I’ll Show You The Life Of The Mind

This account of an awful Oxford interview got a lot of attention recently. The process it describes is not so much an interview in any recognisable sense as a kind of upper-class hazing ritual, beginning with the bizarre seating arrangements

There are three people in the room; a woman is lying on a chaise longue by the door and, standing in the corner a man with a black moustache and curly hair, who I discover is the admissions tutor … There is an empty chair in the room, which when I sit makes me higher than everyone else, and behind this chair, slouched against a bookshelf, sits another man.

and continuing through the ‘shocking’, ‘outlandish’ questions thrown out to challenge the unsuspecting candidate

‘Why do you think people listen to the radio?’

This at least is a question I know the answer to …

“Erm, because they’re lonely.”

She smirks. Naive again, but what else should I say?

“So do you think that the radio should be under the auspices of the Social Services then?”

That kind of “épater les bienpensants” right-wingery seems an even clearer class marker than the chaise longue.

It rang a bell with Adam, even if his experience wasn’t quite so grotesquely awful:

 

For myself, I was warned by my English teachers that Oxbridge interviews were both tough and weird, with a kind of toughness and weirdness you might expect from gatekeepers of hundreds of years of privilege. One Cambridge interviewer supposedly used to sit reading the paper with his feet up on his desk, then glance across at the candidate and say, “Impress me”. My English teachers liked a good story – one of them specialised in stories beginning “When I was in the diplomatic corps” or “When I was in the SAS” – but even they never suggested that a college admissions interview might be conducted partly from behind the interviewee and partly from a chaise longue. Truth is stranger than fiction.

And yet. Perhaps the people I met at Cambridge had all been unusually lucky, but all that my wife recalls is a fairly ordinary office, with chairs at the same height, and a reasonably relaxed conversation (as much as it could be) about Macbeth’s moral universe, with a rather posh but friendly old man. (She’d applied to Cambridge as a lower sixth-form student at a college in Preston.) My best friend at the time had a slightly harder time of it; his specialist topic was Keats, and he’d armed himself with several quotations from the “Ode to Autumn” – which he confidently sourced to the “Ode to Melancholy”. He didn’t help his case, when the interviewer politely suggested that they turn to the “Ode to Autumn”, by insisting that it was the “Ode to Melancholy” he wanted to talk about. Still, he got in too. Me, I didn’t have an interview – I never found out whether it was in recognition of my performance in the college entrance exam or just an oversight.

Several years later – clearly – our children both applied to either Oxford or Cambridge, and they both experienced pretty much the kind of interview that Oxbridge colleges tell the world that they administer: friendly but persistent questioning, drawing the student out to the limit of their existing knowledge, then pushing them a bit further and seeing how they coped. The main difference from our time was that they each had two or three separate interviews, mostly with more than one person. One thought the interviews mostly went all right, one thought two of them were fine but the last was a car-crash; one got a place, one didn’t. (Not necessarily in that order.) But neither of them was scorned, deliberately humiliated, exposed to ridicule or ambushed in any way.

But I wouldn’t want to end the story there. Take that college entrance exam: I got in on, among other things,

  • an essay on doubled perspectives in Wuthering Heights (which I had just read)
  • an essay on Shakespeare based on Wyndham Lewis’s The Lion and the Fox (which I had just read)
  • an essay on late-Romantic poetry, focused entirely on Edward Lear

My method, in other words, was

  1. Read a lot (at the last minute)
  2. Come up with some mad idea that people may not have thought of
  3. Follow through said idea, taking it completely seriously

The first message I got from Cambridge was that this was in fact the way to do it – and that it was quite in order for me to value the ability to work this way, because Cambridge valued it too. This was also one of the last messages I got from Cambridge. My single best paper in Part II, at the end of third year, was the one where I compared a passage in Melville’s The Confidence Man (a character struggles to convey the precise meaning of the word ‘certain’) with a passage in one of D. H. Lawrence’s essays on American literature (Lawrence struggles with the word ‘nature’); in the same paper I made use of quotations from two separate essays which I’d only read on the morning of the exam (Eliot on Henry James and Henry James on Thoreau). I had fun.

