14 January 2015

Oxford: stairway to the stars?

Margaret Eastman was an undergraduate at Somerville College, Oxford, with a scholarship in classics. This fairly clearly implied exceptional ability. She had acquired her expertise in writing Greek poetry by reading classics in her local public library.

Social mobility was allegedly desirable, so one might well have expected that people such as Margaret Eastman and myself would be welcomed to Oxford, and encouraged on their upward path. But this was far from being the case. People such as Margaret and myself were greeted by the Somerville dons as if we had got above ourselves and needed to be reminded that we were still inferior to people who had been to prestigious fee-paying schools such as St Paul’s Girls’ School.

Margaret had become able to write Greek poetry so well that she took the optional poetry writing paper in the Mods exam. She also wrote a Latin epigram which was published in the Oxford Magazine. Such publication conferred a considerable cachet, but was greeted by one of Margaret’s tutors with the comment ‘It’s the first thing you have done since coming up that justifies your scholarship’.

As Margaret was always spoken of by the dons as something of a second-rater, people who did not know about classics might have taken this at face value, but it is scarcely compatible with the facts. Margaret had got her scholarship by being able to read and write Latin and Greek at a high level, and she had not stopped being able to do so, but continued to read and write Latin and Greek throughout her first terms at Oxford.

A year or so later, when she wished to apply for a research scholarship to proceed to a higher degree, her tutors sounded uncertain whether she was ‘good enough’. They thought she was not ‘good enough’ for an academic career, although she should be able to ‘hold down a job’.

In my own case, when I started trying to explain to my first tutor how badly I had been affected by being held back and prevented from taking exams in several subjects at an early age, she had said ‘But you are just an ordinary person’, which seemed to rule out any attempt to understand how various factors might have affected my performance.

Somerville would never support either Margaret or myself in applying for grants for higher degrees. I think we were turned down on at least four occasions, although ironically we were both able to help other people who were doing higher degrees in different subjects, by picking up very fast on something which we had never studied before.

Eventually we both found ourselves without an academic appointment, or any way ahead within the university system.