There is a scene in the movie Goodwill hunting where the working class genius played by Matt Damon pokes fun at some arrogant college students in a bar, knowing a lot more about their subject than they do. They laughed at his friends for their rudeness and stupidity, but they ended up leaving with their tails between their legs.
I’m no genius, but I do know something about the social dynamics of this scene, because I kind of experienced it.
All of my friends got hard jobs when they were fifteen or sixteen. For us, the students were the middle class kids who didn’t work and then left for college. They never really came back, or if they did, they came back just to lead us. Our house, for them, was something shitty to escape from. In their world, everyone chatted endlessly as if everything they had to say was fascinating. In our world, if you were talking in a big way, people would tell you to shut up. They weren’t thinking of us; we thought nothing of them.
My experience in secondary education was not good. I sat for five years in a crumbling room with thirty other bored working class children. There were brawls in the halls, bullying, shoplifting around town during recess. We threw things at teachers, dragged our feet and bags between classes, and resisted any well-meaning attempt to change ourselves. Often disillusioned and half-broken teachers did their best to keep it all together. I hated. I left as soon as I could without showing anything.
My education may have ended there, but a decade later my girlfriend convinced me to go back to school. I obtained my baccalaureate by taking evening classes in an adult education center. A teacher there suggested that I apply to college. I decided to give it a go. I didn’t tell my friends anything.
I was building a drystone wall by the side of a road, thinking about which through stone was best, when the postman stopped to hand me a letter. He was a boy I went to school with. I opened it while chatting with him, and he looked baffled when I told him the letter said I had entered Oxford University. “But you’re fat like me,” he said.
After he left with a friendly wave, I thought, “How am I going to tell everyone? Was I about to become one of the people I had grown up hating? In fact, my people were proud of me and encouraged me to go to war with the fancy people (they had seen Goodwill hunting too much).
I went for two main reasons, and neither of them were very nice. I went because our farm was in trouble and had become very claustrophobic and small, way too small for me and my dad, and because I needed a new boost: everyone I knew who had the money seemed to have gone to college. But I also liked books and liked the idea that you could study one subject and skip the rest, which was handy as I was useless in most subjects. But it was terrifying. I didn’t want to leave the place and the people I came from, or give up being who I was. I wanted to come back after, but had no plan on how this might work.
Going to an elite college exposed me to the people that made me most nervous: well-spoken and (supposedly) intelligent people. My first instinct was to flee this strange new world with its archaic traditions, funny language and strange social habits. But I was too proud to come home defeated, so I decided to fight instead. It didn’t take long for me to realize that chic kids were all leather shoes, woolen jackets, gossip and bullshit. I quickly ignored the idea that there were some clever mystical people out there who were better than me: I had now met them, I had faced them one on one, and they were often average. I could handle anything substantial. I had grown up among tough, outspoken people who liked to argue in smoky pubs, so the tutorials in Oxford seemed oddly familiar to me.
If I had been confined to a plastic chair and told to sit still and listen for an hour to someone who was not very interesting talk about a topic that was not to me not interested, I suspect I would have sloppy and badly driven, just like I did when I was a teenager. But Oxford was not like that. The teaching was personalized, flexible and interactive. This kind of system keeps people like me in the room, motivated and engaged. Children like me, who don’t thrive in school, can benefit from such attention, focus and belief. A good company would try to give it to them.
But chic kids still dominate these institutions. I learned when I was there that their thing was not some genuine superiority but pure conditioning. Their schools and families had taught them that college was as much a social rite of passage as it was an opportunity to learn. They were aiming high, in terms of ratings – and to be fair, they often worked really hard to achieve it. I was among the people with lots of excuses not to do things out of the ordinary; upscale children have embarked on their extraordinary future with their heads held high. No one I knew had that kind of polish and boast, but I quickly realized you could pretend. I looked at them and thought: if you can do some great things then why can’t I?
It was liberating to find that I was smart enough, if I worked hard. And I knew how to work hard, for hours, days, weeks and years. OK, my people did not do well in education or the professional white collar world, but we were proud farmers with a culture of effort. I just changed that mindset and applied it to education – something I didn’t realize was possible in school. I knew fancy kids couldn’t outdo me. And the fact that they had failed a lot was a strength, in the face of their easy but fragile confidence. I knew how to get up. People from more disadvantaged backgrounds than mine often lack this self-confidence. But what if they were surrounded by people and institutions waiting for them and helping them to excel, like crested children?
Much of these are self-fulfilling prophecies. For years the university worked because we thought it worked. He turned out âsmartâ people for âsmartâ jobs with good wages, and sent the rest to the mine, factory or farm. No one asked if these students were really the smartest people. The system just confirmed the benefits of the birth and history. My strange and totally atypical journey exposed me to the extremes of the British education system. It left me with complicated feelings about what universities can and cannot do.
A lot of people treat you differently when they think you are an Oxford graduate than when they think you are a farm laborer. They speak to you differently. They don’t talk to you anymore. They invite you to their home and try to befriend you. They talk about books. Part of this may be based on not unreasonable assumptions. Some of them are just lazy snobbery. I knew people who looked down on me or my friends because they thought we weren’t very bright or that we weren’t worth much. With these folks, I would unabashedly mention having been to Oxford to get them back a bit. It was like sprinkling fairy dust. They would back off as if I had said the password – or worse, laughed, when five minutes earlier they thought I was from the North, common and they didn’t know it anymore. Snobs and powerful “academic” references are fetishizing. I didn’t even graduate, but it didn’t matter. Once you’re in the club, the detail doesn’t matter. Just look at our main politicians. Boris Johnson would stack shelves at Aldi or work on the chippie if he was born in Hartlepool.
My story is sometimes seen as a story of misery to wealth. But I was not exceptional; I was lucky. The point of this story is that a society which is blind to the potential of so many of its young people is a wasteful, unfair and inefficient society. I look at the bookstore shelves and wonder where half the stories are. Where is the book of the girl who works in the laundry, the man who serves you at McDonald’s, the Romanian woman who cleans your hotel room, the guys who work on the railroads or on the construction site? We don’t care enough about these people because they aren’t heard, and they aren’t heard because we’re building a success machine that they don’t want to be a part of, or can’t access or use, or get away with. to allow. Instead of a just system, the machine produces titled mediocrities, born to be heard, born to rule.
And while universities strive to become more âaccessible,â there is little they can do. It may be too late when the children are eighteen. And if working class children don’t apply, what can an admissions system do?
About eighteen hours ago, I was sitting down to take my final exams. I did well. I probably could have stayed and become an academic, but I was drawn to my own landscape and my own work, to the place and the people who made me. Oxford didn’t do me, as a person or a writer, but I’ve been back over the years. The people who taught me once seem sad. They say it got worse: posh kids come in, use it, then go to work in the city.
And maybe all the debt this training demands means the kids are right to be mercenaries about it. Work hard, get grades, move to London, get the job done, get promoted, earn more, pay back. Love of the subject, creativity, risk taking and experimentation: these things seem marginal. I can see why people are skeptical of universities and angry with the elite. They are often no more than training camps for the stormtroopers of capitalism. Maybe I was lucky enough to go there when I did.
This article first appeared on May 31, 2021