Why I Left Ravenclaw

Having worked super hard at boarding school (and I mean making extra revision notes from text books sort of super hard) I got a place at Oxford University to study Philosophy and Psychology. Hurrah! Off I went to the city of dreaming spires to spend way too long in libraries reading up on the likes of Descartes, Spinoza and Derrida. It was a world of books and my philosophically inclined chums and I enjoyed spending many an hour weaving up elaborate arguments about why Mill’s Utilitarianism was better than Aristotle’s virtue ethics. If we sound like super-nerds, well, no, we just loved books, like, really loved them. We were living out our Ravenclaw fantasies and that was absolutely fine…until we graduated.

It was a little bit of a shock to discover that being able to cite Aristotle wasn’t useful for navigating office politics and/or working the photocopier. But worse than my lack of practical skills was a severe lack of humility. Spending lots of time with ancient Greek philosophers may have led me to believe I was the sh*t (at least in my own warped world where essays on Plato were the benchmark for worthiness), especially when surrounded by plenty of other Type A personalities who believed the same thing. And Oxford University itself has a brand of ‘being the sh*t’ to maintain, so it’s kind of a collective delusion based on pro-plus, overwork, low self-esteem, self-loathing and plenty of mental health problems (ok, there’s a bit of world-class research that goes on there too, apparently). So it came as a nasty surprise to learn that lots of people didn’t actually give two hoots (of a screech owl) about Aristotle, Plato or any other random man with a beard that I’d spent far too long studying. Sure, those guys get their heads put on pedestals in museums but if there’s one thing us overly heady Ravenclaws need to do, it’s climb down off our self-styled pedestals before we’re knocked off.

So I graduated, made the mistake of going back for a Masters, finally learned my lesson, and left the shadow of the dreaming spires to do other things like write blogs and stories. Yes, my time at Ravenclaw was both brilliant and bonkers, filled with insight, fun, depression and various identity crises, but I think the trick to a happier life is to try and take the wisdom acquired from learning and turn it into something practical and accessible that can change the world we’re living in. Knowledge is for everyone and it’s not for the academy to hoard it and look snobbishly down on everyone who didn’t get a place at high table. Witty, wise and clever sounds like an ace personality combo but it’s what you do that counts not how many books you’ve read. Now, can you solve the riddle?

Why Slytherin Deserves A Rebrand

When I was a teenagar I went to a boarding school in the south of England. Picture tall sandstone buildings and large quadrangles of well-cut grass. Picture hundreds of boys in grey uniforms singing the national anthem, tackling each other to the ground on rugby pitches and sharing a common disdain for the local ‘chavs’. Picture, also, rampant masculinity, repressed emotions and a punishment system that involved either an early morning run or copying an article from The Times by hand. Yes, at my boarding school I was taught all the qualities a true man should have: ambition, cunning, resourcefulness, pride (in the British class system) and an unceasing desire to win at all costs. Sound familiar? Yup, I basically went to Slytherin.

Slytherin gets all the bad rep because it’s the house that attracts most aspiring fascists. Its founder, Salazar Slytherin, was a famed racial purist who despied m*dbloods and desired only the breeding of pure-bloods. In other words, a eugenicist, Social Darwinist and sociopath. This is categorically the last person who should be put in charge of the education of minors but then maybe the same could be said for some of the teachers at my school. OK, they weren’t Neo-Nazis but sexism, racism and homophobia were often popular. Yet despite the fact that it appears Slytherin has no redeeming features whatsoever why do I think it deserves a rebrand?