So there was a certain[sic] amount of “Owl Post” about being admitted to Cambridge, for me, and an element of “sorted into Ravenclaw” on top of that; there was a feeling that, now that I was in, I no longer needed to conceal or apologise for the stuff I was interested in or the way my mind worked. What I did have to do was demonstrate that I could get results – and then demonstrate it all over again. Over the three years we were expected to work at a pretty high level, with little or no supervision, and to put in fairly Herculean amounts of reading. Typically you’d be given two weeks to write an essay on an author and then left to your own devices; the first step was to read everything they’d written, or have a good stab at it. A friend who was ‘doing’ Hardy was advised by his supervisor to swerve Jude and Tess and begin with a book neither of us had so much as heard of, A Laodicean. (He said he’d discovered that it was actually the first book in a trilogy – A Laodicean, A Quiet Icean and A Completely Silent Icean.) Given that that was how ‘Cambridge’ worked, the college entrance exam that we took – and, perhaps, the interview too – could be justified as a way of selecting for people who could work, and thrive, under those conditions.

But there was more to ‘Cambridge’ than that. On one hand, what you’d been selected for, or sorted into, wasn’t just an environment where you could get intellectual work done without distractions (although it certainly was that). It was a wealthy and luxurious environment, making it a privileged setting in itself; and it was also, unavoidably, a setting for the maintenance and reproduction of privilege in other forms. On the other hand, in a setting where studiousness and creativity are the price of admission, studiousness and creativity are weirdly undervalued: to stand out you needed to be really good, or else you needed something else to trade on. Flash helped; ‘front’ and a certain amount of extroversion helped; boundless self-confidence helped. (See above, ‘reproduction of privilege in other forms’.)

In the absence of those things you’d find yourself, sooner or later, relegated to the B team – and, labelling processes being what they are, once you were in that position it was hard to think your way out of it, or even to maintain the intellectual self-confidence that had got you that far. One of the English Fellows at my college was notorious among my friends for her unapologetic division of sheep from goats; several of our essays were damned with the faint praise of ‘solid’ (which, as the term wore on, she alternated with ‘stolid’). She was much more impressed by another student’s twenty-minute presentation on food in Shakespeare, which was mainly devoted to exploring the psychic resonances of food and eating through lengthy quotations from Lévi-Strauss and Melanie Klein, touching base with Shakespeare by way of what sounded like a trolley-dash through a concordance (“Come, let’s to dinner” – Henry IV Part II).

It’s odd how intimidating ‘front’ can be – particularly when the person with the front is succeeding and you’re watching them do it. Thinking of that presentation now, I think “lots of reading, check; mad idea, check; follow it through, check” – it’s not as if I didn’t know how the trick was done (see above re: Melville). At the time I felt thoroughly outclassed and resented it deeply: if I’d known that was what you wanted, I would have – well, I couldn’t have done that, obviously, but… I’d never felt overshadowed by the more ‘popular’ kids at school – I always felt that I was a roaring success at being me, and all I lacked was wider recognition of this accomplishment. At Cambridge, quite a large part of what I valued about being me was put in the scales, weighed and found… fine. Absolutely fine. Nothing wrong with it. Solid. Stolid, even. (What would a stolid essay even look like? Not that I’ve borne a grudge for the best part of 40 years or anything…)

By the end of first year Cambridge’s original, welcoming message to me

  1. It’s good to think the way you do, and care about the things you care about.
  2. There is a place where thinking the way you do is valued, and you’ve reached it.

had mutated into something less benign:

  1. It’s good to think the way you do, and care about the things you care about.
  2. There is a place where thinking the way you do is valued; not only valued, in fact, but rewarded with luxury and privilege. But it’s not for you.

By the time I graduated, I sincerely and straightforwardly believed all of this, and didn’t even think of returning to higher education for another ten years. (It wasn’t unusual to give up on the Life of the Mind after three years of Cambridge English, if the group of twelve I studied with were anything to go by; only three or four of us went on to further study, and out of those only one was actually studying English.) In the longer term I was left with two antagonistic – but complementary – convictions, both equally baleful: the conviction that somewhere out there, perhaps behind a green door in a sixteenth-century wall, is my ideal career, a career consisting almost entirely of deep academic thought; and the conviction that I personally don’t deserve anything like that and will never see it. (The last of these is almost certainly correct, of course.)

