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What Oxford taught me about posh people The dreaming spires hide a vicious sense of entitlement

Guess who got an internship at Deloitte. (Photo by Tom Stoddart/Getty Images)

Guess who got an internship at Deloitte. (Photo by Tom Stoddart/Getty Images)


December 22, 2021   6 mins

There’s a scene in the movie Good Will Hunting where the working-class genius played by Matt Damon makes fools of some arrogant students in a bar, by knowing way more about their subject than they do. They’d been mocking his friends for their crudeness and stupidity, but they end up leaving with their tail between their legs.

I’m no genius, but I do know something about the social dynamics in that scene, because I kind of lived it.

All my friends got labouring jobs at the ages of fifteen or sixteen. To us, students were the middle-class kids who didn’t work, then left to go to “uni.” They never really came back, or if they did, they returned just to boss us around. Our home, for them, was something shitty to escape from. In their world, everyone babbled endlessly as if everything they had to say was fascinating. In our world, if you spoke self-importantly, people told you to shut the fuck up. They thought nothing of us; we thought nothing of them.

My experience of secondary education wasn’t good. I sat for five years in a crumbling comprehensive with thirty other bored working-class kids. There were fights in the corridors, bullying, shoplifting down the town at break times. We threw things at teachers, dragged our feet and our bags between lessons, and resisted every well-meant attempt to change us. Often disillusioned and half-broken teachers did their best to hold it all together. I hated it. I left as soon as I could with nothing to show for it.

My education might have ended there, but a decade later, I was talked into going back to school by my girlfriend. I got my A Levels by taking night classes at an adult education centre. A teacher there suggested I apply for university. I decided to give it a go. I didn’t tell my friends.

I was building a dry-stone-wall by a roadside, mulling over which through-stone fitted best, when the postman stopped to hand me a letter. He was a lad I’d been to school with. I opened it while I was chatting to him, and he seemed baffled when I told him the letter said I’d got into Oxford University. “But you’re thick like me,” he said.

After he’d driven away with a friendly wave, I thought, “How will I tell everyone?” Was I about to become one of the people I’d grown up hating? In fact, my people were proud of me and cheered me off to war against the posh people (they’d seen Good Will Hunting too).

I went for two main reasons, and neither of them were very nice. I went because our farm was struggling and had become very claustrophobic and small, way too small for me and my dad, and because I needed a new hustle: everyone I knew who had money seemed to have gone to university. But I loved books, too, and liked the idea that you could study just one subject, and skip the rest, which was handy as I was useless at most of the subjects. But it was terrifying. I didn’t want to leave the place and the people I was from, or give up being who I was. I wanted to come back afterwards, but had no plan for how that might work.

Going to an elite university exposed me to the people that made me most nervous: the well-spoken, (supposedly) clever people. My first instinct was to flee from this strange new world with its archaic traditions, funny language and weird social habits. But I was too proud to go home defeated, so I decided to fight instead. It didn’t take long for me to realise that the posh kids were all leather shoes, woollen jackets, small-talk and bullshit. I soon shrugged off the idea that there were some mystical clever people somewhere that were better than me: I’d now met them, come up against them one on one, and they were often bang average. I could hold my own on anything substantive. I’d grown up among straight-talking tough people who loved to argue in smoky pubs, so Oxford tutorials felt strangely familiar.

If I’d been confined to a plastic chair, and told to sit in silence and listen for an hour to someone who wasn’t very interesting talk about a subject I hadn’t chosen to be interested in, I suspect I’d have messed about and misbehaved, just as I did as a teenager. But Oxford wasn’t like that. The teaching was personalised, flexible and interactive. That kind of system keeps people like me in the room, fired up and engaged. Kids like me, who don’t flourish in school, can benefit from such attention, and focus, and belief. A good society would strive to give it to them.