Because on paper lots of the qualities a Slytherin possesses are great, it’s just the fascist bit that’s problematic. If we take ambition, resourcefulness and pride whilst maybe dropping the cunning (unless it’s the non-evil sort) and unceasing desire to win (replacing it with a healthy competitiveness), then I reckon that’s a pretty good combo. Add to them Dumbledore’s observation that Slytherins also possess “a certain disregard for the rules” then it’s clear that these snakey folk are more than capable of answering for themselves. Of course, the other key is to not put a fascist in charge. Maybe have some inspiring role models like Merlin (he went to Slytherin!), Ghandi and Brene Brown and these ambitious folks might not end up heading the Tory party, burning money in front of homeless people and/or burning money on trading floors but could form a vital part of the movement to build a just, sustainable and loving future. Don’t worry, I can hear you snorting, how could a bunch of Slytherins become nice people!? Well, I actually think this question is quite important because it’s clear we Slytherins cannot manage our own emotions and aren’t taught how, only to end up taking them out on the people around us. Furthermore, if we’re ignored or under the tutorship of fascists it’s highly likely we’ll grow up to become dysfunctional, angry people. Not only that but we’ll take over the banking system, the political system and any other hierarchical institution that promises wealth and status. And that’s not a threat, it’s just kinda true. So get us while we’re young and please, please don’t leave it to the likes of Salazar Psychopath.

Confessions Of A Public Schoolboy

It’s time like this, when a general election looms and the likelihood of another Tory government seems all too (but a little less) possible that I think back to my boarding school days. From 13 to 18 I was a boarder at a public (i.e. private) school in Kent. Amongst other things I played a bit of rugby and a lot of fives (a game with padded gloves and a ball that they invented at Eton, another public school), I studied far too much (I was better in the classroom than on the sports pitch, which ultimately counted for very little back then), I wrote a few articles for the school magazine (long before the time of blogs), I got involved in a lot of pillow fights (they were fun), I organised and participated in a naked calendar shoot (that was a highlight) and when it came to our mock general election I voted…Liberal Democrat.

You see, even then, when I was being groomed to become another privately educated dickhead I knew there was something wrong. Most of the teachers, nearly all male, just weren’t very good role models. They were the sort of men who expressed themselves through shouting and anger, who bullied the ‘stupid’ students in their classes and had red-faced tantrums. Some of them  tried to be our ‘mates’ as they vicariously lived their ‘laddish’ dreams through their teenage pupils. Others took their religion very seriously but skipped the whole empathy thing, some were doddery old men who didn’t have a clue while others were aspiring autocrats on a power trip (I think one was also done for possessing child porn and another for assaulting a student). But don’t get me wrong, I also had a load of epic teachers who helped me get to where I am today – admittedly lots of them were weird but weird in a nice, friendly way. Unfortunately, some of the less awesome ones even had loco parentus – they effectively became my legal parents in absence of my actual parents. You might recognise that loco also means mad in Spanish. Unsurprisingly, I couldn’t help but feel that none of these men were the sort of man I wanted to become.

As for myself and the other boys at my school, we were a mixed bunch. We were bullies, racists, homophobes, sexists, classists and a whole raft of other prejudices. We were also friends, partners in crime, mates, pranksters and, sometimes, loving – although love for a public schoolboy is a difficult thing especially as we didn’t get taught emotions and were bullied for having them. Meanwhile, the explicit message of our schooling was that we would become life’s winners. If we could win on the sports pitch, in the classroom and even in the music room (although music was really for losers) then we would win at life. We would grow up to become those winning men who did manly things such as make lots of money, have dysfunctional relationships, despise chavs and, of course, vote Conservative. During my school’s mock election three boys were selected to represent the Tory, Lib Dem and Labour party leaders. There was a bit of campaigning and, naturally, the Tories went down a storm and won most of the votes. I, on the other hand, had a bit of a problem with aspiring to be a posh, entitled tosspot. I remember printing off posters which read “I vote Conservative because Mummy and Daddy do” and sticking them up around my boarding house (a bit like Hogwarts but with Conservatism instead of magic). That was my rather dismal attempt at teenage rebellion, which also manifested as a vote for the Liberal Democrats. I didn’t have the guts to go all the way and vote Labour.

