Monday 17 August 2020

remote control...

Not surprisingly, I've been thinking over the last few days about my own exam results. Of course, unlike this year's pupils, I was lucky enough to sit my exams in the usual way and to then receive my results at some point later in the summer. I got the grades I needed, so I went to my first choice University. It was pretty simple.

Then I thought about my experience a bit harder.

I expected to go to University. I was good at exams and therefore had a pretty crucial advantage that this was the preferred way of assessing someone's academic merit and deciding their future, both in the immediate term and almost certainly in the longer term too. But I expected to go.

My expectation went much deeper than simply expecting to get the results that would enable me to study the course I wanted at the institution I wanted: I just assumed that the way my life was mapped out, I would drift from school to University to job. Oh, sure, there were all sorts of uncertainties for me along the way and my exact future was clouded... but never for one second did I consider that my path lay away from further education. 

Of course, I didn't stop to think about this for a moment. I just went with the flow.

This privilege and expectation was a new in my family. My father was the son of a publican who ran a pub in the Plymouth naval docks. Dad didn't get especially good grades in his exams, but he was determined to be a doctor, and St. Bartholemew's hospital in London took a chance on him. By his own admission, he'd be nowhere near getting the grades he would need now, so the medical profession would have been deprived of 50 years of selfless service, with thousands of hours given not just to the NHS but volunteering for St John's Ambulance (apparently he used to do their pandemic response planning!). Even now he's retired and in his 70s, of course my dad put his name forward to volunteer as we went into lockdown. For my dad, this education was a gift and he's cherished it for his whole life (he's got a stack of letters after his name that often requires a second line on his latest certificates).

He wanted this gift for his children, of course he did. We didn't grow up wealthy, so my parents saved every penny they had to put their children through a private education. I was on a scholarship, but even so, for three kids, this was an absolutely collosal investment. The staycation is not a new concept for my family, that's for sure.

So, barely 25 years after my father became the first in his family to grasp at a further education, I was already drifting into it. He read Medicine and became a doctor, I read for a BA in Modern European and Renaissance History and then drifted into an MA in Medieval Studies and only didn't drift into a DPhil because I had the realisation that wanting to be called "Doctor" wasn't anywhere near a good enough reason to do four years of research into something that ultimately no one would care about, never mind to fund.

So I drifted through University. After 11 years at boarding school, being away from home wasn't a new or revelatory experience for me, and I actually found it a bit boring that so many people thought that it was. It was mainly an examined degree, so being good at exams was still an advantage for me, and I got a decent result without ever really throwing my heart and soul into it, whilst probably not being as good as I could or should have achieved (I ended up right on the cusp of a First Class degree). I can actually remember a conversation I had with the tutor who supervised my Masters dissertation ("Historical Precedent and the Deposition of Henry VI in 1471" - a page turner that showed the rise of parliamentary power in the sucessive removal of Edward II, Richard II and Henry VI). I can write and I was interested in my subject, but this tutor could see that I was only really interested in doing a good job, not an exceptional one and he helped me to achieve that. Looking back, I can not only see his mild disappointment at this wasted opportunity, but I share it. If I was to go to University again, this time around I would approach it very differently... as more than just another box to be ticked as I drifted through life.

This privileged drifting seems all the more infuriating as I'd already rejected a lot of the behaviour of many of the people that I'd been to school with. I had a massive, visceral reaction against the kind of arsehole that we now see running the country, swanning around as if they owned the place and everybody else in it. I also hated the idea of going to Oxbridge. My intellectual vanity did mean that I ended up applying to Oxford, but I received zero guidance from my very expensive school, refused to sit the fourth term entry exam (remember, I was good at exams) because I didn't see why they thought they were so special.... and then ended up applying to a college where I was pretty much the only person who hadn't done the exam. Nice job, everyone. My dad actually had a close friend who was the admissions tutor of a Cambridge College, and he arranged a meeting. Rather than see this as a priceless opportunity, my takeaway was that this guy had spent the whole time trying to boast about how every undergraduate was a published author. In my teenaged stupidity and arrogance, I rejected this (perceived) bullshit by applying blind to Oxford.  What a prat.

I do think that not going to Oxbridge after 11 years in private education was very good for me. Warwick and York are both excellent universities in their own right, their history courses arguably better than their Oxbridge equivalents, but they are also much more socially mixed, and I'm sure it was good for me to breath some different air. I had a girlfriend from Stockport, for goodness sake. Imagine that! (she's now a lecuturer at King's College, London, I'm told. Another person who took their education more seriously than me).

So yes, I look at the scandal of this algorithim that advantages pupils from private schools and I think fuck them and fuck the system that perpetuates their preeminence. They --- I --- have had every possible advantage in their lives to date and they don't need a leg up when there are plenty of other people who just want an even crack of the whip. Of course this government didn't see anything wrong with this approach: they've benefitted from this system every single day of their lives for generations. 

If privilege can be that corrosive in the course of 25 years and one generation, imagine how destructive it must be over 250 years and 10 generations; over 500 years; over a millennia. This country is dying under the weight of all this privilege and has been for centuries. The very idea of British exceptionalism is ridiculous and an insult to all the people and countries and cultures we've pillaged as we tried to claw ourselves out of the mire by standing on everyone else. If we now want to jump back in, it's probably best to just let us go.

Just let us go.

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