But posh kids still dominate these institutions. I learned, when I was there, that their trick was not any kind of genuine superiority but pure conditioning. Their schools and families had taught them that university was as much a social rite of passage as an opportunity to learn. They aimed high, in terms of grades — and to be fair, often worked very hard to pull it off. I was from people with lots of excuses for not doing things out of the ordinary; posh kids strode into their extraordinary future with their heads held high. No one I knew had that kind of polish and swagger, but I soon realised you could fake it. I looked at them and thought: if you fuckers can do remarkable things, then why can’t I?

It was liberating to find that I was clever enough, if I worked hard. And I knew how to work hard — for hours, days, weeks and years. OK, my people didn’t achieve highly in education or the professional white-collar world, but we were proud farmers with a culture of striving. I simply switched that mentality and applied it to education — something I hadn’t realised was possible at school. I knew the posh kids couldn’t outwork me. And the fact that I’d failed a lot was a strength, faced with their easy but brittle confidence. I knew how to get back up off the floor. People from more disadvantaged backgrounds than mine often lack this self-belief. But what if they were surrounded by people and institutions expecting and helping them to excel, as the posh kids were?

So much of this is about self-fulfilling prophecies. For years university worked because we believed it worked. It turned out “clever” people for “clever” jobs with good salaries, and sent the rest down the mine, to the factory or the farm. No one asked whether these students were really the most intelligent people. The system just confirmed the advantages of birth and background. My odd, and entirely untypical, journey exposed me to the extremes of the British education system. It has left me with complicated feelings about what universities can and can’t do.

A lot of people treat you different when they think you are an Oxford graduate than when they think you are a farm labourer. They talk to you differently. They talk to you more. They invite you to their house and try to make friends with you. They talk about books. Some of this is perhaps based on not unreasonable assumptions. Some of it is just lazy snobbery. I knew people that would talk down to me or my friends because they thought we weren’t very bright or worth very much. With those people I’d shamelessly mention having been to Oxford to knock them back a bit. It was like sprinkling fairy dust. They’d shrink back as if I’d said the password — or worse, start fawning, when five minutes earlier they’d thought I was northern, common, and knew nowt. Snobs and the powerful fetishise ‘academic’ credentials. I didn’t even pick my degree up, but it didn’t matter. Once you are in the club the detail isn’t important. You just have to look at our leading politicians. Boris Johnson would be stacking shelves in Aldi or working down the chippie if he’d been born in Hartlepool.

My story is sometimes seen as a rags-to-riches tale. But I wasn’t exceptional; I was lucky. The point of this story is that a society that is blind to the potential of so many of its young people, is a wasteful, unfair and ineffective society.  I look at bookshop shelves and wonder where half the stories are. Where’s the book by the girl that works in the laundrette, the man who serves you in McDonalds, the Romanian woman who cleans your hotel room, by the lads that work on the railways or the building site? We don’t care about these people enough because they don’t get heard, and they don’t get heard because we build a success machine that they don’t want to be part of, or can’t access, or use, or afford. Instead of a fair system, the machine churns out entitled mediocrities, born to be heard, born to rule.

And though universities are trying hard to become more “accessible”, there is only so much they can do. Perhaps it’s too late by the time the kids are eighteen. And if working class kids don’t apply, what can an admissions system do?

Around this time eighteen ago, I was sitting down to take my final exams. I did well. I could probably have stayed and become an academic, but I was drawn home to my own landscape and work — to the place and people that made me. Oxford didn’t make me, as a person, or a writer, but I’ve returned there over the years. The people that once taught me seem sad. They say it has gotten worse: the posh kids arrive, use it, then leave to work in the City.

And perhaps all the debt this training requires means that the kids are right to be mercenary about it all. Work hard, get the grades, move to London, do the job, get promoted, earn more, pay it back. Love of subject, creativity, taking risks and experimenting: these things feel marginal. I can see why people are sceptical about universities, and angry at the elite ones. They are often now little more than training camps for the stormtroopers of capitalism. I may have been lucky to go when I did.

