Rarely a month goes by without a newspaper (tabloid or broadsheet) smugly declaring that Oxbridge is ‘elitist’. "The intake from disadvantaged backgrounds is too low; the humanities courses designed only for those who think themselves superior; the universities serving as little more than reminders of Brideshead Revisited".
The first point about intake is valid. Unfortunately the standards of teaching experienced do have an impact on grades, and thus on University application. The only solution I can see to that particular problem is for the Government to work on genuinely improving state education (and therefore life chances) nationwide. Pigs might fly. But in some sense Oxbridge cannot help being selective – as they require the best exam results and commitment - and even those won’t guarantee you a place.
Despite initial reservations over the jaw-slackeningly high fees, I still want to apply to some of the leading Russell Group Universities next year – preferably to study English Literature. I might change my mind again at some point, but I wonder if this aspiration makes me appear almost ‘snobby’ to some – as though my decision to aim high is a personal affront to any other life choices.
Why do some consider it elitist to devote time to the in-depth study of great works of literature? If I do pursue this, it means I'll leave with a greater knowledge of literature than others might have gained, but I do not accuse a cabinet maker of elitism for understanding more about the construction of a cabinet than I do. Maybe it’s because the humanities and arts subjects – English, history and philosophy to name three – are more concerned with ideas and analysis than practicality. They don’t yield tangible results in the same way that maths and science do. There are no great discoveries that can be publicized and praised by a Government that is only concerned with the short term – the same Government that has slashed Arts Council funding in a way that denigrates the status of the humanities. Let me tell you Government Ministers – my history GCSE exam was ten times more challenging than my science GCSE. The former involved months of revision and preparation; the latter required about three evenings in which I learnt the contents of a revision book by rote, with the information it contained floating straight out of my head the minute the exam paper was closed.
And yet this pervasive anti-culture attitude continues. Those who enjoy art house movies and galleries may find themselves labeled as ‘pretentious’ (although this one is clearly subjective, as there is plenty of modern art – I’m looking at you Damien Hirst – that I loathe), while those who write for and read, say, the Guardian are accused of not understanding the real world.
These musings are centered on what many see as superfluous, as the arts are arguably not one of the necessities of survival. But who would wish to live in world without music, paintings, films, sculptures, dance, theatre, books or poetry? Furthermore, when did it become sadly true that three in ten UK households own no books? Stories are one of the most imaginative and exciting releases from day to day life.They instruct and provoke thought as well as entertain.
One reaction to this criticism is that it doesn’t matter what people are reading, so long as they are still casting their eyes over words in some form. Really? So basically twitter is the same as Tolstoy? Who needs ‘War and Peace’ when you can instead concentrate on texts and misspelt Facebook statuses? I hate this argument for the simple reason that it makes no differentiation. We don’t equate a three-year-old’s finger-painting, charming as it may be, with Leonardo da Vinci.
One set of individuals who understood the power of literature was the Bloomsbury Group. Perhaps best known for including Virginia Woolf and EM Forster among its numbers, the group expanded and contracted in size during the 20th Century. As a collective they had many criticisms leveled at them, both at the time and in retrospect. One of the words most frequently thrown at the group was ‘elitist’. Maybe shades of this were true – everything has its grey area. I can’t pass judgment, as (much to my regret) I was born far too late to be a part of something like that. And yet, I am unashamedly drawn to the idea of a group of individuals who met to discuss literature, aesthetics, economics, feminism and other current issues of the time. My romantic notion of how I would like to live my life involves a lot of time spent drinking good coffee whilst debating the merits of classics or current affairs.
Are there any examples of similar groups in the 21st century? I’d be interested to know, as they so far seem unparalleled in their values and aspirations. They lived in a time when a far greater emphasis seemed to be placed on the value of reading, writing and ideas.
And so to my outfit. The main part, the dress, was probably created at that same time as pacifism and poetry were being vociferously debated by the Bloomsbury Group: the primary outfit inspiration in this post. It is also the final installment of my Bertie’s styling series. This original thirties' translucent beauty of a dress was loaned to me temporarily by the wonderful Bertie's Vintage shop. It reminded me of sweeping staircases and decaying cinemas with velvet curtains. From the collar to the ruffled detailed on the sleeves, it deserved to be styled dramatically. And so I obliged with a simple slip, shoes from a charity shop and the other pair from Next, and for two shots a vintage boater, sunglasses and satin sash.