Friday, June 12, 2009

Fact-Checking Rowenna Davis
An open letter

Dear Ms. Davis,

I write with reference to your recent article on Comment is Free, entitled "Stupid White Heterosexual Male", in which you make a number of statements which are untrue. I am pleased to have the opportunity to correct them, and also to offer some collegial advise as to how you can avoid intellectual humiliation in the future.

Happily, you have corrected your most ridiculous error - a bizarre claim that Oxford admits only 5 black students, out by a factor of 9 [source - document "Undergraduate admissions statistics 2008"  page 5, table 5]. 
(Indeed, your own source continues: "With more than four students applying for every place, competition is intense and the success rate among ethnic minority UK students is nearly 29%, compared with an overall average of 23.7%, but it remains below the hit rate of independent school candidates which is 29.4%."). 

You write:
"The only thing harder than spotting the black kid in my college photo was trying to find a woman on my reading list."

Given you read PPE, you can't have tried very hard. You can read, perhaps for the first time, the Politics department's PPE reading list here for the first year exams. I can see Gutmann, Nancy Rosenblum, Catherine MacKinnon, Anne Stevens, Mary Volcansek, and Sheri Berman. Guinier (of course) is there, as is Fulbrook. The Philosophy reading list is inaccesible outside the university, but are you seriously claiming you were never advised to read Anscombe? 

You write:
"I wonder if those voting for a white, heterosexual male rep have ever faced the reality of the figures. In case they're reading, I'll take the issues in turn. Class: Despite over 90% of the country being state educated, just 55% of Oxbridge students come from state schools. New figures suggest that these class divides are getting worse, not better. "

But 98.4% of candidates who are offered pre-qualification places achieve AAA ("Undergraduate admissions statistics 2008"  page 4, table 3). As 28.6% of A grades are awarded to pupils at Independent Schools [source] and  33.8% of Oxford applicants come from Independent schools  ("Undergraduate admissions statistics 2008",page 2, table 1), perhaps the over-representation is not entirely Oxford's fault.
Regarding the claim "class divides are getting worse, rather than better", it is instructive to compare the results from 2006(2007) ([source], page 3 table 1), when 47.1%(46.8%) came from state schools. Certainly in the short term, things seem to be improving. 

Wisely, you turn from statistics to your own personal experience: "When I was studying there, I felt wedged between overly sexualized bops (college parties) and competitive tutorials with arrogant public school boys.

I am sorry to hear you have had a negative experience at Oxford. However:

Be honest now: did the sub-editor insert that definition of "bops"? Did you remember that the vast majority of readers won't know what the word means, and won't care? Anyway, the last bop I attended I saw a man dressed as a post-box dancing with a woman dressed as Richard Branson. I can say, without fear of contradiction, I have never felt less "overly sexualized". 

As adults, and all students at Oxford are technically adults, we have control over what we wear, the company we keep, and the bops we attend. At any university, there are plenty of other things to do on a Saturday night.

Further, you complain of "competitive tutorials with arrogant public schoolboys". If you don't like arrogance, prolonged exposure to academics is ill-advised. I am sorry to see you judge a person by the school she attended, but more alarmed that you see "competitive tutorials" as a bad thing. I used to struggle with tutorials. My tutorial partner (as it happens, from a state school) was considerably cleverer that I am, and I always felt like the Red Queen, having to run faster and faster just to stand still. I certainly don't believe the tutorial system is the best possible system for everyone, but it certainly made me into a better physicist. The tutorial system is the reason it cost the taxpayer £3000 more each year for you to study PPE at Oxford rather than something useful elsewhere. You must have known this when you were applying. Had you not wanted this, there are 107 universities in the UK that aren't Oxford and Cambridge. If you found your tutorial partner disagreeable, even for the rather bigoted reason you give, in life and work we often have to put up - even be polite to! - people we dislike. This is not unique to Oxford, or even to university.

So where does this leave us?

There are some great stories to be written about tertiary education in the UK: you could talk about the difficulties of contract research staff, the funding of middle eastern studies departments or how physics is becoming the new classics. You could talk about those 107 universities that aren't Oxford and Cambridge.

It would also be nice if, from time to time, the debate on education could focus the vast majority who did not go to Oxbridge, or even the majority who didn't go to university. You could talk about what's happened to adult education and how to change it. You could talk basic qualifications, and about teaching reading, and about the way political groups manipulate the syllabus in subjects from biology to history.
If it is essential to discuss Oxbridge at such tedious length, why doesn't CiF run a series of articles on Oxford where people wrote that they had quite a nice time, really, didn't do enough work, made some good friends and generally grew up a bit. Just like any other university, except with older buildings  and worse facilities. 

Or, you could write another retread of the "Tales of Terror:  Trapped Among the Poshes!" where the author complains that she was forced to meet people who went to a  school that was funded differently to hers, and spoke with a different accent, and had tutors who expected her to think, and how the college drama society re-enacted Brideshead bloody Revisited 24 hours a day, and in general the sheer awfulness of attending one of the oldest universities in the world, having the taxpayer stump up an additional three grand a year more than your mate who went to London, having contact time and a student-teacher ratio other unis only dream of, and meeting clever, hard-working people from a completely different background to you. The horror, the horror.

The choice is yours.

I remain, yours sincerely,

A Stupid White Heterosexual Male

[Thanks to Ed and Duncan for the tip]