Mistaken identity

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The fast train from Paddington allows those not fortunate enough to inhabit our world to get close enough to peer in. They ingest voraciously from guidebooks entitled ‘Oxford: ville universitaire’, or ‘Oxford in a day’, in order to attempt an understanding of what it is that makes this institution the most famous seat of learning in the world. One would hope that they were being fed what we consider to be the realities of our world, but overhearing their conversations can be a little unsettling, particularly if we are inclined to associate ourselves closely with Oxford and its reputation. A well-built American applying to the Said business school could recently be heard agonising about whether or not he should mention his strongly Republican views. Meanwhile a French couple discussed Iraq, hypothesising as to whether it was in Oxford that they might find the roots of Britain’s conservative foreign policies. The Oxford of today chases political correctness with the enthusiasm of a New Labour apparatchik, with OUSU and the university itself emphasising equal opportunities this and diversity that. And rightly so. One would be hard pressed to find a dissenter against the relatively simple concept that a university, like our society, is a wonderfully broad church. Wandering the halls of the Exam Schools during freshers’ fair one was confronted with a menagerie of interests ranging from the occasionally offensive (OUCA), to the possibly battering (Tai Kwan Do). It is, in a sense, heartening to find us being accused of all things, at least in the place of one. Perhaps it allows us the opportunity to really feel part of this place, whatever and whoever we are, but in hoping that outsiders see the realities of our world, one would imagine that we had some vague concept of what that world really is. Therein lies the problem, for as we diversify, it is difficult to argue that we do not also dilute. Clearly the national press, as it constantly searches for stories to perpetuate myths that the general public enjoy, has little interest in portraying Oxford as a modern university, and while we can rant and rail at this cliche, who can really blame them? Who wants to talk about an Oxford that is Warwick with tutorials; maybe embracing our past isn’t such a bad idea after all. At least then we would know where we stand. In the 19th century, Oxford was inextricably associated with the conservative elite, and while it would be harsh conjecture to impose such a reputation upon all members of the University at the time, it was certainly something to hold on to.There is no doubt that we continue to turn out the great and the good, from Blair to Clinton, or even Thatcher and Murdoch, but no longer do they fit a certain mould. One of our most famous sons, Gladstone, dominated this university as president of the Union and a decorated scholar, and became its MP for a period in the mid-19th century. But by the time he became a Liberal Prime Minister, he had deserted those views which he held so strongly as he left Oxford. It had taken the real world to make him what he really was. It is unlikely that such a transition could be so marked today, leaving us wondering whether, with the erosion of whatever identity this place had, we leave with anything more than merely an education.ARCHIVE: 1st week MT 2005

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