Matriculation: an outdated tradition, or a symbol of unity?

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Your forerunners tend to paint you a deceptively rosy picture of Matriculation; they promise a day of utterly drunken bliss in which the sub fusc that you supposedly ironically don later wins you a Facebook profile picture with an unprecedented number of likes.

What they conveniently forget to warn you of is that you will scrabble around your room in a panic for that functionless piece of ribbon until five minutes after you need to leave, that somehow all your tights will suddenly have too many holes in them, or that your bowtie will obstinately refuse to actually be tied into a bow. I only remember random fragments of my Matriculation day. That moment when I watched my phone fall to the ground and depart from this life with a horrifyingly cinematic slowness. The near loss of my mortar board at the hands of a Chinese tourist who insisted on taking photos with me and of me and babbling away in Mandarin at me in spite of my laughing protestations that I was in fact Japanese. The destruction of the tassels of my mortar board by said tourist (I may be scapegoating her with the comfortable knowledge that she will never know). The matriculation photo in which I looked too bright-eyed and ashen simultaneously (I blame the lighting – I promise that my skin isn’t actually grey) that my proud parents of course had to send out to my grandparents in spite of all my whining.

I recall the various emotions flitting through me as I travelled to the Sheldonian; the somewhat amused disbelief that I had survived the initial few weeks of Oxford without being informed that my acceptance into Oxford had been an administrative error (a year later and I still await that email, UCAS) and the exhilaration of knowing that the friends I was chattering away with would remain some of my closest companions. However, lurking amongst those feelings was a constant discomfort at the prospect of looking like a pretentious walking advertisement for the Oxford ‘brand’ in my sub fusc. For someone who had been rocked by the homelessness prevalent in Oxford upon arrival, there was also something distinctly grotesque and painful about flaunting unnecessary pieces of clothing in a town where too many do not even have access to basic necessities.

Matriculation is archaic, but much of the reason why students flock to Oxford is still rooted in its past

‘Tradition’ is a word that is too often deployed to justify various practices, including Matriculation; it is a weak argument in light of traditions such as bull-fighting or FGM, although comparing a procession of students attired in gowns entering the Sheldonian to such traditions is admittedly hyperbolic. However, in spite of whatever qualms I may have had, I am actually in favour of retaining Matriculation as an Oxford tradition.

The students who pour into Oxford in noughth week Michaelmas have varying backgrounds, personalities, interests, and aspirations; they study various subjects, attend different lectures and tutorials, and will never sit in the same room with all of their schoolmates as they did back in school. The single factor uniting them is that they are students at the University of Oxford. In light of this, Matriculation is a somewhat heart-warming celebration of the gathering of so many diverse individuals. Our unity is expressed through our identical attire and the fact that we hear – or, if you are like me, fail to hear the first half because you were completely absorbed by the prospect of lunch – the same Latin utterance: ‘Scitote vos in Matriculam Universitatis hodie relatos esse, et ad observandum omnia Statuta istius Universitatis, quantum ad vos spectent, teneri’ (‘Know that you are today added to the Roll of the University and bound to obey all the statutes of this University so far as they apply to you’). In spite of my earlier disparaging of tradition, it was an awe-inspiring and humbling experience to imagine that I was joining the ranks of countless students who, much like myself, must have sat in the Sheldonian feeling tentatively excited and also uncertain as to whether they were wearing their gowns or their gowns were wearing them.

Matriculation, according to the University website, ‘confers membership of the University on students’; however, much more significant than the practical dimension of the ceremony is of course its symbolic aspects. Back home in Japan, ceremonies marking occasions such as the commencement or conclusion of one’s academic career, throughout primary school to university, are treated with a remarkable degree of seriousness. Having moved to London from Tokyo for sixth form, I was unsettled by the absence of a grand ceremony to mark the conclusion of my pre-university education that I surely could have expected in Japan. Just as I had yearned for a sense of closure that a ceremony could have contributed to in sixth form, I was grateful for the event which reminded me that I had really started university; it was a break from the relentless workload and socializing, providing me with an excuse to gawk at the grandeur of the Oxford’s architecture and reflect upon the fact that this town was actually my home. Admittedly, even after Matriculation, I was yet to fully absorb the fact that I belonged here; nonetheless, I could appreciate the symbolic significance of the ceremony.

What with the strange attire and Latin speech, Matriculation is undeniably an anachronistic ceremony, belonging to an era in which female scholars in Oxford and St Catz (my college) were not yet even existent. However, to dismiss it as outdated is to disregard much of the essence of the University itself: its striking architecture and its lengthy history that accounts for the impressive academic achievements that Oxford has witnessed, for instance. Matriculation is archaic, but much of the reason why students flock to Oxford is still rooted in its past; the ceremony is only a mere physical manifestation of what makes Oxford Oxford. I nonetheless acknowledge that I should not be quick to dismiss the possible negative implications of Matriculation in a climate of anxieties surrounding the relative lack of state school applicants to Oxford; I recently read a Cherwell article that expressed opposition to the continued use of sub fusc as serving ‘to perpetuate the image of Oxford as a posh, public school haven, a world that is only for the select few’. Whilst the writer proposes a possibly valid perspective, I could nevertheless equally suggest that such traditions that are expressive of Oxford’s wonderfully rich history is also what attracts students here. In the age of social media, Matriculation may in fact be helping to debunk the elitist image of Oxford. As with last year, my Facebook feed since a week ago has been flooded with pictures of Matriculation; Matriculation is replacing the image of Oxford students as serious scholars with a perhaps more accurate and far less intimidating picture of them as regular students decked out in somewhat comic attire.

Just as tradition is not a word that justifies all practices, ‘archaic’ or ‘anachronistic’ are not words that render them invalid; Matriculation is part of the Oxford experience.