This piece was first published on May 31, 2021


James Rebanks is a fell farmer and the best-selling author of The Shepherd’s Life. His new book, English Pastoral, came out in September 2020.

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Dapple Grey
Dapple Grey
2 years ago

Intelligence takes many forms: my nephew is a chemistry don but he tried to catch our whippet by running after her



Malcolm Knott
Malcolm Knott
2 years ago

Which is more worrying: the misplaced sense of entitlement you discovered at Oxford or the truculent boorishness which disfigured your school years?

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
2 years ago
Reply to  Malcolm Knott

I come from the same type of background, and my parents never had the limited aspirations for me that this bloke’s parent clearly had – he should be blaming his parents not Oxford or posh people.
And thankfully I’ve never developed the sense of inverted snobbery that this writer has in the extreme.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

Yes, this is the real thing no one talks about. The death of the working class self-improvement and self-education movement – that was expressed in further education colleges, adult night schools, mechanics’ institutes – that used to be a big part of life for certain types of intelligent and interested people among the working classes from late Victorian times until a few decades ago. The Open University was probably the last expression of that – it is of course on its last legs.
The sad reality I feel is that the intelligent and ambitious part of the working classes was sucked up long ago into the middle classes, leaving a remnant of people perhaps genetically inclined to intellectual passivity.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
2 years ago

If one was in a union, then upgrading education skills meant one went into a different union. TGWU unskilled, AEU craftsman, become a Chartered Engineer, leave the AEU and become a member of one of the engineering institutes suchas Civil. Mechanical , Electrical. Chemical . etc.
The nightmare for Labour is for every unskilled worker become skilled and set up their own company and become an individual.
The power of the union depends the number of votes it casts in election within the Labour Party and income as this determines salary of union officials. Numbers of people x subs = union income and therfore officials salaries.
Labour has dominated education since the mid 1930s, Comprehensives are bad because they were invented by Labour , they could have copied the Swiss system.
One used to be able to leave school start an apprenticeship and study at night school and become a a Chartered Engineer, B Wallis and R J Mitchell are examples of engineers who did this. Labour forced up the salaries of un and semi skilled workers so that in the 70s an apprentice earned ÂŁ25/wk and a labourer at 16 to 17 years of age, ÂŁ50 to ÂŁ100/wk.
If we combined the rigours of pre 1988 education, apprenticeships and evening school, the intellectual rigour of Oxbridge/Red Bricks and the Swiss system, we would have a superb system. It is mostly in place and would be reasonably straightforward.
How on earth did Cardinal Wolsey, a butcher’s son, cope in the 15th century at Oxford?

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
2 years ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

I could also add Tommy Flowers who built the Colossus machine also. He studied electrical engineering in night schools whilst working as an apprentince – and received a degree through the University of London open exams. (As did Barnes Wallis.) Indeed It used to be possible to only take the UoL exams, and either self-study or learn the material through an outsourced college. Many PoWs did this in WW2 whilst in captivity. The UoL’s international programme where people do something similar in Singapore is a remnant of this, but is something else very much an unknown aspect and is a shadow of what it once was. For what it is worth I studied most of my computer science education either through UoL night classes or whilst not near london through the external programme whilst working as a software engineer, so I have some idea of the satisfication that this kind of effort brings. I never bothered to become a chartered engineer as the title means nothing in my field of work though at some point I will to have the pride that comes with the professional postnomials of a royal society.
George Stephenson original invisaged that entry to the institute of chartered engineers would be through this route. Not just engineers though. Accountants, architects and solicitors also were, until the 1960s, largely non-graduates despite being solidly middle-middle class professions. Both relied on training contracts that involved a mixture of work and day-release/evening study. It is technically still possible to do this in these professions now via a mixture of work and study, but it is very rare. Some medicial fields such as pharmacy and
The only jobs that traditionally (and by this I mean going back to the middle ages) required full time university attendance were barristers, doctors – only physicians until around 1800 when surgeons were required to possess a medical degree too – and vicars.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Dr Stephen Nightingale
Dr Stephen Nightingale
2 years ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