Now, as another general election looms I can imagine lots of the boys who went to my school will be readying themselves to vote Tory again. Lots of boys who, in many ways, are ace people and fun to hang out with but also, like me, were forced to grow up in a bizarre education system that stifled growth and fostered prejudice. Boys who, if they’ve bothered to read this far, will either be feeling angry, patronised, indignant or humourously aloof – the four emotions available to the likes of us. Ultimately though the thing with public school boys is that we’re still boys. Like Peter Pan, we never grew up, except rather than fight the evil pirates we tried to become them. But who knows, as June 8th approaches maybe, just maybe, us boys will finally ‘man up’, ‘grow a pair’ and vote for a party that gives a shit about other people. Or not and we’ll carry on living out our weird Oedipal complexes by voting for a woman who looks a bit like our Mums.

Calling All Queer Warriors

Last summer I spent a week in the Welsh countryside. I slept in a big yurt and under a tarp, I did some fasting and I met a bunch of great people. The landscape was beautiful – we were staying in a rewilding valley, meaning that nature was slowly reclaiming the space that would previously have been farmed (although some pesky sheep did manage to break in to do some casual grazing). The land was fantastical and it reminded me of Tolkien’s Middle-earth and also the world of the Legend of Zelda (an ace computer game I loved playing when I was younger). However, as I thought about these stories I realised they are often about straight men fighting orcs and/or rescuing Princesses. So, there, deep in the Welsh wilderness a new character was born: the Queer Warrior.

Skip forward to yesterday and I just ran my first ever Queer Warriors workshop at ActivateLDN – a whole day event to equip young people with the skills and resources to make social change. The subtitle for my session was Resourcing and Supporting the LGBTQIA+ Community and for 90 minutes that is what I and eleven others got up to. We unpacked the acronym and explored what the different letters mean. We also spoke about our own experiences of gender and sexuality. We then got a bit fictional and invented our own characters, giving them names, appearances, genders, sexualities, fears and much more. We confronted our characters with their fears and had them overcome them in novel ways. In essence, we honed our storytelling and communication skills which I think are vital for the queer community because we have so many stories to tell, whether we consider ourselves a member of the community or an ally of it. We also need to be able to combat the stereotyping and prejudice that tries to sideline the queer community, often inciting and resulting in violence. Our stories matter and the more empowered we feel to tell them then, hopefully, the more others will listen.

Another metaphor of the Queer Warrior workshop is the idea that the queer community offers a huge umbrella of protection to those underneath. Furthermore, all are invited to shelter from the storm whether you are lesbian, gay, bisexual, straight, asexual, queer, trans, cis, intersex, questioning, genderqueer, non-binary or curious. It is also an intersectional umbrella that recognises prejudice and discrimination affect different people in different ways including along lines of race, ability, mental health, class and religion. In essence, the one thing I would hate for the queer community to be is a clique. There are enough cliques out there (and, trust me, I’ve got a post or two on this for later) but in the world of the Queer Warrior all are invited – you don’t have to be x enough or more y or less z, you can just be you, whoever that is and you’ll be welcome. You don’t even have to be a Queer Warrior, that’s just a name I like!

If you’re interested in a Queer Warriors workshop please get in touch at hello@robertholtom.co.uk. And you can find out more about my work in storytelling and narrative skills here – www.robertholtom.co.uk

Video Game - The Legend Of Zelda: Breath Of The Wild Link Wallpaper
The Queer Warrior surveys their domain (actually it’s Link from the next Legend of Zelda game!)

Little Mix: Holding Hands Is A Political Act

Little Mix are at it again – using catchy pop songs to relay important political messages and this time it’s all about holding hands.

For some holding hands is a simple act done on a regular basis. A guy and a gal just holding hands as they reveal their love to the world and walk to Sainsbury’s to get some snacks. Inside the shop he might put his hand around her waist and even tap her bum. Outside, snacks now bought and waiting in their bag-for-life, they might hug and briefly lock lips. Do you do this? Are you in an opposite-sex relationship where you both feel comfortable to express your affection in public? Well, if so, count your fricking blessings, because for many people holding hands, let alone snogging, could land them with a punch in the face, at the very least.

