Rethinking Failure

Given the air of superiority and general imperialistic tweed jackassery that pervades our city the
one could easily be forgiven for thinking an education at one of Oxford really is everything. But
who hasn’t ever got home after a difficult tute, labs session or a particularly challenging set of
Crayolas (Geography students) and thought about giving it all up? I’ve sat in circles with friends
and discussed our “backup plans” (I would build wooden ships down at the docks in Bristol in a pastoral idyll,
where I read what interests me, dine on a simple diet of local produce and learn another language just because I want to).
The common factor seemed to be that we assumed that failure at this university would relegate
us to a rustic life, precluding the sort of careers we might imagine of Oxford graduates.

But it’s all too easy to forget how many Oxbridge students drop out or graduate with thirds and go on to
do better than a double first toting Jurisprudence scholar. There seems to be some third kind of magic
for a certain caste of people: the kind that have the unprecedented volume of balls to tell Oxford to go
fuck itself by either doing whatever they want when here and sauntering to finals with the kind of cool
Captain Scott can only aspire to, or actually dropping out (gasp).

No, there are a certain group of Oxford successes who give hope to those of us who perhaps find the
insularity of Oxford stifling and certainly not conducive to every form of intellect. I recall my now tutor
telling me once on an open day that York and Exeter would be better for some of us in the room,
because the Oxonian English course is certainly not flexible. We all scoffed, but for some kinds of
genuinely intelligent folk Oxford just isn’t the cradle of inspiration it promises to be.

The first group seems to be the kind who genuinely dislike the course: my favourite children’s author,
Phillip Pullman, read English at Exeter and claims that he was luck to graduate with a third, because they
only stopped dishing out fourths the year before, citing simply that the course did not agree with him.

The ostentatiously bombastic Christopher Hitchens too limped to a third in PPE at Balliol, and claims in
his autobiography, Hitch-22, “I tried at the time and have even attempted retrospectively to pretend
that I enjoyed Oxford more than I did.” Yet, we can see in his memoirs clearly the reason: Hitchens is
not, and never has been, one for the taint of repression and meek contemplation desired from most
Oxford dons, as a student and as a man he is concerned with action – he unleashes now as he did
then without regard for career prospects, or the purely theoretical implications of certain modes of
studying. Both characters seem to resist the frankly taming force of Oxford education, and frankly
Christopher Hitchens wouldn’t be Christopher Hitchens if he had a balanced and nuanced understanding
of philosophy.

Another group seem generally to use their university education as a basis for the creation of a
reputation which will proceed them in the outside world: look at Hugh Laurie, who graduated with a
third in Archeology and Anthropology (from Cambridge), but it frankly didn’t matter: having starred in
the Footlights and met Fry he was set for the outside world. It certainly seems appealing to do what you
want to at university, and let it bleed over into your future life rather than letting your degree package
you neatly into a careers prospect.

In our age though, creating a reputation and name for yourself and leaving your degree to the sidelines
treads a fine line between achievement and selfish hackery. The OxStu’s favourite society, The Oxford
Union, provides the perfect case in point: for all the sacrifices of time, energy and dignity all they are
awarded some sort of bungled and incestuous university experience, which will only help them down
the line if they actually made any friends, an activity which the voraciously mercenary Union doesn’t

seem to be particularly conducive to. Yet the rumours abound of Union members rusticating because of
their over-involvement in what is essentially a debating club and speaker venue, meaning they sacrifice
their degree for some false future prospect. Given this, and our ultra-sensitivity to the conspiracy
of “The Old Boys Network” in this post-Bridesheadian city seems to have driven the idea of promoting
your career at Oxford into a seedy and self interested margin.

Those who drop out, though, seem to have unrivalled confidence in their future without Oxford. Take
Mercury Nominated Foals, two of whom dropped their degrees in their final year (admittedly probably
the most tempting time to do so) to pursue the band, or Evelyn Waugh who quitted Oxford without
taking his third class degree. For these people Oxford just plain doesn’t matter. If you have the self-
assuredness to not care about an education under what we are constantly reminded are the best and
brightest in whatever field you choose, then frankly you’re beyond any manner of advice anyone can
offer you. You’ve transcended the frame of reference of most students, and most interviewees who are
too blinded by the propagandistic prospectuses, and well done. You are set free, a bit like Frodo at the
end of Lord of the Rings.

Most of all though, the feeling I get is that you have to know what you’re doing in order to have the
confidence to ignore your degree, probably against the imploring pleas of parents, tutors and friends,
and frankly as students I don’t think the majority of us have a clue. Saying “Fuck my degree” is a lot
easier amongst friends than tutors.