In Space Jam, Michael Jordan leads the Loony Tunes to victory by selling them on his 'special stuff'. It's tap water, but it works. It makes them believe that they have something in them that makes them better. It makes them believe that they're destined for greatness, that what they do matters. Plato was another believer in the power of false confidence. In the Republic he envisages a society set alight by a 'great lie'. Some would be born with the literal belief that there was gold in their hearts and that it set them apart from all the others. Those would become the elites and the leaders of men.
That 'great lie' is Oxbridge's biggest secret. Sure there may be more contact hours or a heavier workload than other universities but that's not what sets them apart. Intelligent, motivated people will continue to do well wherever they find themselves and to pretend that Oxford and Cambridge are the only institutions full of great talent is at best naïve and at worst the product of an appalling kind of prejudice. Instead what makes them different is the fact they've bought into their own self-image. They've constructed themselves as these monolithic temples of learning and endeavour and maybe even privilege. What young student isn't going to be seduced by that?
Everyday I find myself constantly in awe of my friends both from home and from college. They rail against the world and its injustices and produce ridiculously beautiful things. They have thoughts and then they make them happen. But I don't think they're special. There are so many people like them and there would be countless more if only that message of privilege didn't just exist in Grammar Schools or 'elite' universities.
Owen Jones wrote about wanting to get rid of a system that systematically privileges a small, often already wealthy, section of the population. In her letter rejecting Oxford Elly Norwell wrote about how intimidating the grand setting of Magdalene College is to people who haven't grown up with a certain kind of background. Both of them maybe neglected something important and good that's often disregarded as elitism. It's a good thing to make young people feel like the world is theirs. It's a good thing to convince people that what they do at university could be original and inspiring and historic. It's a good thing to make people feel like their education isn't just a standard part of their life but an unimaginable privilege. The challenge isn't destroying that feeling, it's making it as wide as possible.
Maybe what we need is a general recognition that education isn't a commodity. What Oxbridge does so well is convince it's students that their education matters beyond what job they'll get afterwards. The way it does that is so wrapped up in it's history and reputation for elitism that I'm honestly not sure how it could be recreated. But if we're really not going to give up on inspiring students then we need to figure out how to tell the next 'great lie'. Because if we repeat it enough, eventually it will become truth.
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