It’s different for same-sex couples. The Sexual Offences Act of 1967 decriminalised homosexual acts in private between two men, both above the age of 21. That was only fifty years ago and it applied only to men. It was in 2000 that the age of consent for homosexual couples was reduced to 16 years, so only sixteen years ago that gay couples achieved parity with straights. And in the Sexual Offences Act of 2003 was sexual activity between more than two men no longer a criminal offence across the entirety of the UK – yup, fourteen years ago and a threesome+ would have been illegal. What this brief political history demonstrates is that the law can be absolutely ridiculous, focussed often not on upholding justice and equality but enforcing prejudice and discrimination. That’s nothing new but it’s worth repeating.

Of course, it’s one thing for laws to change, quite another for culture. And for this reason same-sex couples holding hands in public is still a political act. There’s still so much hostility and discrimination out there that it makes hand holding dangerous. And even if the passersby aren’t homophobes they may still offer a good stare just because it ‘fascinates’ them to see these exotic queer people demonstrating affection. Whereas, straight couples usually don’t get stared at or if they do it’s because they are swapping way too much saliva. So thank god for this song by the wonderful Little Mix, which speaks directly to this issue. The video below is for Secret Love Song Part 2 as Jason Derulo was involved in Part 1 and he (or his producers) ensured it was decidedly straighter than originally intended. So here’s the better more political version. Thanks for singing out Little Mix!

Tiny Violins For White People

Countless tiny violins are playing for offended white people all over the world. First, there was Charlotte Rampling saying that “it is racist to whites” to suggest that decades of institutionalised racism have yet again resulted in no people of colour being nominated for Oscars. Then there was Michael Caine reminding us that it took him “years to get an Oscar, years” so it’s only right that people of colour should “be patient” and wait their turn. And, finally, there are the many white people outraged that Beyoncé should use her latest music video to highlight the racism and abuse that black people continue to face in today’s society. I’m getting a bit bored of trying to encourage fellow white people to see things differently (cue my own tiny violin) but here goes.

Charlotte Rampling: As a female actor who rose to fame during the sixties she no doubt encountered an awful lot of sexism. An industry that is still predicated on the objectification and demeaning of women was surely worse back then. So kudos to Rampling for pushing through. However, even if my speculations are right and she did face discrimination this is no excuse to ignore the struggles of others as she willfully ignores the prejudice facing people of colour. “One can never really know, but perhaps the black actors did not deserve to make the final [Oscars] list,” said Rampling whilst discussing the boycott of the current Academy Awards. If the consequences of ignorance weren’t so grave this would be laughable – to actually think the Academy Awards are based on an objective judgement of acting talent carried out by unbiased judges behind closed doors is ridiculous. No, the predominantly white people who form the panel are just as likely to suffer from the prejudices and bigotry that run through all sectors of society resulting in biased behaviour. Sorry Rampling, you may be a good actor but you’re not that good and actors of colour aren’t that bad either.

Fortunately, Rampling issued a statement in which she clarified her position. Whilst not explicitly apologising she did say she regrets what she said. “I simply meant to say that in an ideal world every performance will be given equal opportunities for consideration.” Yes, but come on Rampling, we don’t live in an ideal society and crass comments about how talentless actors of colour are for which you don’t apologise form part of what doesn’t make it ideal.

Michael Caine: When it comes to winning awards, to suggest that people of colour need to “be patient” and hold tight until the Academy deigns them worthy is a right slap in the face. Caine is an individual actor of arguable talent whilst people of colour represent an absolutely vast talent pool. For Caine, as a privileged white male who will never have had to experience the sort of racism that people of colour have faced and do face in the film industry, to compare his situation with that of people of colour is ludicrous. Why doesn’t he hand over his awards to some of the many overlooked and discriminated against yet hugely talented actors of colour? Come on Caine, it’s time to step up by stepping down.

Formation by Beyoncé: Centuries of slavery and oppression meant black people were treated abysmally in the States and all over the world. Whilst slavery might have been abolished in the US its legacies of violence, prejudice and ignorance live on. It’s time white people acknowledged this history and recognised that we still benefit from huge amounts of white privilege (what’s white privilege? Check out this cartoon). Questioning this privilege means redistributing it in such a way that we can all be empowered – so it works out better for all of us, yes, even white people. Sure, it’s going to be tough for us whites to accept that an awful lot of violence has been and is still perpetrated in our name, often by us, but this will never be as tough as actually experiencing that violence. I could go on but Beyoncé’s latest video speaks for itself.

