Why so serious?
The irony is not lost on me. Writing in Cherwell (‘Oxford’s Independent Student Newspaper since 1920’, didn’t you know), ostensibly presenting myself as an ‘important’ journalistic ‘voice’ with some valid commentary about Oxford life; I myself am no doubt symptomatic of Oxford’s sense-of-jocularity-failure (in my defence, I had considered doing the piece in crayon in mitigation). Hypocrisy aside, we ought to recognise that we have a serious problem (one which is perhaps better characterised as a ‘seriousness’ problem). Oxford University is full of people who take themselves far too seriously. Just look around you. So many of us get caught up in the fiction that is university life: Union hacks, JCR politicians, student journos, over-enthusiastic beer-boat coaches, not to mention budding DJs. We’re cultivating an atmosphere of pretentious self-importance, which serves simultaneously to ramp up the pressures of student life while seriously damaging our collective sense of humour.
The lists of BNOCs gracing the pages of the student press last week were indicative of this problem. I don’t doubt that the lists themselves were produced in the spirit of good hearted fun, but there is something about the culture of ‘Big Name on Campus’ which reeks of egotism and pomposity; a little self-deprecation would not go amiss. A large problem is the way in which we view extracurricular activities at Oxford. They are often the prisms through which we view ourselves, and as such they tend to magnify our perceived self-importance.
Of course, there are many great activities to get involved with while at university, and I am by no means intending to belittle the enjoyment that many people derive from them (I am writing for a student newspaper after all!). However, there is a risk that we take these things too seriously. It can be tempting to see them as the proving grounds in which our later lives will be determined. As such, we begin to treat them with stony-faced solemnity, unable to laugh occasionally at the absurdity of it all. And then of course, we fail to laugh at ourselves. We are no longer ‘Fred Bloggs, jovial student and hobbyist’. We’re the self-styled ‘Fred Bloggs, JCR Chair, accomplished playwright and important Union official’.
University is supposed to be about fun. The inconvenient truth is that many in student societies probably spend far more time concerned with the impact that their participation will have on their CVs, rather than on the enjoyment of the thing itself. In any event, most of what we pride as being of paramount importance will be fairly irrelevant outside the dreaming spires. All we achieve in the pursuit of seriousness is ramping up the pressure on ourselves, which is particularly unhelpful given the other thing we tend to be guilty of treating far too seriously: our academic work. Being studious is a good attribute, and I’m definitely not promoting idleness where work is concerned, but it’s not the end of the world if that essay gets a 2:2.
I was recently shocked at a sense-of-humour failure when it comes to having a laugh at our own expense. I greatly enjoyed an article in this very paper a last week. It was titled ‘Degrees of Stupidity’. A piece of satire, I showed it to a friend of mine. It was met with a look of extreme contempt, as if it were outrageous even to make good-humoured jokes at the expense of a certain subject. In this case, the subject was English, with the piece having been written by a self-deprecating English student. But the critic would not relent. Some things, it seems, should never be joked about. And this includes our degrees.
In seriousness, as with all things, there is a balance to be struck. The only thing worse than an over-serious student, is one to whom everything is joke – the ‘post-something’ hipster, who inhabits a world where everything is an ironic comedy sketch. But of course, this merely gives way to seriousness of another kind. After all, it’s difficult to imagine someone who frequently invokes the word ‘meta’ as being prone to self-deprecation.
And the solution to our culture of overseriousness? I’d urge you to think on the evergenial Louis Trup. I’m not saying that we’d all do well to emulate him in every respect, but it can’t be denied – he never takes himself too seriously. Louis has shown that it’s possible to spend a year at the apex of one of our most ‘serious’ institutions without developing a God complex. What we need is a renaissance of irreverence. For everyone to step back for a minute and reassess the way in which we view things, and have a laugh at our own expenses while doing so. Even VERSA, with its scathing mockery of our institutions, can tell us a thing or two about the triviality of much of what goes on at this place. As Thomas Szasz astutely noted, “When a person can no longer laugh at himself, it is time for others to laugh at him.” Time to lighten up Oxford. Why so serious?
