The Oxbridge system relies rather heavily on the collegiate system of governance and organization. In face of a demanding and highly structured Oxford / Cambridge approach to education, one invariably takes comfort in one’s chosen college – which becomes, in many ways, one’s social and intellectual home.
To clarify: one cannot attend Oxbridge without becoming a part of a specific college within the university. And every college, naturally, is a little different from others. When you choose a college in Oxbridge, you choose your foundational basis; essentially, you choose your roots within the university. And you tend to do so rather carefully.
This does not mean that there is only one choice that will fit you. In fact, I’d think there are very few choices that actually won’t fit at all (if any). However, each college has certain tendencies, certain traits, that may be more preferable for any given individual than the alternatives.
The University of Oxford, for instance, consists of 38 colleges plus 6 private halls. I spent my year there (2006-2007) at St Antony’s College. And I would not have it any other way. I loved it. I am an Antonian (this membership is for life). That’s where my Oxford identity lies.
However, my choice at Cambridge was (perhaps deliberately?) very different. St Antony’s is a special and unique little island which is rather modern, graduate-only, political-sciences oriented, and located somewhat out of town center (which makes it a fairy-tale world of its own). These days, my chosen home is a contrast in many ways. But some things, such as a reigning laid-back attitude, remain the same. There are 31 colleges in Cambridge; mine is the only one that does not require its students to wear gowns – ever. Not even for matriculation. It has a reputation as the most left-wing, equalitarian, gay-friendly, progressive college, with the highest percentage of state-school applicants. We still have a hammer-and-sickle symbol preserved on the wall of our college bar. At the end of the academic year, we don’t go for the traditional formal May Ball; we hold an alternative celebration called King’s Affair. And this diversity is enhanced by the fact that this is one of the oldest, centrally located, visually striking colleges in the University – founded in 1441 and often used as an image of the University of Cambridge in general (see the last picture on this blog’s header image, for instance). It is a perfect balance, almost the way South Europe is a perfect balance between the Slavic and the Mediterranean. It just makes sense.
I chose well. I know it, even while getting trampled by disoriented tourists on a regular basis – something that never happened at St Antony’s. Despite such drawbacks, this college is a good fit.
And perhaps I know it tonight (February 23, 2011) clearer than on a usual night, because I am just back from Formal Hall – served, as usual, in the Great Hall, where all daily meals take place. Just a few days ago, I joined a Macedonian colleague for dinner at Trinity College – another picturesque place in Cambridge, but more traditional in many ways. We sat in a lovely dining hall on simple long benches, with Trinity’s High Table (reserved for fellows) rising slightly over everyone else. Rising physically – via a step. Which, as a concept, is simply abolished where I am. Literally abolished: physical raises were equalized with the rest of the Hall, and everyone – students and fellows alike – dine on normal chairs on the same level with each other. No benches involved. I didn’t realize how much it meant until I experienced the opposite. Returning home from Trinity’s doubtlessly pretty hall, I could not help but appreciate our lack of status differentiation. It is fairly unusual, though not entirely unique, within Oxbridge.
King’s College was chosen individually by each of us for the liberal mindset of its collective. And at Formal Hall tonight, over wine and excellent food, girls in lovely dresses and guys in smart-casual suits (no gowns, unless you are a fellow) behaved reasonably Oxbridge-ish against the majestic backdrop of our beautiful old hall – until the speaker at the microphone proposed we toast the staff that was serving dinner tonight. At this, all these youthful representatives of academic brightness went briefly out of control. First they applauded; then they stomped and whistled; then they just wouldn’t stop. None of the previous toasts received as much enthusiasm. And none of it was thoughtless; every moment of it was simply King’s.
As I looked at our staff, blushing quietly against the Hall walls, I felt that King’s was one of the colleges where nearly every student – regardless of IQ or income – valued this work as sincerely as they value their own research. It’s based on some very internal principles, which are somewhat difficult to articulate right away, because they’re instinctive in many ways. It would make a lot of sense at St Antony’s, where cosmopolitanism is key. But somehow it makes even more sense at King’s, where long-dead Provosts stare at us from harry-potter walls, right next to one of the most refined chapels in the world. We uphold our paradoxical progressiveness, the way our counterparts at places like St John’s – perhaps most opposite to us on the imagined spectrum of egalitarianism in Cambridge – uphold the traditionalness of theirs. (‘Rich’ is one of the four adjectives Johnians proudly use to describe their college in the Alternative Prospectus.) Most of these traits are, of course, nothing but stereotypical generalisations. Yet this particular stereotype works for me.
Can most people be happy at either place? Certainly.
Would I change King’s for any other college at Cambridge?
Not at the moment.
Excerpt from the entry for King’s College in Cambridge University Alternative Prospectus:
A fifteenth century masterpiece rooted in that dreamy- spires-tradition of angelic choristers and academia… Behind the stained glass façade lies reality. The buildings may be old, but King’s reputation for shaking the foundations of tradition is unrivalled in Cambridge. […] Whilst maintaining its heritage as one of the most historic and beautiful sites in Britain, King’s pushes boundaries, twists the rules and celebrates the outrageous. […] The predominant ethos at Kings is that you work hard and play hard. On the political side of things, King’s has one of the highest turnouts at student elections and is a pioneer in the campaigns for College sustainability, campaigns against the arms trade and top up fees. […] It is this atmosphere that allows King’s to maintain a reputation as being the forward-thinking College in Cambridge at the same time as retaining those traditions for which it is famed world-wide.
Update on June 7, 2011 – A fellow kingsperson has just offered an ironising description of our community: “King’s is full of posh people trying to act common, while other colleges are full of common people trying to act posh.”