“People Did Things Differently Then…”

The journalist Catherine Shoard recently wrote an opinion piece for the Guardian in which she bemoans two things: 1) that our addiction to the digital world (social media, constant news, google etc) undermines our creativity, 2) that because we have become less creative we expect films to be more like our own lives and the contexts within which we live. Two interesting views worth exploring, unfortunately though, Shoard uses points 1) and 2) to back up a completely different and unrelated opinion: that it’s ok if women and people of colour are under-represented in films. What!?

The Bechdel Test and the Latif Test are two means of testing whether a film pays even a token nod towards inclusivity and diversity. The former concerns the representation of women on-screen and the latter people of colour. As Shoard points out five of the eight best-picture Oscar nominees for 2016 fail the Latif test. This isn’t good. Yet, Shoard argues, “sometimes to fail is more dignified than to triumph.” Following this useless aphorism she points out that three of the films are period pieces and the main action concerned did not really involve anyone but white men, so people should quit their whining. However, having just complained about modern audiences expecting films to be closer to real life because we all, apparently, lack imagination, she’s now defending movies that stick closer to the facts. This is what is known as a contradiction.

Shoard argues we shouldn’t try to rewrite history (another aphorism I’m getting very bored of) by adding women and people of colour into films about historical events that didn’t involve women and people of colour. If a bunch of white men did something amazing fifty or a hundred years ago then only a bunch of white, male actors should play those roles. She says we’re being overly sensitive if we expect the past not to insult the present yet she also acknowledges that this very same past has been invariably “cruel, unfair and imperialist.” It seems almost as if Shoard is trying to justify cinema’s reflection and repetition of this cruelty, unfairness and imperialism given that “people did things differently then” (trite aphorism number 3). Unfortunately, Shoard seems to be forgetting that ‘then’ – aka the past – wasn’t just populated by white men. In fact, I think there’s much evidence to suggest that women and people of colour existed in the past. And I imagine if they existed then they did things as well and I’m sure many of those things were great. Do you see where I’m going here?

We need more films like 12 Years A Slave, Suffragette, Pride, Made In Dagenham and The Danish Girl. Sure, all these films have their problems (e.g. apparently Emmeline Pankhurst was a notorious racist yet Suffragette glossed over all of this, including the contributions of women of colour to the suffrage movement) which is why we need more like them but better. We need more films that shine spotlights on new bits of history that haven’t been turned into films yet. This doesn’t mean rewriting history so as not to offend people it means highlighting the history that was never written about because history was so often documented by a bunch of supremacist bigots.

Shoard throws some more musings into the mix: that people like bungee jumping; that we’re addicted to social media;  that we like reading the news; that despite reading the news which is often about other people we struggle to relate to issues that aren’t about ourselves; that for some reason the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite signals the end of history (that’s at least the third time history has ended if we include the warnings of Fukuyama and the Mayans); we’re not very good at processing fiction – even though the majority of her article is about historical dramas (which are meant to be factual). In essence, this is a confused and quite boring article that poorly hides a justification of the white, male status quo. We’ve already got enough justifications of this we don’t need anymore.

Shoard’s final complaint is that modern audiences “just have to keep it real” but having read the article it’s hard to know what her definition of real is – is it the supposed ‘realness’ of a history written by the victors and conquistadors, is it the reality of sexism and racism still present in Hollywood, or is it the sort of real that demands we explore history’s little-written of stories helping to redress today’s maintained prejudices? I’m not sure Shoard would know the answer nor would it appear does Hollywood (see video below) but we’ll get there one Bechdel and Latif test-passing film at a time.

