Cambridge University: The Reality and The Fairytale

Not everyone at Cambridge University lives a “fairytale lifestyle”. A recent story published by The Daily Mail focuses on the Instagram pictures posted by one American student who has subsequently gained 300,000 followers by advertising her wonderful life online.

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The Mail says: “Caroline, seen ‘revising’ on the lawn, became a full-time New York blogger before deciding to further her studies in the UK”

Immediately we can see two sides or perspectives to the story. On the one hand there is a resentful perspective; one that considers this young, affluent, female American as spoilt, pompous, frivolous and naïeve: “born with a silver spoon in her mouth”. However, there are also close to half a million followers online who whish to see more of this traditional, fairytale, “Harry Potter” lifestyle. The reality that The Mail overlooks, and what these Instagram followers do not get to see, is that there are lots of students here working incredibly hard to improve medicine, social and environmental policy, philosophy, economics, politics, etc. to the benefit of wider societies.

In this blog I just want to make it known that not every student shares the same experience of Cambridge University as Calloway – if we accept that her photographs are a valid representation of her everyday reality here. In fact, some students from working class backgrounds, or from economically underprivileged countries, manage to get into Cambridge through sheer academic excellence. The reality of Cambridge University for many students is hard slog, stressful long hours in the library or sat in front of computers, microscopes or telescopes. There is nothing “fairy tale” about this reality. The Mail’s representation of Cambridge University lets students’ efforts down.

Cambridge students have to look formal, which benefits some more than others. Part of the tradition of Cambridge University is wearing strange, medieval gowns and attending formal dinners. Being formally introduced to any college means going through a matriculation ceremony followed by a formal meal. Some students are better prepared and more comfortable in such cultural environments than others. There is a formal etiquette that is deeply engrained, an embodied form of cultural capital. It is almost impossible to learn if you do not come from such a cultural background. Students without these social skills can still get by; having a knockout thesis under your belt, one that will radicalize or change science, will probably get you much further, after all.

There is a kind of division within Cambridge between the privileged elites and those from more humble backgrounds. Instagram followers might want to see this decedent cultural milieu. Nevertheless, is not the case, and The Mail might like to imply, that only the wealthy and prestigious get into the university to continue and develop their aristocratic lifestyles. But don’t we all like to post photos of the more glamorous sides of our everyday lives on social media?

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A Bog in Cambridge: reality? Fairytale?

Nevertheless, I empathise with The Mail’s resentment to an extent. Tradition and class contradictions are deeply entrenched in the architecture of the city. The city has a strange cultural and geographical division between Town and Gown. In the central park there was a piece of graffiti drawn onto a statue in the middle of the park that read: “Welcome to the Real World”. It implied that students venturing out of the academic bubble, outside of the huddle of historical collages, were entering into the side of Cambridge where real, working class people lived in council housing and work everyday the “real world”. The fact that some people are more wealthy and prosperous than others, and that is structurally determined, shouldn’t be overlooked.

And, this traditional and architectural tradition of class division runs deep into cultural divisions. There are also “Town vs. Gown” sports events which encourage integration between students and those real, working class people. The problem with such events is that the only time the unreal students get to meet the real people is in circumstances of extreme competitiveness. It is well known that Cambridge University often looses its boxing competitions when going up against the Townies. Such competitions only seem to further reinforce the divisions between Townies and Gownies. Gownies always have the edge since they generally go on to progress in their career lives. That’s true.

I would prefer more integration. I grew up outside of Bristol City and I went to the University of the West of England (UWE) for my undergraduate and then Bristol University to study my master. With a population of 500,000 compared to Cambridge, which has a population of 100,000, Bristol feels much more integrated, culturally diverse or multicultural. There are tensions between classes and races; this is true. It is not a perfect city. Nevertheless, it is possible to study within Bristol without feeling like, or being made to feel, like “A Student”. Neither are you pressured into feeling as if you must or behave like a “go-getter” or “a toff” to reach the elite ranks. One of the aspects of studying in Bristol, which most students seemed to enjoy, was being made to feel a part of the city, while at the same time participating in the multicultural music scene or attending many of the weekend festivals.

While on the one hand I certain feel that there is an elitist bubble in Cambridge that keeps some students detached from the working-class lifestyles that the majority of people in Britain experience everyday, it is only to their own loss. Part of the “real” British experience is getting to see how diverse and culturally rich this country can be. On the other hand, The University of Cambridge is a global, intellectual epicenter and certainly the graduate peers that I study with come from a variety of backgrounds and all have something exceptional to offer to this knowledge bank – even lifetime experiences or practical knowledge is recognised as strength. This is not to deny that wealth, privilege or prestige is also a Golden Ticket.

I sympathise with some kind of resentment expressed towards the elites that are “divorced from reality”. I also sympathise with people that want to admire the traditions of the intellectual elite, or even English traditionalism. What I would reassure readers of The Mai newspaper, and the general population, is that there is a bedrock of intelligence, knowledge, and understanding here. That factor shouldn’t be overlooked or undermined.

In a networked society we can expect more blogs or syndicated photographs of Cambridge University. I would recommend reading Deciphering Cambridge by Rohan Kothari for a great intercultural description of life in Cambridge. Thank you to Stephen Courtney, Emily Wilkinson, Stuart Bolus, Max Wagner and Luke Cash.

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