Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s 1932 novel Sunset Song is a fin-de-siècle evocation of pre-Great War Scottish rural life is set in the semi-fictionalised village of Blawearie, situated somewhere in Aberdeenshire – its small farms run by hardy peasants soon to be gutted by the human costs of trench warfare and by the increasing profits available to landowners from less intensive sheep farming.
The novel’s great themes – the destruction of a way of life and the passing of the “last of the Old Scots folk” – find expression in its central protagonist, Chris Guthrie, a farmer’s daughter. In her school years, and on encountering the pleasures of books, the Latin language, and the study of English literature, she finds herself increasingly alienated from her upbringing.
She becomes conscious of “two Chrisses” that “fought for her heart and tormented her”: the first that lives for “the sweetness of the Scottish land and skies”, delighting in the lyricism of the Scottish landscape, “the smell of the earth” and “the peewits crying across the hills, deep and deep, crying in the heart”, and the second that sees learning as “brave and fine” and speaks in “English words” that are “sharp and clean and true”.
For Chris, academic achievement is associated not with the Aberdeenshire Doric dialect of her youth, but with English and Englishness – an association that flows from the geography of the North East of Scotland, just south of the ‘Highland Line’ that separates Lowland Scotland from the Gaelic cultures of the West – not so much the romantic vision of the land of the mountain and the glen championed by the Scottish diaspora in America as the land between the mountain and the sea – a land which is also rather set apart from cosmopolitan Edinburgh further south, a European capital since the late 18th century.
Chris’s desire for learning stands, in part, for a familiar cliché of Scottish literary culture in general: that Scottishness is a really a confused and unstable system of dual personalities – Jekyll and Hyde if you will – in language: Scots vs Gaelic, Doric vs Scots, English vs Scots; in geography: Lowland vs Highland; in its capital Edinburgh: Old Town vs New Town; and, today, in politics: nationalist vs unionist.
But nowhere is the association clearer between academic achievement and generalised neuroticana than in the peculiar solipsism of the English over their country’s elite universities, Oxford and Cambridge, and in the state of contemporary Westminster politics.
The Financial Times carried a long read in its Life & Arts section last month with the headline “How Oxford University shaped Brexit”, written by Simon Kuper. Its broad contention was fleshed out further in a Twitter thread published yesterday by the academic, Yascha Mounk (who got his intellectual training at Trinity College, Cambridge).
Mounk began: “What explains Brexit? The Oxbridge grading system.” He continues: “Why is Brexit happening, for example? Because Boris and Gove and so many others were trained in the art of making counterintuitive arguments that earn a First.”
In Harvard “a competent, well-written essay arguing a common-sense position will earn you an A”, which provides “an incentive to do careful if, at times, somewhat boring work”. By contrast, the Oxbridge system supposedly privileges “the art of making counterintuitive arguments that earn a First”, the art of pulling off “something extraordinary”, by making a “spirited case for a counterintuitive (and probably wrong) conclusion”.
One thing first – Boris Johnson received a 2:1 in Classics (or Greats as it is known at Oxford), a degree which requires massive amounts of granular, dull effort – the close appreciation of enormously long set texts and highly demanding language testing (even translation of English into Greek verse), along with closely argued essays. I don’t see how a counterintuitive take really helps a young Boris to make sense of a passage of Demosthenes, where sentences seem to run backward and the syntax is mind-bendingly cryptic.
Michael Gove didn’t win a First either.
Cameron, who backed Remain along with most of his Oxford-educated cabinet, did.
It is true that Oxbridge may have been far more dilettante in atmosphere in the eighties – undergraduates were not under quite as much pressure, as they are now, to get ahead in the jobs market. It’s also true that far fewer Firsts were awarded than are now – students work harder and for longer. The notion that libraries are now open 24/7 at virtually all Oxbridge colleges may well have appalled Boris, Cameron et al.
Read between the lines, and Mounk is expressing a common, and untrue, caricature of Oxbridge graduates (especially public schoolboys) in the humanities – that the system plays to the worst instincts of the privileged, allowing the scions of the upper classes to get by on self-confidence and flair alone.
It is massively irritating, of course, to hear a “posho” blithely confessing that he hasn’t done any of the required reading only to go onto dominate the conversation in a seminar, but it’s nothing more than a pose, half created by the public schoolboy himself, designed to portray himself as a noble amateur (à la David Gower, English test cricketer, who never did any training and seemed to live on sublime talent alone) and not as the highly serious, inveterate and unexceptional nerd he really is.
It is also to misread what Brexit really represents. Brexit was not, like Suez, to which it is often compared, born out of conspiracy in the corridors of power, but resulted instead from a crisis of a different and far more perplexing kind. Some 17.4 million Britons voted for it, against the better instincts of an elite dominated by Oxbridge-educated public schoolboys.
In that light, those who mischaracterise Brexit as the brainchild of those who “were trained in the art of making counterintuitive arguments that earn a First” sound flimsy, lazy and inadequate. In summary: they must try harder.
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