College rivalries: good for life at university?

Colin Donnelly argues that college rivalries are an important building block of the culture in Oxford, whereas Antonio Gottardello claims they are a relic from the past

YES: College rivalries form an integral part of the culture in Oxford and therefore should be preserved

Colin Donnelly

Tutorials, punting, gazing wistfully across the dreaming spires while writing vaguely pathetic romantic poetry. Staying up through the night to write an essay. Staggering past the Rad Cam at four in the morning in rapidly dissembling black tie bellowing a song to which half the words elude memory’s grasp. Despising the Tabs. Despising one’s rival college. These are the experiences that, for many, define Oxford. They are what sets the place apart from the many other excellent universities around the world.

Some hopelessly modern fringe elements within our university criticise intercollegiate rivalries on the grounds that they needlessly separate and divide students. This, like so much of what is sold to us as “progress”, is hogwash, and will be quickly recognised as such by most Oxford students.

It is perfectly possible to practice St. Augustine’s famous admonition to act, “Cum dilectione hominum et odio vitiorum” (which translates as “Love the sinner, but hate the sin”) with regard to college rivalries as well.

In my first week of university, I remember being taught of the historic wickedness of St. John’s, and their most loathsome and evil acts which began its rivalry with my college, Keble.

Yet I know many students guilty of the most appalling and wretched sin of belonging to St. John’s college. Perhaps surprisingly, they are nonetheless perfectly nice people. Friendships have formed even where college rivalries divide and, indeed, these rivalries provide an easy and constant source of conversation.

Moreover, college rivalries ground students in the history of the university and of the communities they inhabit. When Keble was founded in honour of the wise churchman John Keble on land purchased from St. John’s, the students of St. John’s consumed with avarice and prone to causeless war. They formed the Destroy Keble Society, which aimed to tear down the infant college brick by brick, and succeeded in stealing several pieces of the original structure. Ever since this unprovoked, unwarranted, and coldblooded aggression there has been conflict between the two neighbours.

Other Oxford colleges have similar tales. That’s good. There’s a reason such creation stories and moral tales exist in each and every human society right across the world: these stories are an essential part of community building.

In the USA, where I am from, the invocation of a Founding Father carries tremendous moral weight, because all Americans grew up on stories of their intellectual prowess, battlefield cunning, and indomitable courage. The voracity of these stories is immaterial. The fact is that society requires such shared heritage as is preserved through these tales to function. It acts as a binding agent, sealing together otherwise diverse and disparate individuals, and allowing them to function as a collective whole. This is as true of an Oxford college of a few hundred as of a superpower of three-hundred million.

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As society pushes forward, we must be wary not to leave these essential cultural ties behind. Those who believe that preservation of culture is merely a wishy-washy issue of significance are sorely mistaken. Culture is essential to the proper functioning of society.

Indeed, there is concrete evidence that, even today, these abstract elements of culture have serious impacts on things like the economy. In a 2006 paper given at Princeton University, the Italian economist Guido Tabellini argued that regional culture and history “is an important determinant of current economic performance” specifically with regard to the different regions of Italy. Looking more broadly, he found that certain cultural traits, “strongly correlated not only with the economic development of European regions, but also with economic development and institutional outcomes in a broad sample of countries.”

Culture is not simply a collection of feelings and nostalgic half-truths clung to by the old and the old-fashioned, but an essential cause of societal success and societal failure. College rivalries have long formed an integral part of the culture of Oxford University, a culture which has produced unparalleled success. We would do well to leave them in place.


NO: College rivalries shouldn’t be maintained for the sake of tradition: they fail to add to student life Oxford

Antonio Gottardello

As the barred windows of Jesus and Exeter will testify, college rivalries were once certainly an important feature of inter-collegiate life, and one of the utmost seriousness. The tension has since evaporated, and even Brasenose has ceased to care for Lincoln’s centuries-old refusal to shelter one of its students, which resulted in the death of this poor Brasenostril in a mob beating. Yet, the dissolving of any real animosity, has left a residuum of puerility, as annoying to dispose of as the idea itself.

It is common knowledge, or, perhaps, common cliché that one goes to university ‘to find oneself’, and become a distinct individual with a distinct personality. Yet, this banality doesn’t appear to be deep-rooted enough. Many embrace rivalries they truly do not care about, just because that seems to be the practice. While this objection could be raised to any demographic with any sense of camaraderie, and the need to be ‘part of something’ is just as important as distinguishing oneself from the group, inter-collegiate rivalries are perhaps the most boring and empty expression of this there can be. I would be a hypocrite if I wouldn’t admit to, on liquor-fuelled occasions, singing along to my own college’s elegant and articulated “Shit on, shit on, shit on Magdalen’. On some occasions, this harmless custom can be even fun, but the very fact that one must lower his or her cognitive abilities to enjoy such boring and repetitive quasi-rituals is quite telling.

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And yet, at times the seemingly harmless can take an unexpected turn for the worse. In 2010, a group of Balliol students poisoned and killed all but one of the Trinity fish by pouring detergent in the pond. Certainly, such behaviour was an exception and a mistake. However, the series of practical jokes inflicted on rival colleges are, simply, terribly unfunny and unoriginal.

Back when college rivalries were heartfelt, the practical jokes were somewhat amusing and even ambitious. Pembroke’s cow-painting adventures at the expenses of the Christ Church herd is an example. Comparing these sorts of old-fashioned pranks and tricks, with the laughable ones being conducted now, the word ‘sad’ springs to mind. College rivalries and their practical jokes are simply one of those things which should either be taken seriously, or shouldn’t be done at all.

College rivalries are certainly a distinctive feature of Oxford. One can hardly have a centuries-old university without some old nuisances that just seem to cling on, just as one can hardly be a hiker without suffering from blisters at some point. But this doesn’t mean they should be maintained and perpetuated, just because of the legitimacy given to it by time. Nor does it mean that they should be kept alive for tradition’s sake.

Even if ignoring and scorning college rivalries does cause a historical amnesia, when has anyone gazed upon Oxford, and thought it wasn’t traditional enough? At times we cherish such practices, often so boring it is almost hard to write on them.

But if the truth is to be said, aside from some rugby and rowing rivalries, college rivalries remain an ignored and minimal aspect of one’s time at Oxford.

The fact that they do not, in any way, constitute a real feature of student life at Oxford displays the fact that they genuinely fail to add anything to the ‘Oxford experience’. Loud chants and poor quality pranks simply do not seem to interest Oxonians. In this matter, traditional rivalries don’t ruin one’s experience in any way. But while they are not a detriment per se, they linger on, not adding anything to the social scene of the university, like an ugly accessory, wasting space while not adding any beauty or utility.

But traditions at Oxford do not need to take the form of rivalries. Interestingly enough, some of the most famous and peculiar traditions at Oxford do not stem from rivalries, but from attempts to extinguish them. Still today, Lincoln College, on Ascension Day, serves Brasenose free drinks as an apology for the perviously mentioned occurrence. Now, how is this less historical or entertaining than nicking a plate?

College rivalries are simply a relic of the past, kept alive by laughable escapades, which embarrass more than they commemorate.