The Museum Of Statues

You might have heard that Oriel College, Oxford, has come under a lot of scrutiny recently with regards whether or not its statue of Cecil Rhodes should be removed. Rhodes was a Victorian mining magnate who made lots of money from diamonds and the exploitation of labour, however, he did give some of his cash to Oxford University to set up a scholarship for international students. On one side are the students leading the Rhodes Must Fall campaign demanding that the statue be removed because Rhodes was a notorious racist and it’s pretty offensive having to walk past his effigy on a daily basis. Then there are the conservatives (for want of a better word) demanding that the statue stay because students these days are too easily offended and removing a statue is tantamount to erasing history. And there’s Oriel College staff – caught in the middle of it until a recent article revealed that a bunch of wealthy college alumni threatened to withdraw hundreds of thousands of pounds if the statue was removed. So, because money speaks louder than students (unless they’re very rich students) the statue will stay. I agree – I think the statue should stay – just not in Oriel College.

Different sides of the debate keep asking us to focus on the ‘bigger picture’ – be it the reputation of Oxford University, the literal whitewashing of history, historical legacies of racism and not forgetting the contemporary incidences of racism in a notoriously white university, brilliantly explained in this article. However, there’s another bit of the ‘bigger picture’ that I would humbly suggest we are missing – our obsession with statues. I mean seriously, they’re everywhere, whole buildings festooned in big blocks of stone carved into the likenesses of…well…mainly white men. White men who led us into war (Winston Churchill, Nelson), white men who got rich (Cecil Rhodes, George Peabody) and white men who fought dragons (St George). Sure, women get statues too – Queen Victoria and Elizabeth, two women who by the sheer accident of birth ended up ruling our country. There’s Justice and Britannia, not real women who existed and actually did things but personifications of moral sensibilities and countries. And Jane Austen gets some odd statue-plaster-thing outside her museum in Bath but then it’s not as if her novels were known for their diversity.

Nowadays we tend not to erect statues to random rich and belligerent men – it’s not as if Cameron and Blair are getting plinths any time soon (at least I hope not). But back in the day people loved it or at least the people who actually had the money and power to demand a statue be built in the middle of London or on an Oxford University college. And that’s because back in the day rich, white men were writing history – a history far too many of us take at face value when we decry that removing Cecil Rhodes’ statue is akin to rewriting history. No, it’s recognising that history tends to be some terrible, bigoted agenda written by the victors (aka supremacists) with whom we no longer want to associate ourselves.

So where should the statues go? Into the fifth or sixth empty home of some random rich person who would rather their house lie empty than house people in need of accommodation. So it can accommodate statues instead. They could all be lined up for people (well, overly sensitive people who get easily offended when people ask for old statues to be taken down) to look at and underneath each statue there would be a plaque that contexualises it according to the latest, historical findings. Thus, underneath Cecil Rhodes would appear, amongst other things, the word RACIST. And we don’t approve of racism anymore which is why we don’t need statues of racists lining our streets and educational institutions. And rather than faff about spending lots of money on new statues we can build affordable housing instead.

https://i1.wp.com/www.ashmolean.org/assets/images/Services/RSGSlide05.jpg
The Museum of Statues (aka The Ashmolean)

Is It Just A Cake?

There’s something amiss in the Bake Off tent, not quite rotten but still not quite right. It’s visible in the eyes of the contestants as they wait nervously for Mary and Paul to judge their baking. It’s in the wringing of hands, the stressful sighs and the general air of fear. It bubbled to the surface most overtly when, in episode one, one of the contestant’s Black Forest gateaux kind of just fell apart in an oozing, chocolately mess. Minutes from the deadline she began to cry and comedian Sue Perkins came to console her saying “it’s just a cake” to which she replied “it’s not just a cake.” If this is indeed the case and it is not just a cake then that begs the question what exactly is it?

As the Court of Denmark in the play Hamlet comes to act as a metaphor for the entire body politic of the country, symbolic perhaps also of Elizabethan England, then perhaps there are ways in which the Bake Off tent is a metaphor for our own society. From birth onwards we are relentlessly judged – our parents/guardians/carers tell us how and how not to behave, our teachers deem us worthy by giving us marks and grades, professors at university do the same except the marks tend to be lower, our bosses tell us if we’re good or not via the medium of money (if we’re lucky enough to have a paid job), mainstream advertising likes to remind us that we’re not good enough, newspapers like to scapegoat and blame whole groups of people and even our friends and loved ones will often be there to remind us what we could be doing better.