We live and work in a very peculiar environment. Ignoring Cambridge (as we so often do), the structure of our terms, our workload and the ways in which we spend our spare time can often be quite different to most people in the modern world.
In particular, one can point to the seriousness which we attach to our work and the activities we pursue: the Union, the political societies, the Guild, the newspapers, the sports clubs and so on. What is certainly true is that it is so easy to become wrapped up in this notion that the tiny, peculiar microcosm we live in is in some ways like the real world.
The proponent of the argument that we take ourselves too seriously, however, has plenty of examples to reel off why this isn’t the case. They’ll say we’re deluded to think of ourselves as revolutionaries in our protests, naïve to think that as student journalists we are breaking important news, or vacuous in our attempts at securing positions within the Union. Indeed, in each they’ll point to the vast differences between these student roles and their ‘real world’ counterparts to argue that we are fools to think that what we do matters.
I can’t deny, even as one of those so-called ‘student journalists’, that we sometimes feel as if we are something larger and more important than we actually are. We can be so consumed by our own goals that we forget the bigger picture. This, I take it, is what the critic is saying when we are labelled ‘too serious’.
But even if this is the case, there are plenty of reasons to support the position of the ‘serious student’.
Firstly, we actually can be more than just ‘mere’ students. Like it or not, the Union and its membership has seen almost unmatched success in producing successful public figures. Past presidents include the likes of Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Tony Benn, Michael Foot and Benazir Bhutto. For those of the Union persuasion, of which I do not count myself, the prospects are very tangible and very real.
In student journalism too, the effects of the coverage on the Oxford community and beyond are quite impressive. In recent events, the #NotGuilty campaign initiated by this newspaper has captured the interest of people not just nationally but internationally too. The Oxford-related, and particularly University-related, stories that student journalists bring do attract significant interest.
So on this front, when people claim that we take ourselves seriously, especially in terms of those things we do outside our degree work, they may have a point. But we are serious because what we do does matter. We curate debates, protests, art and narratives that are disseminated far wider than just the confines of our friendship groups.
And quite often, this interest actually originates from outside of our bubble. Whether we like it or not, and whether we can control it or not, there is an external interest in the activities of Oxford students. We’re constantly ranked against others in a way that perhaps other universities and institutions are not – it is expected of us. Vying for top spot on degree league rankings against Cambridge is a veritable pastime for people both within and outside of ‘the bubble’.
What we say and what we do just does attract the attention of the wider community. We are not the only students in this country, nor are we the only students with new ideas and radical proposals. Yet, because of the unique history and place of Oxford in the wider narrative of the UK, we cannot help but attract this focus. That we, therefore, take ourselves seriously is no surprise. We do so for fear of catching the ire of others, but moreover because that is what others expect us to do.
More importantly, though, the ‘serious student’ should be defended because taking ourselves seriously is just a matter of showing commitment to those things, as individuals, that we care about. To say that we’re taking ourselves too seriously is to say that we are misguided in this.
We are, simply by existing within the Oxford system, serious. We have to be: it is a work hard, play hard environment. To say that those who play the university version of quidditch (again, not me) are too serious about their sport only makes sense if we see quidditch as somehow removed from what makes someone’s life go well for them. But for the quidditch player it does matter, and therefore to them being serious about it is, to a greater or lesser extent, important.
If you enjoy writing news articles, then to take seriously student journalism just makes sense. The same applies to the Union, art groups, sports teams and all the other weird and wonderful societies that exist at this institution. More than in any other area, perhaps, it applies to those who take their degree work seriously.
When people complain that Oxford students take themselves too seriously, they imply that what we are doing is somehow misguided or worse. But such arguments fundamentally obscure what is so true of most of us: that what we take seriously is what we enjoy.
So what if others rue the Union or think that student journalism has no real impact? Similarly, so what if someone derides the student who revels in their philosophy work? What matters is that what the individual gets out of these activities is worthwhile to them.
Accusations of being too serious place too much weight on some kind of objective notion of what is the right way to do things for the individuals that do them. We should eschew the notion of being too serious. Even if we are serious, who cares? We’re having a great time being so.