An old acquaintance of mine has recently published a book that (rightly) acquired her a certain prominence in the left-leaning national press. She came a while back to talk at the Oxford Radical Forum, a broadly very impressive symposium of Marxist academics and critics, held annually in Wadham’s Ho Chi Min quad. I kept my distance, rightly or wrongly fantasising that, for all my hit-and-miss capacity for charm, she has long dismissed me as a capitalist sell-out, a traitor to the red-brick cause. I couldn’t resist checking her Facebook feed later, though. My only disappointment was with the all-too-easy obviousness of what she described as ‘future-leaders-of-industry nakedly drowning in their own piss’, which was merely one facet of Oxford’s celebration of its own ‘c+*^&*ness’ [sic.]. Now, I’ve paid my fair share of dues in lesser – including much lesser – universities. And, while insiting on the caché that comes from frequenting the university of life, I’ve also long tasted the bitterness of knowing I really should have got in here, which is compounded by teaching you and seeing what a massive difference this place makes. The average Oxford student is perenially haunted by the conviction that they didn’t deserve to get in; intellectually, most of you aren’t much better than the best students elsewhere. My resentment still subsides every time I write a reference and succumb to the sense of inadequacy that supervenes on seeing your CVs, though. Parental benevolence and privilege may have afforded a few of those internships, and for all I know your school magazines were written on loo roll with a turd on a stick. But horrific childhood trauma is also a cause of motivation in later life, and we try not to begrudge people that.
So should we all feel guilty about being here? One needn’t luxuriate in a sense of entitlement to avoid the other extreme of hiding behind low expectations. Candidates’ lack of ambition is a bigger obstacle to their coming here than their background, and much as the two are related, determination transcends the latter far more frequently than Oxford’s detractors like to pretend. Any British soap opera will tell you that narcissistically clinging to our misery is as obscenely British as the turrets I can see from my window. Semi-famous socialists should know better than to indulge it.