What my time at an elite university taught me

When I first came to Durham University, there were three questions that dominated fresher conversations, in a universal, desperate attempt to ease the awkwardness:

  1. What did you do for A Levels?
  2. What are you studying?
  3. Where did you go to school?

The first two were standard fare, but the last? It was like seeing a question you didn’t know the answer to in an exam. A deer caught in headlights. Looking around the room to see if anyone else was stuck. No, no one is. Shit. It took me aback because I was surprised it was even being asked. What do you mean? How would knowing I went to Rush Croft School just off the North Circular help this conversation? I quickly got the hang of it: it was a way of gauging networks, hoping that they would know a friend of a friend of a friend. Because the school was supposed to be, invariably, one they had heard of, prestigious and of their circle.

It was at that moment I should have known Durham University would be an incredible culture shock. In the next three years, I had various conversations with peers about their time at boarding school, I would learn the names of The Perse school or Wimbledon School. I would learn dropping ‘t’s wasn’t a thing other people did. Even little things, like teaching others slang. Seeing pictures on Facebook of extended families in huge houses. I would even have to fight for the university’s grant not to be taken away from ‘poorer’ kids, the definition of ‘poor’ in such a circumstance extending to kids from households with the nationally median income of £23k.

The privilege of these types of Universities is as true as the fables you read. The matriculation where they swear you in with Latin. The damn formals with their damn traditions, like f*cking spooning. That means you have to hit your spoon on the table in a pattern then like, the head or president or whoever the shit changes the pattern. During this formal, if you go toilet, you’re literally fined. Drinking in a bloody castle. Getting drunk in a way only Rugby lads with their suppressed familial issues borne from a decade of boarding school can teach you. The bloody lad culture borne from boarding school misogyny. The weird cultishness emanating from this ridiculous collegiate system. The merchandise with the stupid crests. Of which I, actually, am wearing right now. The homogeneity of The Accent. Even the f*cking beautiful architecture makes me angry. At first these were novelties, but at this point I’m happily, ostentatiously, po-faced and moany about it all.

These universities feel like bubbles that exist so wealthy public school dudes don’t have to leave the nest and see the nasty, nasty world outside the greens of the village. It does, it really does drive me up the bloody wall. I will message friends about the rich-kid-of-the-day. I have moments, despite what I am about to write -and in fact these ingrained prejudices make this blog post innately and humanly contradictory-, where I find myself despising a lot of the people I live in this city with. I probably will dislike a lot of them regardless of what the message of this blog is. I don’t intend to be friends with everyone here, because while others are nice, many are made ignorant by and about their backgrounds in a way that is often impenetrable and defensive. Many may get offended at a blog post that is inherently about an institutionalised problem. That is their problem. I find inherited privilege to be an incredibly immoral and awful thing in and of itself, and I always will. Durham has affirmed that for me more powerfully in three years than living in East London did to me in seventeen.

I knew this world existed, but I never thought I’d collide with it. It’s not necessarily a hindrance, it doesn’t stop me having fun or rising up ranks or succeeding, though I’ve never quite got used to it. It is, and will remain, a source of grievance and shock and outrage and something I want to change.

Far from being an obstacle, I saw it as something to challenge. Not challenge by way of fighting my peers, dueling in a nightclub, competing with them for better grades. On the contrary, the network of friends I have now is diverse. Rather, the institutional privilege I encountered became a driver for me as an activist. More than the injustices I had seen and experienced at home, it was the lack of injustice in this cosy town that got me off my ass and empowered me to get involved in politics. And so I did. I, in essence, became radicalised. I forced myself to be empowered to fight power. Seemingly immovable power. I wanted to take on the world.

But, then, these years were punctuated, quite literally down the middle, with the general election. I was on the  campaign trial with friends, I had found a home with Labourites, a sort of sanctuary amid the clash of civilisations. I hit the ground running, fueled by the outrage whizzing through my head that my peers had the world at their fingertips just because their parents’ had it at theirs. Nothing could surely beat us on our quest to destroy this rotten system. Bloody hell, I remember walking through campus after a good poll and gleaming to myself. Everything would change, suckers.

And then that exit poll.

The radicalisation that had been building up came crashing down in a sudden and awful moment of realisation. The realisation that those in the general public, oh so different from the bubble I had populated for the past two years, were not as angry at my perceived injustices as I was. I learnt that, actually, there would be people like me, outside of Durham, that don’t compare themselves to private-schooled kids as I did now. Just as I wouldn’t have had I not attended Durham. The very privilege of attending Durham had afforded me an insight into a world that was simply incomparable to many ordinary people. So they wouldn’t compare at all. As I had written for this blog on my changing views on what it means to be radical; people compare themselves to neighbours, not to bosses. It just so happened, for two years, my neighbours had been rich. Any sort of radicalism I wanted to put to others would have to be based in the world they knew.

