Monday, March 07, 2011


I was talking to someone recently who was researching what the University of Cambridge was like in the late 80s and early 90s.  I think this research was in part prompted by the current proposals to alter the way higher education in England is funded and in part because those of us who were students then might now have started to do something interesting.  Certainly, there was an interest in asking whether the socio-economic make-up of the student body then differs from how it is now.  And it's certainly true that a lot of us are worried about what the  current funding proposals will do to the chances of the less well-off coming into higher education so it's a good question to ask and something we need to look at very closely.

Anyway, as I was talking two things struck me.  First, I couldn't really tell this person whether any of my friends and, if any who, came from less privileged backgrounds.  Now, this was in part because I was a pretty think naive thing who might not have spotted these things.  But it also wasn't really anything we talked and thought about.  Is that good?  I don't know.  I suppose I knew what the parents of my close friends did and sometimes we'd visit over the vacations and see where their families lived.  But I don't remember us making much of which school someone had gone to.  Perhaps we decided it was best not to ask.  And perhaps we were all deciding that now we were grown-up undergraduates we weren't going to be defined any more by our parents or our schools.  Or perhaps we were too busy with other things.

The other thing I remembered vividly was being terrified about my Greek.  I had done no Greek at school and so learned Greek in the Faculty's 'Intensive Greek' (IG) programme.  I remembered not only being scared every time I had to write a Greek literature essay (because I really couldn't read the text very well) but also having a sinking feeling every time something I was reading for, say, Greek history, helpfully decided to quote a chunk of untranslated Greek.  No use to me.

And finally, I remembered how that feeling persisted.  In my final year I was genuinely torn between applying to do research in Latin literature (prose, probably, perhaps historiography) or ancient philosophy.  The problem with ancient philosophy was that, although I really enjoyed it, I thought my Greek wasn't good enough.  Two of my supervisors (these two good people) very kindly took me for a cup of tea in the Sidgwick Buttery and we talked over the options.  In the end, I'm glad I made the choice I did but I very nearly chickened out.  Good job too; I would have been truly terrible at Latin lit.

1 comment:

RJR said...

I had a very different experience when I matriculated in 1994, perhaps because I went to Trinity. I immediately met blokes who played polo because they thought it would be a good way to meet a rich wife, or who referred to girls as fillies, or who said they would never spend less than eight pounds on a bottle of wine (the Trinity JCR issued official guidelines that £1.99 was the most you should spend on anything you were taking to a party). I found these people oppressive and instead spent some time with another group, who had all brought record players up because they couldn't listen to music on anything but vinyl, and were generally aggressively cool, until I realised that most of them had gone to Eton too and were just reacting against it. That was pretty much it for me and Trinity, and I spent most of my time after that with people doing my course, who were more interesting. The thing is that, although they made the college bar unusable and dominated the college by drifting to and fro in evening wear at all hours of the day and night, always on their way from or to a formal hall or drinking society, the posh people were actually a very small proportion of the people at Trinity. Feeling like an outsider at Trinity was by far the majority position; the typical Trinity student by numbers, rather than volume of noise, was an intense and very clever mathematician. But I was shocked at how few of the people I met had gone to state schools. In my first year I remember realising that only three of the people I knew had gone to comprehensives, as opposed to state grammar schools. (None of them were at Trinity -- two were ASNCs and the third was at St Johns.) My own school was a fee-paying one, not fancy, and I had an assisted place, but I was used to thinking of that as quite posh because all my friends from outside school went to the local comprehensive. So I was pretty aware of the contrast when I went to university. Also the ASNCs were a relatively politically aware bunch, which helped. The thing is, I always assumed things would get better, and I'm not sure that they have, which makes me feel sad. Although gender imbalance was a big deal back then, and that at least has improved. (We ASNCs were pretty smug about being more or less fifty-fifty already.)

I think we were all very aware of people's educational background, but not that much of their actual financial circumstances, though a friend of mine did win Trinity's Yeoman scholarship, for someone on a full grant, which involved all sorts of interesting perks like a suite of rooms in Great Court. I had quite a strong sense as an undergraduate that particular public schools produced particular sorts of people, while private schools and state schools produced people who were more themselves, for better or worse. Some years later an old Etonian friend who knew both me and a school-friend of mine dated a girl who had gone to the same school as us, and said that for someone who had gone to my school she was surprisingly articulate and well-dressed. So maybe my school produced a type too. (Though that's really unfair on my school-friend -- perhaps I was bringing down the average.)

Also re: Greek, I always felt just the same about my Latin, always playing catch-up. When I first went up the assumed default was that you had A-level Latin, but you could go along to the beginner's Latin classes run by History (or maybe MML, I forget). In retrospect, that was a lot of language preparation -- three Latin classes a week, one Old English, and one Welsh, leaving aside my supervisions, all the preparation for palaeography, and the history courses I was doing. They've changed it now to give more support to Latin beginners, which is good. But don't you think that these insecurities make us better people? At least in Oxbridge terms.