me with that one-two punch!

  40. Peter LLC,
    I forgot the emoticon if you will.

  41. However, the sheer diversity among the student body testifies to the fact that the university likes foreigners who, if they are from outside of the EU, have to pay 3x/4x the tuition.

    I can attest to that on the tuition! Still even £8.5K p.a. is less than Harvard. . . .

  42. #38 – You are correct. I should have typed $25K/year – more than my father’s salary. I really do need to proofread every detail.

  43. Here is the challenge for Oxford style admission, Ronan. Would they admit the genius from an unlikely background? Could somebody like Jean-Jacques Rousseau get in?

    Half orphaned, abandoned by his watch maker father, poorly educated, apprenticed in a couple of trades but clearly brilliant.

    I doubt that Rousseau could have aced A levels but, clearly, he was much more interesting than 99% of the people who can get into Oxford.

    There are still brilliant people from unlikely backgrounds who are necessarily late bloomers. Surely, Oxford can only benefit by admitting some of these late bloomers.

  44. Oxford is kind of losing its elite status in the eyes of the American academy. Oxford’s research based PhD system (limited course work and short length of time to robing), poor acceptance rates for Oxford grads to PhD programs in the US, and a relatively poor employment placement record at top American universities are some of the issues involved in this slide. The Oxford brand still carries weight in the US but the Holy Trinity of the Ivies (Harvard, Yale, Princeton) and the non-Ivy, serious research universities (Chicago, MIT, Stanford) are far more prestigious in American academic circles.

    So I say, let Oxford do whatever it can to maintain elite status–even if the students are snobby little snotty-snots.

  45. Latter-day Guy says:

    Ray,

    My little brother has been submitting stuff to Harvard and Yale (just for fun really; he’s going to go to the Y, Animation major––ironic). Based on my parents income, he would have to contribute about $2500.00/year, and the expected family contribution would be $0.00. Tuition for both universities is about 35,000.00/year. A pretty good deal, methinks. (But if you have an endowment of 22 billion, you can be flexible.)

  46. Ronan, you and Hellmut cannot be real people. It’s like Steve Evans invented a stereotypical Brit and German to make BCC seem diverse.

  47. Oh, it’s much worse than that, E.

  48. #44, observer, are you by any chance a snobby little snotty-snot?

  49. E,

    Yes, and how!

  50. In 2004 I finished a graduate degree at Oxford. There is really no place like “The City of Dreaming Spires”. Around every corner of this wondrous place one can sense the presence of those who made Oxford what it is.

    My college (St. Antony’s) was a diverse crowd–Brits and Yanks were very much in the minority. Personally I found the university surprisingly less elitist than it has historically been believed to be. However, my experience was within a postgraduate college where IMO class distinctions are less prevalent. To be sure, all, including offspring of heads of state, are made equal on the academic playing field and no one receives special privileges during an essay tutorial.

    On a side note our American educational system could benefit from the Oxbridge tutorial method.

  51. Peter LLC says:

    It’s like Steve Evans invented a stereotypical Brit and German to make BCC seem diverse.

    Just wait until he starts inventing minority women–then the sparks are really gonna fly.

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