It is from this societal context of relentless comparison and competition that the twelve bakers arrive at the tent. Judging only what I’ve been shown in the first hour-long episode it seems like lots of them have something to prove – they want to prove they’re good at baking, really good. This could be a healthy, competitive attitude but when one contestant explained that her mum had told her not to bother coming home if she got kicked out in the first round one does start to wonder. Furthermore, as Paul Hollywood reminds us, the contestants, whilst great bakers, are at “the bottom of pack of great bakers”. It’s so hard to be the best especially when Hollywood and Mary Berry seem to have a monopoly on bestness anyway, it’s an ever elusive goal that we can be goaded into pursuing even though we’ll never attain it. It’s basically the mantra of our society – work harder, be better, work harder still and one day you might be happy (oh, and don’t complain whilst you’re at it, all that stiff upper lip and ‘keep calm and carry on’ sort of thing).

And then there are the facial expressions. The grimaces of fear and anxiety as Berry considers the flavour and Hollywood judges the sogginess of the bottom juxtaposed with the sighs of relief when the baked goods have been judged worthy. It seems like one major ingredient in the Bake Off tent is desperation as contestants try to fill the holes in their hearts with nods of approval from Mary Berry and a delicious assortment of baked goods. The idea that these people may already be more than enough just as they are and don’t need to prove anything to anyone seems an alien concept when it all comes down to being the best.

At the end of the episode one of the contestants (the one whose cake collapsed) admits that she feels like she’s “been initiated into truly what Bake Off means”. What, then, is that? Is it to strive constantly to impress others hoping that their admiration will yield a sense of worthiness? Is it to chastise oneself for every soggy bottom and forget to celebrate every other solid bottom? Is it to whip guilt and despair with a tantalising sprinkle of unattainable hope all served on a dish of insecurity? If so it sure makes for compelling viewing!

Great British Bake Off
Judging you worthy: Bake Off judges Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry

How Oxford Almost Killed Me, Twice

A response to Morwenna Jones’ article How Cambridge Almost Killed Me

Reading Morwenna’s article was very moving. I was impressed at her honesty and bravery. It also brought back memories of my experiences at Oxford University. When I studied my BA there I suffered from depression and stress, resulting in thoughts of suicide and a burst appendix. These events took place in my final year but after attending a counseling session I found the resolve to get on with my work. I let go of my perfectionism and decided just to enjoy the work and give it my best shot, regardless of the results. Like Morwenna, I took time away from the system to deal with my own problems, convinced that the fault was my own and not a larger systemic one. Two years later when I returned for my MSc I brought a similar attitude with me – enjoy the process and don’t worry about the end product. This had worked at the end of my BA and I thought it would work again, unfortunately I was proved wrong.

Rad

The Second Time Around

During my time between degrees I became more aware of the wider world. The impacts of the recession encouraged me to read up on politics and economics, and attending an event on climate change facilitated my entry into the environmental sector. Using my skills as a philosopher I started to ask more questions of the world around me. I returned to Oxford a somewhat different person, with clearer ideas of my own beliefs and aspirations.

As the year progressed, I struggled to find the enjoyment I had been looking for. However, this time the reasons for my struggle were not due to my own feelings of low self-worth because I wasn’t getting high enough marks. I struggled because I felt let down by the institution. I was now able to be critical and observe the pressures that adversely affected both students and staff. Academics were under much pressure to produce publications, with the mantra ‘publish or perish’ frequently preventing them from dedicating adequate time to their students. Bureaucracy and opaque complaint procedures made it extremely difficult to find effective channels for addressing these issues, leaving me feeling even more disheartened.

These experiences, along with the high cost of the course (which is even greater for international students, who made up 93% of my coursemates), increasingly made me perceive the course as a money-making exercise rather than a project in academic enquiry. This is hardly surprising, particularly in light of this government’s neoliberal policy agenda which has led to funding cuts to universities and an increased emphasis on the monetisation of services.

