Wednesday, 26 August 2009

Sex, Sloanes and Scotland

Yesterday's Times 2 featured a very interesting piece by Stefanie Marsh attacking the British university system and listing the myriad disappointments of her time as a language student at Edinburgh.

Being a language student at Edinburgh as well as one of the "geeky, petulant" newspaper "oddballs" Marsh likes so much, I thought I'd offer my take.

University, apparently, is about nothing more than the forced seasonal 'fun' of charades stretched taut over three (or in Edinburgh, four) years. Considering that for most people, the sole point of charades is a way to pass the bloated Boxing Day afternoon while watching two distant relatives squabble themselves to the point where they refuse to speak to each other for a decade, Marsh's comparison is more than a little odd.

Of course university isn't all about gurning drunken larks, unless you're in one of the sports clubs whose initiations all seem to follow the same pattern: "We made them drink a pint of sambuca, vomit it up and then drink it again. Awesome." Yes, Edinburgh can be viciously, two-duvets cold. And yes, it is a particularly class-ridden university, with populations of Scots and Sloanes at polar opposites.

In short, university is a sink-or-swim experience - and it has to be. "Dumping" school-leavers in a melting pot of class, race and politics is the only way most of them will feel the chill of the real world. This is often a fairly literal process in Edinburgh in January when you're torn between toughing it out under your Tog level 15 shield or explaining an increased heating bill to disapproving flatmates. In any case, how on earth are the worlds of the Sloanes and native Scots ever supposed to make contact, if not by mixing the crowds together in this "sociological experiment"? In my experience, at least, it isn't quite as doomed as Marsh makes it out to be, anyway. Put people together and they may well find they like each other more than they expected, especially when sexual attraction enters the mix. A melting pot, however imperfect, beats segregation any day.

Marsh also seems slightly trapped in a slightly feudal social scale, in thrall to the Sloanes that "dominate" her life in a way I can relate to, having gone to a minor private school (albeit on a scholarship). After all, it can be hard to resist someone who not only behaves like they own the place, but in all probability has a relative who actually does. Thankfully, of Edinburgh's current 'Sloane' population (now clad in Jack Wills' finest), those who don't mix into the main student body tend to drink themselves into dinner-jacketed port-sodden oblivion, only emerging to unsuccessfully contest campus elections.

Where Marsh comes closer to the mark is on the lack of pressure to learn. This is absolutely true, especially for someone who spent their final school year being coached for the essay-a-week Oxbridge pressure cooker, but again, it has an upside. Self-reliance and independence as a student are surely positive, and most sixth-formers long for the chance - this is why the trend of helicopter parenting is so disturbing. Besides, any half-decent lecturers will reward effort, but won't feel obliged to tell their adult charges to work. The cold shock of what is not the real world, but university's approximation of it, is an excellent rite of passage. Long may it continue.

*This doesn't really fit anywhere above, but Marsh's claim that "a person educated in communist Yugoslavia or Russia" is better-educated than any product of the British system is utter nonsense. The Soviet system was unafraid of teaching the classics - for example Dumas' Three Musketeers is for primary school children - but trying to come up with an interesting interpretation could mean you'd be blackballed from any job of even vague significance. Hardly a triumph of "analytical thought".

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