I don’t think that Oxford and Cambridge are just like any other university in terms of teaching, or that their students are no different from other students; I think that they genuinely promote high-quality academic work and that their admissions processes genuinely favour people with the ability to do it. But I also think that they do a lot more than promote high-quality academic work, and that they select for a lot more than academic ability – with the result that, if academic ability is your only strong suit, Oxbridge may make promises it doesn’t intend to keep. So I sympathise with everyone who didn’t get through admissions – everyone who was repulsed (in either sense of the word) by a selection process which was also a rejection process – but I also think that getting in was a mixed blessing for me. The selection process didn’t stop when I got in.

 

 

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2 Comments

  1. adamrobertswriter
    Posted 4 December 2018 at 17:21 | Permalink | Reply

    Really interesting stuff Phil. I’m glad (obviously) that you (and wife, and children) got in; and if there’s one thing I’ve learned about you by interacting with you online over the last howevermany years it’s that you have a really excellent literary-critical mind: so I’d say Cantab made the right call with you —and indeed that Literary Criticism as a profession has missed out in not officially claiming you. Nonetheless I wonder if your blogpost’s emphasis on the content of an applicant’s knowledge stands orthogonal to the point of the TLS article, or to my own drearier but equally disheartening experience. I was a pitiably book-mad boy: I read All The Time, to the detriment of otehr aspects of the well rounded life, and though much of my reading was pulp sf a good quantity was odd avenues of literary arcana: Tennyson, Ted Hughes, Robert Graves, Nabokov. I don’t know what sunk me in the interview of course but … well put it this way: I ticked all three of the boxes on your ‘method’, listed above (still do, really). It didn’t work for me. I think my interviewers clocked me as awkward and a bit nervy, a state school provincial, a bit of a weirdo, a figure who lacked charm or ease or sparkle. I think it was that my face didn’t fit. That phrase has a large and largely malign set of implications in British culture I think.

    I’ve been on the other side of the interview divide plenty of times now, and am almost embarrassingly eager to put the kids at their ease, or as much as their ease as the artificial environment can allow; but there’s one thing I’m always aware of, as a bias to be fought against, and that’s the thought that often runs through interviewers’ minds: “if I let this boy/girl in and they end up in my tutorial or seminar, will I regret it?” With Oxbridge I suspect to this is added an assumption that they’re all clever, they wouldn’t be here at all if they were thickos, so we can park that, actually, and spend more time on whether they strike me as interesting or charming. That I’ve never been either, and still remain mulishly neither, prejudices me individually againt that attitude, but nonetheless I would I think insist that those two categories are all tangled up with class and often unrealised, unthought-through class assumptions. Which is where the linked TLS article starts.

  2. Phil
    Posted 5 December 2018 at 10:18 | Permalink | Reply

    I don’t think I disagree with any of that – and, not having had an interview, I do wonder if I would have been weeded out myself if I had done (I certainly wasn’t a prepossessing 18-year-old, never mind ‘charming’). The disillusioning experience I went through during that first year was, precisely, the discovery that being able to do that stuff – the stuff that had got me that far – wasn’t enough, when I was competing (for attention) with people who could offer all that and more. (I didn’t help matters by persuading myself that that stuff was actually glib and shallow, and what I really had to offer was my own uniquely deep and personal engagement with the text; fortunately I’d dug myself out of that hole by the third year.)

    I suppose what I’m saying is that there was, in my experience, a way in to Cambridge which did reward what you knew & what you could do with it, and didn’t automatically repel those less blessed with charm, personality, boundless self-assurance etc. But whether you were successful and welcomed, once there, was much more about the self-assurance etc – since, after all, you wouldn’t be there if you weren’t bright. Perhaps the underlying logic of the more hostile type of admissions interview was that it was a crash course in the hidden curriculum.

    I certainly think the “do I want to teach this person?” interview is a terrible idea, for all the reasons Les sets out.

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