Two weeks into the course I had wanted to quit and when issues came to a head two weeks before the end I also wanted to quit. I didn’t have the guts for either. Meanwhile, throughout the most difficult periods I was repeatedly told to persevere, with a degree from Oxford University framed as more valuable than my mental health and happiness. Others dismissed my problems saying things along the lines of ‘it’s a degree from Oxford, did you think it was going to be easy?’ These sorts of comments tie in with the larger societal norm that things that are worthwhile also need to be difficult and maybe even distressing. I certainly like a challenge but preferably one I can relish rather than despair at. So, I knuckled down and got back to work.

Coping Strategies

Oxford University creates the perfect milieu in which mental health problems can thrive – it is intense, high pressure and competitive. It encourages perfectionism and is high on criticism but low on praise. Academic achievement and effort are taken for granted as students are expected to produce more and better. Meanwhile, as at school, worth and meaning are found in marks – student’s lives revolve around writing numerous essays all in aid of taking numerous exams all in aid of leaving the institution with a given mark. At the end of one’s degree one’s achievements are summed up in a number.

Outside of the struggle to get high marks the rest of life goes on. Oxford University is often framed as an opportunity to learn about the world and be exposed to new views and whilst these things are possible there is a surprising lack of diversity. Instead, a highly conservative attitude is prevalent in many colleges and whilst this need not be a problem in itself my own experiences saw it manifesting itself in multiple forms of discrimination, including racism, sexism, homophobia and elitism. Thus, the lack of diversity precludes exposure to the diversity that Oxford promises, thereby enabling these negative behaviours to perpetuate. Combine this with an active drinking culture, a constant pressure to be working and needlessly high levels of competition amongst peers and the scene is set for a plethora of mental health problems.

Meanwhile, the University itself is often ill-equipped to deal with the aforementioned problems. It has an international reputation and brand to maintain and this can often confuse the internal complaints process. In wanting to avoid a scandal the University may well try to deal with problems internally, avoiding involvement of the police and the press. It can prove hugely problematic when institutions try and solve problems on their own terms rather than using the recognised and conventional systems, and no one can be sure that these internal processes will result in positive outcomes for all those involved.

There are problems at all levels of the institution and everyone is under pressure. The effects of this pressure can manifest as severe mental health problems. However, rather than address the problems at their source – e.g. the institutional framework, expectations and imperatives – the onus is on individuals to recondition themselves to cope. Whether the answer is in meditation or medication, we try desperately to find ways to fit back in and re-enter the system. We do it because we have been told if we get good marks at school and good marks at university we can then go on to get good jobs. But the recession, high levels of youth unemployment and the myriad social problems our society is facing suggest these rewards are no longer guaranteed.

Excellence 

There is a movement in wider society to focus more on happiness. This has resulted in political initiatives to include well-being as a marker for national success, as well as GDP. I think Oxford University can learn from this process and develop better techniques for more holistically nurturing its students and staff. We are, after all, humans before we are academics. Furthermore, there is a positive correlation between well-being and productivity.

The high levels of unhappiness recorded at Oxford University present an opportunity for the university to rethink how it educates its students and how it treats its staff. Together we can overcome the conditioning that makes us believe meaning and value come from academic achievement. Self-worth and self-esteem need more than high marks. Instead people need to know that they are enough in and of themselves regardless of their achievements, something easily forgotten at an institution of high-achievers accustomed to getting top marks. Fortunately, Oxford University is already endowed with all the resources it needs to bring about this change and all it will take is a concerted team effort on behalf of students and staff, willing to do more than just ask critical questions but address the issues that those questions highlight.

We cannot assume Oxford University is excellent just because we are told it is, that is an example of uncritical thinking, something Oxford University educates against. But we can work together to improve it and ensure it becomes an institution capable of addressing the pressing needs of the 21st century, including widespread mental health problems. Only then can it truly be considered a place of excellence.