Junior Jeffrey Parker, a history major from Winston-Salem, N.C., is spending the spring semester in Oxford, England, after also spending the fall term there. Twice a month, he will share his experiences and observations from England as one of GW’s many expats. God save the Queen.
At GW, finding out my grades is a relatively simple procedure. I wake up and stumble through cyberspace with bleary eyes, trying to retrieve myriad passwords and pins from the mental fog that seems to persist until around 10 most mornings. I look at the results, and go back to sleep. This whole process takes five minutes, maybe.
Here, in order to get my grades (which also takes about five minutes, incidentally), I put on my dark charcoal suit, red paisley tie and my robes, and go have them read to me by a college official. Of course, the details of my grades aren’t interesting you at this point nearly as much as the robes, I’m guessing. Before you make a Harry Potter joke (no, really, it’s original, I’ve never heard that one before), these don’t look like robes so much as glorified vests. I wore one over my jean jacket the other day and I felt like an extra in a terrible biker movie. That said, they’re awfully attached to the robes here at Oxford. In addition to wearing them for our academic reviews (when we get our grades), we also wear them to the dining hall thrice a week. No one seems to mind, but it is compulsory. What this means is that, theoretically, they’d rather have us starve than have us show up on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Sundays unadorned.
Now, this would be a lovely segue into a column about how the Brits are obsessed with status and pomposity, and how they just don’t have the same sort of Jacksonian democracy we’re blessed to have in the States, God bless America, blah blah blah. The thing is, though, they’re not. In fact, the concept of the robes belies the experience I’ve had here. Oxford has a pretty deep sense of tradition, and the robes are part of that. They were probably there in 1624 (when Pembroke College was founded), and I’m guessing they’ll be there in 2624, too. Within the admittedly Burkean framework of the university, people just don’t seem to care as much about status.
Maybe I just don’t notice it, but I don’t see the brand obsession here that I see in America. I remember in a class at GW, while discussing Thorstein Veblen’s “The Theory of the Leisure Class” and the idea of conspicuous consumption, someone mentioned that they had recently seen a dog wearing a Burberry sweater. More disgusting than the anecdote is that people in my class thought it was cute. That’s not cute, that’s disgusting. Seriously, that dog was wearing something more expensive than anything I own, and there are people starving in D.C. But I digress. The point is, I don’t think I’d ever see that here, at least not to the same extent. This different (and frankly healthier) attitude is perhaps a function of England’s expansive welfare state. The creeping socialism all the good people at Fox News warn us about is quite real in England. The intention of such a society is that people might not become desperately poor. The side effect is that you’re not going to see as many obscenely rich people demanding Louis Vuitton iPod cases.
Despite this, there is a very real class consciousness here, although it seems a bit disingenuous. Among the 39 colleges within the university system, certain ones have more money and status than others, and the attitudes toward those differences manifest themselves in odd places, specifically sports. As part of the Pembroke Table Football Team (okay, I use “sports” here loosely), I just took a visit to St. Johns College. St. Johns, in addition to being one of the top academic colleges here, is also rich, or significantly richer than Pembroke. The buildings look like castles. Actually, in the interest of full disclosure, I should add that most of the buildings at Oxford look like castles, including some at Pembroke. St. Johns’ buildings just looked like significantly larger, better castles. Anyway, while walking there and walking back (after we annihilated them, I might add), talk invariably turned to how nice their campus was or how obscenely rich they were. At times I have to stop myself and realize that, while Pembroke is diverse, a lot of the people doing the woe-is-me class warfare bit are the sons and daughters of doctors and lawyers. I know most Marxists come from the bourgeoisie and not the proletariat they seek to represent, but this is ridiculous.
Certainly there is class strain at Oxford, but it’s between the students and the surrounding community, typified by students wandering around in droves wearing college scarves. Of course, this town-vs.-gown mentality is common everywhere the polis and the academy intersect. There is less obsession with the difference between Pembroke students and the workers on Cornmarket Street, though, than between the privileged students at Pembroke and the privileged students across the way at Christ Church. I think deep down everybody kind of knows that most of us are privileged, and as a result, we keep up the fa?ade of real difference in superficial ways, while ignoring actual differences that, while less pronounced than in the United States, do exist outside the college walls. No working-class heroes here, but they do a good job pretending until they become investment bankers.