Scholars’ gowns should inspire, not intimidate

We shouldn't feel snubbed, nor that we don't deserve our places at Oxford

Source: Wikimedia

It’s been over a year since students voted to reject an OUSU motion proposing a ban on scholars’ gowns. The arguments for and against the ban are well-versed. Rather than rehashing these old arguments, I’d like to engage in a moment of introspection. Why is it that scholars’ gowns make some of the rest of us feel inadequate, or insecure?

I don’t mean to dismiss the issues raised by those in favour of a ban; they were legitimate concerns, although unlikely to be solved simply by abolishing the gown. I think, however, that a large degree of the criticism surrounding scholars’ gowns comes down to feelings of resentment. It’s this we should address.

One of the greatest challenges at Oxford is adapting to an environment in which all of your peers are at least as smart as you are. We’re all Oxford students, we’re all (ostensibly) very smart, and a lot of us probably came from schools where we were used to being counted among the best and brightest. Suddenly being plunged into a world where you’re just one in thousands can be hard, and a lot of us struggle with imposter syndrome at the first sign of difficulty. If we aren’t the best, what are we doing here? Why aren’t we more like those with scholars’ gowns? Should we be here at all? Many of us wrestle with these questions, myself included, and I don’t seek to invalidate those feelings.

That having been said, it isn’t the university’s job to answer them, especially if they must scrap centuries of tradition to do so by removing these gowns. It’s tough to adapt to an environment in which you’re not necessarily the highest performer but learning to accept this truth is a vital part of maturing, and indeed learning.

I don’t have a gown. I only have a few friends who do, and I won’t pretend that I’m not jealous of them; there’s a competitive part of me that wants to be the best and is frustrated by this visible evidence that I’m not. But the difference between us is that I know they’ve earned it and I haven’t. With a little self-awareness, I can’t help but acknowledge that in my own case, I haven’t worked as hard as they have, and I’m perhaps not quite as talented as them either. That’s not an easy thing to come to terms with, but I’ve ultimately got no right to demand that they downplay their achievements to cater to my feelings.

Scholars’ gowns aren’t about the people who don’t have them, they’re about rewarding the excellence of the people who do. An incredible and admirable amount of hard work and talent go into earning them, and it’s only fair to recognise that in some way. The success of a few of us doesn’t mean that the rest of us don’t deserve our places at Oxford, and it shouldn’t be viewed as a snub – a commoner’s gown is the default for the majority, not for an underprivileged minority. It’s ridiculous to act as though we’re being treated as second-class members of the University community because we aren’t being rewarded in the same way as students who have performed very highly. Our equality as students is not contingent on the uniformity of the gowns we wear.

I asked a friend of mine who’d recently received his gown what he thought about its criticisms. Did he view us differently now that the long sleeves had potentially gone to his head? Of course not. At the end of the day, a gown is just an outfit and the person wearing it is just another student. Gowns, he argued, are about continuing centuries of tradition and celebrating achievement; they’re not designed to make people feel insecure, but rather they are “something to aspire to and challenge oneself to get”. Maybe you could argue that we should just be aspiring for the best grades possible, not an oversized coat, but you’d be missing the point – the gown is a visible symbol of success and a reminder not to get complacent. How we react to it is a personal matter, not one for the university.

The reality of life is that not everybody gets to be the greatest. This fact can be tough to accept, but ultimately our inner feelings are our own: it’s up to us to confront or ignore them as we see fit.

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