What the author seems unfamiliar with is that there used to be a Grammar School system that lifted up to 20% of the Working Classes, put them on even terms with the local ‘middle class’ kids, and gave them an education that set them on the road to University and postgraduate studies if they were persistent enough. Most of them (er, Us) didn’t go to Oxford or Cambridge, but to one of many other perfectly adequate Universities or Polytechnics. And throughout my journey in this system, I never came across snobby, belittling attitudes from the rich and entitled.
Bring back Grammar Schools. (Though the one in my own home town is still there, one of the last 4 in Lancashire).

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago

The main problem with the old grammar school system was that while the grammar schools for that top 20% were superb, the school for the other 80% was little more than a holding pen until the kids were old enough to leave.
I’d be all for the return of the grammar system as long a significant sums were also spent on the comprehensives so those who didn’t get in weren’t basically thrown on the scrap heap

Dr Stephen Nightingale
Dr Stephen Nightingale
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Sounds to me that what you are for is Levelling Up, whereas what we actually got was Levelling Down. I agree that all secondary schools should have the ethos and ambition of the Grammar Schools. I cannot however see why “private” schools should have any right of entry to public universities.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
2 years ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

Copy Swiss system.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
2 years ago

Since the 1850s sciece and engineering were dominated by the Grammar schools and few public schools. A friend at Kind Edward 6th, Birmingham was taught Maths by a Cambridge Wrangler.At Cambridge, he completed three years of physics in two years and then did a year of electrical engineering.
Many people attended Red Bricks due to personal reasons. On only has to look at Nobels won by Manchester etc pre WW2.

Kiat Huang
Kiat Huang
2 years ago

I think it worth noting, that there is probably still a marked difference in social class of Oxford undergrads and postgrads, in the sciences at least – based on my experience from the late 90s. These undergrads were as the author described, but the postgrads and postdocs (of mostly STEM subjects, granted) were not posh at all, quite the opposite. I’d thought then that postgrads were free of the machines that churned out accomplished, oxbridge-tuned school leavers – these were hard-working, disciplined and focused adults who were there on merit, competing for a tiny number of places.

An enjoyable, insightful article.

Franz Von Peppercorn
Franz Von Peppercorn
2 years ago
Reply to  Kiat Huang

True. A post grad has to be earned.

Bill W
Bill W
2 years ago

And so does or did a place at Oxford when I went there which entailed a separate entrance examination from one’s A levels and if you passed that an interview in your chosen subject by in my case two fellows of the college. And of course there were a lot of disappointed people who didn’t get an interview or if they did, didn’t get a place.

Last edited 2 years ago by Bill W
Franz Von Peppercorn
Franz Von Peppercorn
2 years ago
Reply to  Bill W

Well can’t say.that I have been but do you think that standards have dropped?

Bill W
Bill W
2 years ago

When I went there were still quite a few people who had passed their 11 plus to get into grammar schools even if said grammar had become comps in the interim. Also O and A levels then not only didn’t have any course work in most cases if not all. Also A levels and I think O levels were norm referenced for marking. Also as mentioned you had to pass an entrance exam which I think was dropped later (maybe for only some subjects] and has I think since been reinstated. Also all male colleges had or were opening up to women. So I think standards were high and being driven up. A lot has changed since then. The students that followed my intake seemed a lot more dedicated. The educational reforms paradoxically initially favoured private over state schools. I imagine there may well be more foreign undergrads given their increased representation in British private schools. The percentage of firsts have shot up and no one gets a third these days. With regards post grads, it was very variegated in my day ie a mixture of people who did their first degree at Oxford and other British universities and foreign students. The educational scene has changed a lot. From personal experience it is a harder in some respects and easier in other ways.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
2 years ago
Reply to  Bill W

Just look at maths. Old O Level included calculus, GSCE does not. Then big drop was post 1988. Something like 60 to 70 % of the the post 1988 Further Maths A Level was in the pre 1988 Maths A levels syllabus.
Also schools allowed pupils to take exams one to two years early. University scholarship/ Oxbridge exams were basically first year university standard. Many Grammar and Public Schools took A Levels in Lower 6th and Upper 6th was first year university standard. This meant UK graduates from top universities could graduate at the age of 20 years with the same academic standard as someone with a masters from an American or Continental university who was 22 to 25 years of age. Noone can buy time. In science the major breakthroughs are often done by people in their early twneties.

