Tradition: harmless fun or dangerously perpetuating a false image?

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Louisa Thompson hails university traditions as part of the appeal of Oxford, and that all we need do is dispel the myth that traditions are oppressive, bewildering, and emblematic of a backward-looking perspective.

I went to an ugly, post-war, tradition-free state school, so the nearest I came to ‘ritual’ growing up was my promise ceremony at Brownies. According to the logic of self-styled class warrior Elly Nowell I should, therefore, have come up to Oxford for interview – mercifully unindoctrinated by a ‘traditional’, private education – and been repelled by the arcane customs I saw being followed ‘blindly and illogically’. Not having grown up in a stately home, I should furthermore have felt so humbled by the grandiose architecture that I couldn’t think straight, because as a state school pupil I am, naturally, ‘intimidated’ by anything grander than a terraced house.

Fortunately, though, I and other state-schoolers didn’t ascribe to the Nowell model. Rather, we had the sense to distinguish between eccentric custom and a despotic intellectual cult. Indeed, far from put off, I was personally positively excited by the idea of gowns, balls and Latin before dinner – a not uncommon view amongst the Harry Potter generation. Admittedly, those with a lesser fondness for Potter might have reacted more sceptically, but to suggest (as Nowell does) that Oxford should tone down tradition in response to those reservations, in turn rendering us magically more ‘progressive’, is condescending and ridiculous. It’s insulting to insinuate that traditions are partly to blame for the imbalance in successful state applicants, as if those from disadvantaged backgrounds are doomed to failure largely because they’re unable to dismiss anxiety over not knowing what a sub fusc is.

Oxford will always chip shoulders and we can’t stop people airing their prejudices. We must, however, stop their voices crowding out our own. It’s not the traditions but lazy generalisations about them which intimidate applicants. Oxford customs are too readily yoked to perceptions of backwards-looking conservatism and a tendency to ‘take ourselves too seriously’. Anyone who’s attended a fancy dress version of our ‘traditional’ formals, and said grace while dressed as a tiger, will know Oxford’s hardly precious about its so-called ‘rituals’, but we can’t ignore that this is a widely held misconception beyond the bubble. We need to tackle such myths head-on, let applicants in on the joke, make sure they realise that tradition can be entertaining, not oppressive. The mix of respect and irreverence which we have for Oxford traditions is brilliant, and should be one of our strengths. Stuffy press releases and Facebook denunciations aren’t going to reassure the doubters – instead, we need to stop huffing and show people that ‘tradition’ need not be a dirty word.

 

Maxwell Harris argues that regardless of its veracity, the perception of Oxford as socially elitist is perpetuated by the preservation of obsolete traditions.

I enjoy Oxford’s traditions as much as the next student. A bit of high-speed Latin before dinner, or marching down to Exam Schools in gowns like a flock of big black birds; these traditions are hilarious, if you’re in on the joke. That’s the problem, though; if you’re not at Oxford, you’re not in on the joke. The university is an wonderful place, but its beautiful buildings and anachronistic traditions are both involved in creating the mystique that surrounds the university. Though Elly Nowell’s perception of Oxford is wrong, that perception still exists, and it is perpetuated and propagated by our wacky traditions.

 

What separates the reputations of the Oxbridge universities from the reputations of others? Academic and social exclusivity. The first is all to the good, but the second is hard to shake. The problem isn’t that our traditions are actually exclusive (I doubt many public schoolers honestly have any better idea of what the mumbled Latin means); the problem is that they are perceived as being so. They remind us of our academic heritage, true, but they are also a record of our not so proud social heritage. Oxford used to be a bastion of the aristocratic elite. The university has made fantastic strides in recent years, but let’s not forget its less admirable past. That past is still with us; witness the continued success of so many pedigreed public schools at getting students into Oxford, in comparison to state schools. Students from private schools are still seven times more likely than students from state schools to go to an Oxbridge university.

 

The private/state divide obviously has a host of causes, but Oxford’s traditions cannot be helping. Students from Eton and Winchester are used to traditional wackiness. Oxford holds little mystery for them. On the other hand, it is perfectly easy to see why state schools might find our archaic rituals less familiar and assume that the horror stories are all true, as Elly Nowell did. Most won’t get as far her; they won’t even apply. We have to fight this image, or live with the misperception of Oxford’s snobbishness. One way of seeming less otherworldly is to give up our traditions, as beloved as they are. Anyone who has taken part in Oxford’s rituals will know them for the tiger accepting entertainments that they are – outside the university, however, their existence prevents Oxford from shaking off its intimidating reputation of social exclusivity.

-PHOTO/ Toby Ord