Issue 187: 2019 01 31: Respect and Traditions

31 January 2019

Respect and Traditions

Don’t go there.

By Lynda Goetz

Universities are places of learning and research.  For the professors and academics who make up the body of staff, their roles are both as researchers and teachers.  As such, they are in a position to impart information to the students who have gone there as undergraduates to study for three or more years towards their degree.  During that time those young people will almost certainly learn a great deal more than simply the subject to which their degree is dedicated.  They will learn, it is to be hoped, a lot more about other people, about life, about traditions, cultures and different ways of approaching all those things.  What one would not expect them to do is to go up to university (whether that be an old seat of learning such as Oxford or Cambridge, or a much newer establishment) and resolutely refuse to open their minds to any way of life other than the one they have just left behind in their home town, village or hamlet.

This however, seems to be what Oxford University is condoning in two recent examples of bowing to the narrow-minded demands of students.  The first example, which resulted last week in a number of howls of derision in the media (as well as, presumably, far more from the general public), were the comments by the principal of Somerville College in which she told of the bemusement of ‘one of our students… at being served an octopus terrine at the Freshers’ Dinner’.  Baroness Jan Royall went on to say that she had asked ‘our catering colleagues to ensure that the first dinner at the beginning of term features dishes everyone is comfortable with’.  So what exactly might those be?  Burgers and chips, fish fingers, beans on toast, bangers and mash or pizza, perhaps?

St. Catherine’s Junior Common Room (JCR) voted a week ago to abandon the tradition of standing when the Master enters the hall at formal dinners.  Students in future can make a ‘personal decision’ as to whether or not to stand up and stay silent when senior dons enter the hall.  This has been done apparently at the instigation of one Alex Townsend-Teague who found it “very hard that we stand up, pay respects, and stand in silence for another human being to walk in….[it is] wrong to have to pay such deference to another adult.”  He added that it had almost put him off applying.  A third year student at the college welcomed the move, saying: “St Catherine’s is meant to be a modern and progressive college. I was surprised when I first arrived that it still had old and elitist traditions like this, which could put off applicants from poorer backgrounds.”

Because they are long-established does not of course make traditions necessarily beneficial, nor should it make them inviolate.  However, some customs and traditions make for harmonious accommodation with others and may cultivate respect for history and for achievement; others may quite simply open people’s eyes to other ways of experiencing life and widen their horizons to a broader and more colourful way of doing things.  The well-known phrase ‘When in Rome..’ springs to mind.  Why should the institution have to adapt to ‘applicants from poorer backgrounds’?  Surely it is up to the applicants to adapt to the institution which they are joining?  If what they want is ‘more of the same’ then let them stay away.  It is for them to broaden their horizons and try unfamiliar foods or take on board customs with which they have not hitherto been acquainted.  Is it really wrong for a youth to show some sort of deference to one who is older and has achieved some sort of status through their application and hard work?  We should not be bending over backwards to accommodate the lowest common denominator.  The word ‘education’ comes from the Latin ‘educare’, to lead out.  Let the educators educate.  Those with closed minds should go elsewhere.


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