Bill W
Bill W
2 years ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

Yes. We took “O” level Maths a year early in the fourth form and additional Maths O level in the fifth form. Also S level in Sixth form alongside A levels.

Max Beran
Max Beran
2 years ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

Did we really do calculus for O level? I seem to remember a sort of graphical precursor to it via gradients, maybe even of a polynomial, but differentiation as a limiting process – I rather think not. Nor did integration figure as I recall. But this was 66 years ago so I could be wrong. At King Edwards in B’ham O levels were taken very early – I think 3 years in – and in just 4 compulsory subjects including Latin. One could accumulate more later but (a) this was considered slightly infra-dig* and (b) the syllabus narrowed quickly culminating by the sixth form with almost total immersion (Maths in my case)
* Posh people don’t do “showy”.

Last edited 2 years ago by Max Beran
Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
2 years ago
Reply to  Max Beran

Yes, there were two syllabi at Maths O level, one included calculus.

Bill W
Bill W
2 years ago
Reply to  Max Beran

It is interesting how your O levels were spread. As mentioned we only did one O level a year early (Maths, and the syllabus included differentiation and calculus) and the driver for that was fit additional Maths O level alongside other O levels in the fifth form to prepare those going on to do A level Maths Physics etc.
Interestingly, an Etonian I met at my uni interview told me like you they took a clutch of O levels much earlier on so they could focus on intended A level subjects much earlier.

Last edited 2 years ago by Bill W
Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago
Reply to  Kiat Huang

My husband had a scholarship to Cambridge where he studied Natural Sciences (physics was his particular subject) and he tells me that, although there were some, most were not “posh” students, however there were a larger proportion of such students in the humanities at that time. He also added that those in the humanities seemed to have more time to attend demos and go on marches, he was at university in 1968.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
2 years ago

I studied both humanities and sciences at different points in my life. Whilst not Oxbridge I did do my first humanities at a mid-to-low level Russel Group university (despite four As at A level). Owing to the oversubscription of courses with the fee changes that were introduced in 2005 I didn’t receive a place where I wanted – and the fact that humanities courses were heavily oversubscribed anyway. The whole process of applying and being rejected by these universities left a bad taste about the way they go about selecting people.
I didn’t enjoy it at all, in no small part because of the author’s remark about how mediocre many of the private school student types I met there were – many were there as back ups for not going to Oxford. The lecturers were massive and impersonal and I had little contact with them. The author is lucky to have had such one-to-one interactions, for me I effectively felt isolated and mentally dropped out, studying what I felt like regardless of the course and scraping by. It was then I started self-teaching myself mathematics, a subject I enjoyed when I was much younger having been put of by the terrible teaching of these subjects that is all-to-common in the UK and my school not offering me the opportunity to study Further Maths. From this I taught myself the subject, started working as a bookkeeper and did evening classes in London, travelling in every day, to study Computer Science. The combination of mature students, evening classes and studying sciences was like night and day. I found people who were engaged, interesting and working hard at the subject. I made friends with people who were brilliant. I shouldn’t complain as it set me up for a better life – some of the people I know who studied like me ended up in a spiral of precariousness, including my brother, by studying the humanities and not having anything useful to show for it at the end. When my child goes to secondary school I will try to, unlike my parents, set an expectation of studying hard at STEM and either going to university to study maths, physics, engineering, computer science or medicine or apprenticing in something useful not ‘what you like’. That can be done in one’s free time with books. Finding a satisfactory job and role is a matter for a lifetime.

