Hierarchy, competition and the psychology of success

“Sooo…. what did you get?” Cue my fellow course mate, whose burning curiosity about my Prelims performance proved too much for more than two and a half days of tactful discretion on Facebook chat. Actually no, scratch that – because truth be told I’m censoring his twattiness. To quote, what he said instead was this: “Hey, I got a first, and my tutor suggested that I send the academic admin an email to find out how high I ranked in the year. Oh, and by the way, what did you get????? (followed by that obligatory but ironic trail of ‘xxxxx’).” Before anyone typecasts this vignette of cyber interaction as an ‘(ahem) bitter much (ahem)’ scenario, I’m just going to put it out there that the grade classification is beside the point in this discussion. Instead, what I take issue with is how the culture of competitiveness at Oxford creates psychological screw-ups, fosters intellectual snobbery and perpetuates feelings of inadequacy. Having achieved the milestone of ‘Halfway Hall’, I feel ancient enough in the Great Undergraduate Chain of Being to invoke the phrase “in retrospect” without sounding too presumptuous, and in (objective) retrospect Oxford has proven to be the place where the diligent/bright thrive and the dense/slothful go to die. Anyone who complains about workload, work pressure or anything work-related should have already come to terms with the fact that this academic Gargantua is what you bargained for, and if you applied simply with the wish of bagging bragging credentials, well then commiserations – but tough. In this intellectual boot camp, making an effort is less a qualified merit than a stipulated prerequisite, because 99% of the people here are self-trained workers accustomed to toiling away on a regular basis, with the remaining minority being either born geniuses who do the bare minimum and still excel, or posh dandies who got in mostly courtesy of Brideshead prestige. Weekends are a non-existent concept for your average Oxford student, because a Monday essay/problem sheet deadline basically means spending Saturday and Sunday cooped up in everyone’s favourite social hub – the library. Come weekdays, and we plunge straight back into that venerable and vicious cycle of (insert work-related verb and multiply word exponentially). Before long you might even fall victim to that phenomenon which the Japanese call “Karoshi”, which literally translates into “death from overwork”. Such is the saturated presence of work guilt in our lives, which is likely to be compounded when one finds him/herself pitched against a swarming mass of overachieving Einstein 2.0s. Yet given that this status quo is here to stay, what are we to make of this culture and psychology of academic rigour?

Google “Oxford classics mods”, and you’re guaranteed to find “Why do Oxford students commit suicide?” coming up as one of the top search results. This is the headline of a 2009 Telegraph article written by Andrew Brown, and despite the demagogical hyperbole in its connotation, the title nonetheless affirms a sinister, albeit tenuous, relationship between work pressure and psychological health underneath the idyllic façade of the Dreaming Spires. According to a nurse at one of the colleges, 1 in 5 students suffer from some form of depression or anxiety disorder, and I personally know of at least 10 people who have struggled with mental health issues ever since the start of Michaelmas 2013. While one should obviously be wary of pinpointing academic work as the prime culprit behind such a complex problem, there can be no denying that the hectic schedule and taxing demands of the course only serve to aggravate latent feelings of insecurity. The short and intense terms amplify the weight of an already heavier than average workload, and save for chickening out point-blank by asking for a deadline extension, there really is no easy way out when it comes to getting your work done. And being Oxford students, it is unlikely that you would settle for a crassly produced piece of work that cites only Sparknotes and Wikipedia as your bibliographical sources, which brings us back to a fundamental ‘chicken-and-egg’ causality dilemma: Does stress emanate from the demanding and competitive environment of Oxford? Or is it instead our perfectionist impulse and natural high-strung bent which give rise to this climate of stress?

Such a situation is not helped by the quasi-bizarre and almost archaic ‘gown hierarchy’, and the idea that being more academically adept entitles you to publically swoosh around in a flowy gown, make a nominal claim to ‘scholardom’ and rub it in the face of your less-well-performing peers simply boils down to a kind of glorified intellectual smugness. When you come to think about it, the only occasions that call for gowns to be worn are formals and exams, both of which require no intrinsic need for sartorial distinction among students. Your formal pudding will not taste better with flappier sleeves (although it might well be more annoying with them constantly sliding off your shoulders), and to be honest, the last thing you need in an examination would be an empty ego booster or a looming shadow of anxiety that reminds you of how well you once did and hence must not cock up for face’s sake. In short, the gown only functions to inflate and foster feelings of superiority and inferiority in gown- and non-gown wearers respectively. Even if one were to argue that a visual registration of academic difference could serve as an incentive for improvement, I fail to see the value and sustainability of diligence induced by anything less than self-motivation. Indeed, one need not look further beyond Hobbesian materialism to expose the impossibility of that Zen-ish injunction to “stop comparing yourself to others”, and when naturally competitive beings (i.e. Oxford students) are thrust into an insular ‘survival of the fittest’ environment, psychological havoc will ensue as we come to realise that ‘best’ is relative and that there will always be someone more intelligent or knowledgeable than you out there somewhere. A friend of mine once told me in blunt honesty that “the gown is the one thing that makes him feel slightly better about himself”, and as far as I’m aware he is diagnosed with severe depression – a brilliant, but perpetually miserable soul. His case perfectly encapsulates the problem with Oxford’s intellectual stuffiness: what you achieved in Mods/Prelims does not determine your academic capability, and if you measure your self-worth against as arbitrary and nuanced a yardstick as the cut-off line between a First and a 2:1, then you seriously need a healthy dose of perspective. The fact that you’re well-versed in metonymic contiguity or modality concord does not mean that you are more superior, but merely that you’re good at certain parts of your degree, and while acknowledgement of merit per se should definitely be encouraged, the necessity for academic haloisation is questionable, as it only spawns forth a strange breed of ‘first-public-exam well-performers’ – a phrase that means nothing more than what it says.

All of this leads up to the ultimate burning question: Why do we bother with working hard? Are we motivated by intellectual passion, work guilt, or a desire to outperform others so as to prove ourselves to be ‘better’? While there is no doubt that most people here must have applied with at least some degree of enthusiasm for their subject, one can only take so many footnotes and jargons before the appeal of their degree becomes bogged down by dull pedantry. Indeed, some may even assert that studying what they love paradoxically kills it for them, and that the notion of applying postmodern structuralism to a Middle English text such as Piers Plowman amounts to little more than anachronistic farce and academic flash. The concept of work guilt is more ambiguous, and it often emerges more from the fear of not living up to one’s personal standards rather than that of facing the wrath of a tutor. This is especially so for a humanities or an arts student, as there could potentially be no limit to your reading list, given that the mandatory primary text is often only the springboard to an amorphous world of secondary criticism. One only has to survey the shelves at the Rad Cam to recognise that there will always be a limit to our knowledge capacity, which is why if we feel inadequate because someone did better than us in one collection or exam, we might as well wallow in perennial inadequacy, because there are always going to be souls smarter and savvier than us. Yet it is perhaps an equally powerful, if not more fundamental, drive that compels us to make a beeline for the library every day, and that is the competitive streak so endemic to our sense of being and worth. Ultimately, competition, while necessary, should never consume us to the extent of obsession, and if you ever find someone else’s achievements to be the motivating factor of your diligence, then you might as well die hard trying or just give up altogether, because you’ll always be inferior to some other person you have yet to (but probably cannot) trump.