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