Last edited 2 years ago by Ferrusian Gambit
Linda Hutchinson
Linda Hutchinson
2 years ago

I’m glad to hear about another who loved mathematics. I too studies both science (physics) and humanities, (Classics, and some Early Medieval History, i.e. the Anglo-Saxon period) and I enjoyed both. I do admire people who studied the way you did, and I know how hard it can be especially to do STEM subjects that way. I did my Classics MA as a mature student, mostly as a distance student, and my Early Medieval History certificate at week-ends at the Cambridge Extra-mural College.

It’s interesting what you say about mature students; I have spoken to university lecturers who prefer mature students, they say that generally they are more engaged and more challenging; they won’t accept everything that the lecturer says without question. These lecturers like to be kept on their toes, and mature studants do this. I once read of an OU tutor in Social Sciences who was teaching her first tutorial (on vandalism) and when she asked the students to introduce themselves she had a police inspector, a probation office, a social worker, and a youth worker in her group. Her first reaction was OMG what can I possibly teach these people, but she said it was one of her best teaching experiences with so much knowledge and experience being exchanged.

Peter Joy
Peter Joy
2 years ago

That mirrors my Cambridge experience 30+ years ago. At my College, I think every single NatSci was State schooled, generally Northern. Almost every Humanities and Vet Med student was ex-Public School, generally from Surrey or Kingston-upon-Thames.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
2 years ago
Reply to  Kiat Huang

“Northern chemists” was the traditional sneer thrown at STEM students by the likes of Cameron, Osborne or BoJo during their time at Oxford.

David McDowell
David McDowell
2 years ago

Why republish this? The elephant in the room here is what meritocracy entails for those who inherit advantages disproportionate to their intellects. How do we create a system that forces out the less adequate offspring of successful parents so that the brilliant children of disadvantaged parents can take the best jobs?

Last edited 2 years ago by David McDowell
Jeremy Bray
Jeremy Bray
2 years ago
Reply to  David McDowell

There was a system. The Grammar School and proper discipline at school. The author shouldn’t have had to wait for his girl friend to encourage him to go to University. I Q testing for all pupils might be a start.
As for the waste of working class talent generally the Germans have a proper apprentice system so that decent artisanal talent is encouraged.

Jonathan Story
Jonathan Story
2 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

Exactly. The disaster in UK education was the downgrading of apprenticeships, particularly under the Wilson government.

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
2 years ago
Reply to  Jeremy Bray

German is going down hill and probably the Austrian as well. Swiss appears to be steady. Swiss have told me in the decline of punctuality and cleanliness of trains from Germany.

Peter Joy
Peter Joy
2 years ago
Reply to  Charles Hedges

What do you expect? Germany has fewer and fewer Germans in it.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago

I like this author. I’ve read his book A Shepherd’s Life and know the Lake District well.

There is much in what he says but

“and resisted every well-meant attempt to change us.”

“In our world, if you spoke self-importantly, people told you to shut the f**k up.”

“I was from people with lots of excuses for not doing things out of the ordinary.”

There is an unfortunate element of working class (British?) culture that demands conformity to a low bar. The education system is part of fixing that, but it is a much wider and more complex issue.

James would be better analysing what causes those quotes (and why he’s obviously proud of them) than deriding the so called “posh kids” culture.

I don’t know what solutions might be but it seems obvious our current obsession with victim hood is sending us in the exact opposite direction.

Martin Bollis
Martin Bollis
2 years ago
Reply to  Martin Bollis

That took 24 hrs to get through moderation, presumably for quoting the article!