So my formation was punctuated, firstly, by my conflict with privilege, but then by May 2015, and the realisation that outrage at inequality itself- that pet peeve that had became all my own and so integral to who I was, nay, am- was not enough to build a convincing case to make change in the world. The realisation of the first gave me the will to change things, and the second gave me the sense of powerlessness that that ‘will’ meant nothing. How do we tackle inequality in a world where two different worlds simply don’t know nor care for the other?

But then, each step has been a learning curve. My bubble had to burst, my sense of injustice had to be challenged; both by intelligent and kind peers I would otherwise be prejudiced against; and less happily by an election that proved not everyone is as outraged as I am about the issues I care about.

That doesn’t mean I am still not outraged. I am very restless to hop aboard that train, for the last time, and leave Durham without looking back. For all the magic, and all the drunken escapades and the things I have learnt, I am very willing to leave it all behind me and get on with the rest of my life back in my modest home that I now realise I took for granted. I have still yet to grow accustomed to someone nonchalantly dropping into conversation that they attended Harrow. I have still yet to grow accustomed to wealth, to grandeur. I don’t want to get used to it.

The concept of private school still makes me upset and angry. I am very excited to leave to go back home so I can be just a little bit bitchy with old mates about the issue. A lot of them feel the same way. The thought of all the kids that could not attend Durham or Exeter or Oxford because they did not have the same resources makes me seethe with anger. Now, it still is on the verge of driving me absolutely nuts. Just the other day, I heard, and rubbed my temple at, a student professing his hatred of the ‘socialist r*tards’ that had went after Cameron over the Panama papers because they were merely jealous of his inheritance. Like, OH MY GOD. I messaged my friend, “I want to get out of here.”

But the difference now is that I want to challenge him instead of writing him off as evil. That I want to debate him into the ground. Ruthlessly, but…constructively, I guess. I would never be friends with him, I doubt, and I’d want to destroy his ideas. But I’d first have to actually engage and debate.

Just as I had never met anyone like him before, it’s likely he had never met anyone like me. It was his world versus mine. And I would now happily challenge it, probably, probably, without punching him in the face. And I’d hope it would get better results. I might not – as I said, there is impenetrable ignorance here- but I also might. An example of this is that my flatmates this year, heralding from different backgrounds to mine, have heard me recite (by the way, tragic-sounding but not meant to be) tales of why I am the way I am, and their perspectives have changed, just as mine have changed in response to their own tales. Listening, and being listened to, is far more powerful and convincing than deciding someone is wrong and bad and beyond the pale. (And, I don’t know, going after non-voters instead.)

I have matured, and I have learnt there is no point in outrage without being constructive with it. Durham bursting my bubble and exposing me to privilege was formative and necessary, I see now, but so was growing up and learning to deal with it, not seeing it as an obstacle but a challenge, and knowing that overcoming that challenge is more than moaning to confidants but rather putting it into something useful. Which is why I stood for SU president, and lost, with no regrets. Which is why I became Co-Chair of the Labour Club almost immediately after the election. Which is why I’ve chucked myself into various, reckless campaigns. Which is why I will continue to do so. Which is why I write. Which is why I am very excited to be joining a social mobility charity after graduation. If what I have got out of all of this is the necessary and pragmatic will to improve social mobility and to put my case for social mobility to whatever world I inhabit, to make sure there are new inhabitants that jump between worlds, then that is good enough for now. As the two worlds of Britain grow further apart, having the confidence to jump between both, just as I did at Durham, and make this case and also ensure others jump with me, is imperative. Even if that world is scary and out of your comfort zone. Challenge it and let it challenge you. And maybe, just maybe, those worlds will grow closer together again.

So I’ve learnt three things at my time at an elite university: I am angry at institutional privilege and it drives me; but it doesn’t drive everyone; and that my righteous mind would have to adapt to see the change I want to see. It has made me both a radical in outlook but far less dogmatic, more open-minded, more combative and happy to debate, to challenge and be challenged. I have begun to notice the power in words. The privilege I have seen I still see as an injustice, and it drives me in everything I do, but in order to overcome that injustice I will have to learn how to make constructive use of my outrage, rather than expecting everyone else to be outraged with me. I would have to convince them to be outraged. In such a way, my journey through university has shaped my journey as an activist. I hope I can change the world now, just a little bit, with a bit of vigorous and open debate about privilege and how to tackle it.

And, I suppose, as a big, fat metaphorical lesson to be applied to my philosophy, that’s the Left I want to see: confident in what it sees as injustice, but far more open to dissent and disagreement both within and without its ranks, and happier to be challenged, less morally righteous, but still the extremely pissed off kid I was at freshers’ week. I am every bit as radical as when I started University, I just hope I have learnt what to do with it.

Onwards, I guess.


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