Christopher Chantrill
Christopher Chantrill
2 years ago

Of course, this raises the question of what on earth are the schools and the unis for?
Other than providing sinecures for regime supporters,

Nicky Samengo-Turner
Nicky Samengo-Turner
2 years ago

Had they been really ‘ posh’ they would not have been snobbish, not least because you came from a farming background: I suspect that your socio demographic research was not quite up to understanding that they were actually jumped up home counties sons and daughters of so called ” professionals” whose parents were undoubtably nearer working class than anything else…. posh has become a somewhat misused term, like ‘ racist’- you should have applied the acid test of taking them into your local farming pub. The truly ‘ posh’ would have a great time, chatting to herdsmen, fencers, and farm labourers…. the faux posh would be found out in seconds…

Ray Hall
Ray Hall
2 years ago

Enjoyable article . I agree that there is a lot of untapped talent in the working class . I wonder if other countries avoid our wastage of talent
But when did you take your finals ? The penultimate paragraph is not clear .

dlongenecker1
dlongenecker1
2 years ago

As an American, my experience of Oxford was not dissimilar. I soon picked up on the social snobbery and will never forget a punting party at which Eric from some city “oop North” invited the girls from Lady Margaret Hall to sit on the “grahss”. He was instantly corrected by one of the snobbish gals saying, “Oh Eric, shouldn’t you say “gress”?

Jerry Smith
Jerry Smith
2 years ago
Reply to  dlongenecker1

When I was at Uni in the late 60s I had a friend who explained that the town he was from had three names. “Herrow, Harrow and ‘Arrer. I’m from Harrow”

Charles Hedges
Charles Hedges
2 years ago
Reply to  dlongenecker1

There was an occasion where a guest drank the water from the finger bowl. Her Majesty immediately did likewise to make sure there was no embarrassment.Gentility is about making people feel relaxed.
The landowners grow up with the village children, playing cricket with them and going to war, just look at memorials in churches; landowner and labourer died together. The arriviste nouveau riche mercantile urban types tend to be the snobs. I remember talking to a very tough bare knuckle boxer and rugby player who drank with the local landowner who was an earl as had his Father and Grandfather; they both had contempt for the Down From London Types.
What is ignored is that aristocracy started off as reward for courage on the battlefield. When it comes to wealth, those who have aquired it because of courage in war have a reputation to live up to; the family motto. Those who have aquired wealth through dubious means only have money to distinguish them from the poor. The Scottish clan Chiefs have positions based upon their ancestors courage, not dodgy business deals.

Dapple Grey
Dapple Grey
2 years ago

The author has certainly learned how to express the chip on his shoulder in various different ways.

MJ Reid
MJ Reid
2 years ago

As a working class woman, I loved university even though I went to a red brick Scottish one, when I was 38. Some fellow students had been undergrads at Oxbridge. Their collective experience seemed to be that passing at uni was about who you knew not what you know. Big shock then when they found out that in red brick it is what you know, not who you know. I passed in the top 5% – MSc- having never been to uni before in my life.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago

I don’t know any personally, the well off kids have that many opportunities given to them (top schools, work contacts, financial backing etc) that you have to actively try to fail to go from riches to rags

J Bryant
J Bryant
2 years ago

I remember this article and enjoyed re-reading it.
I wonder if the wokeism so fervently adopted by the UK’s elite universities (and US elite colleges) will throw a wrench in the public school-Oxbridge-City of London conveyor belt?
Isn’t the main point of wokeism to end white privilege and make reparations? Shouldn’t the flow of public school types (and even white, working class men like the author) be ended because of their history as oppressors? Shouldn’t those well connected kids of business tycoons, or from royal families, be discriminated against in the name of justice?
Woke logic would seem to dictate that conclusion, but I won’t hold my breath.

Bryan Dale
Bryan Dale
2 years ago

But what has he done? Is writing for UnHerd actually more useful than labouring on a farm?

Julie Blinde
Julie Blinde
2 years ago
Reply to  Bryan Dale

Do you want an honest answer, or an answer that will boost circulation ?
I don’t think the ‘Herd bubble has a view on this one

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
2 years ago
Reply to  Bryan Dale

I’d wager writing for UnHerd isn’t his only job

Edward De Beukelaer
Edward De Beukelaer
2 years ago

…. maybe the elephant in the room is in society not seemingly to be prepared to pay for a well organised, good and honest education for all: primary and secondary school where teachers can feel they can make a difference rather than having to be stuck between rules and reports in poor buildings. Society (we) must me stupid: because education (all forms of education, not juts university) is what makes society function and become better.
Note: I suspect many of the well-off children get their well-off jobs because of who they know rather than what they know. This happens at all levels of society, but some of us have more or less helpful connections…
(Ps one of my children went to Oxford: I did not get the same feed back from her as this writer proposes in this piece)

Last edited 2 years ago by Edward De Beukelaer
Kiat Huang
Kiat Huang
2 years ago

I for one think this article has a positive and useful message: try academic study and if you enjoy it, try hard, do everything to land yourself in the best, most appropriate institution possible. Do not need put off by historical accident of birth or social movements. And for parents, be prepared and supportive of your child if they decide to try.

Oxford and Cambridge are, with obvious exceptions, where there country wants our brightest and best young people to go to study and live. These are elite, world class institutions and England should be proud of them, just as Scotland is particularly proud of Edinburgh and Aberdeen, though plenty of Scots go down south to go up to them (as many English go the other way too).

The intelligence, determination and self-awareness of the writer is clear. And he is in the minority of the country’s students in that year, who would be able to thrive and prosper at Oxford. It was a privilege and fascinating for a couple of years, as a postgrad, to invigilate and mark a proportion of the aspirng student applicants there – and tremendously exciting when we came across novel or particularly elegant ways of approaching and solving problems. A strong showing at examination was entirely on merit – demographics was not an influence. And strong students benefit so much from having other strong students around them.

N T
N T
2 years ago

what a pleasant read.

jonathan carter-meggs
jonathan carter-meggs
2 years ago

It is still considered a success to improve your standing in society compared to your origins. Intelligence and financial success are still seen as marks of a superior human package, second only to extreme beauty. This hierarchy maintains an elite class and is unalterable by humans.

Iris C
Iris C
2 years ago

The fact that he spent four boring years in Secondary School is what got me with this article..
The problem is that the teachers are all taught to teach traditional subjects which do not inspire adolescents who are not academic. Much better if they chose well-written books that appeal to that age group rather than the modern classics; taught history, science and geography through focused quizzes encouraging competition. taught some of them to design and make clothes they can wear; to make hair or skincare products with aromatherapy; to take an old motorbike to bits, clean and reassemble it; to play sport and learn about their bodies; the musical to write music and play an instrument; and the arty to find their niche; . .All these things would make school less boring and make their lives richer in the ever-increasing leisure years to come.
I am sure the author of your article could refine and add to what I have written. .
.

Alison Wren
Alison Wren
2 years ago
Reply to  Iris C

I think that’s what we used to have before the (Gove)ernment interfered and gave us the National Curriculum
 as a PGCE student in 1968 we learnt about history, philosophy, sociology of education so we knew why we were teaching secondary kids. After 50 years at the chalkface I know exams (science specifically) are so much easier than they were, and kids generally so much unhappier. We have a huge social problem to solve.

Kathleen Stern
Kathleen Stern
2 years ago
Reply to  Alison Wren

Totally agree. The political interference forced much more cramming at AS and A levels and squeezed out time for more fun ways to experience literature. The enjoyment of subjects is fostered by a range of ways to approach not just more and more exams.

Ferrusian Gambit
Ferrusian Gambit
2 years ago

Even though she went to university, an unimportant detail, isn’t that Mary Harrington?

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago

This guy sounds like a bit of an arse with a massive chip on his shoulder! A boorish class snobbery verging on hatred is no better coming from some supposedly more authentic working class person than a ‘posh’ one.

Peter Joy
Peter Joy
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

Way, way too harsh.