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The looming threat of solipsism at Oxford: A fresher’s perspective

Anandita Abraham asks if Oxford forces its students to be too self-focused.

Last week, an Oxfess no doubt authored by an individual at some heightened plane of self-awareness asked: “Is it just me or is Oxford actually the Truman Show?” Fake skies and speaker systems aside, Oxford’s insulation from the world beyond is not implausible. Just over a month ago, concussion-inducing Plush ceilings and post-projectile holding back of hair made or broke new friend groups, and anything seemed possible. Now, tryouts are over, nobody else is interested in your matriculation pictures, and lectures are an education in micro-napping. Welcome to Oxford. Time zone: every hour is an hour closer to the deadline. Weather forecast: colder than your tutor’s problem sheet comments. Why is this relatable?

After school, there is unsaid hope that, at the core of the university experience, there will be newness. But imposed routine, norms, and pragmatism are stitched into the fabric of Oxford. Will teenagers looking for who they are find anything here, after three years surrounded by tradition and rote? At breakfast, people discuss their daily schedule by the hour, and shadows of a self-imposed need for academic excellence loom in the eyes of everyone with wallets too thin to numb the pain with daily pub crawls. The city seems to get smaller and more familiar, but the sheer size of the student body is still sometimes overwhelming. There are so many people to meet, but they are far out from the proximate safety of your friend group.

Many would argue that the normalisation of such culture is justified by it being simply inherent to the nature of an Oxbridge education. In his book All Souls, Javier Marias writes: “In Oxford just being requires such concentration and patience, such energy to battle against the natural lethargy of the spirit, that it would be too much to expect its inhabitants actually to stir themselves.” The beauty of spire-speckled Oxford sunsets is deceptive and hides the university’s self-involvement. Zoom out far enough and we are 19-year-olds working nine-to-five without a contractual obligation. Zoom out and umbrellas shuffle to and from the Radcliffe Camera, and kids who felt held back at school are faced with feedback about mandatory readings and essay structures. Part of the glorified boarding school experience is that troves join the same clubs and societies they were part of in school, and problematic behaviour is scandal-mongered and milked until something new enters the fold. There is little true incentive to have uncomfortable conversations, take down statues, or radically change how things are done because of the blip-like term length and robotic welfare guarantees. Marias wittily narrates: “Oxford is, without a doubt, one of the cities in the world where the least work gets done.”

As a cherry on top, self-censorship is induced by the impression that you can’t complain about dysfunctionality because everyone is going through the same thing! Accept the 300 quid Union fees and forget that, outside, the cost of living is still unbearable. Accept Etonian poshness as standard and forget that people doing your degree will be gifted with unchecked reins of power upon leaving here. Resign and each day becomes about getting to places on time, sliding the hall food tray back into the trolley, and wondering where all these people are really from. Any university experience will demand that you focus on yourself, but there is something distinct about the exhilaration of finishing an assignment being followed by a swift feeling of absurdity. Your day has suddenly cleared up, it is dark outside, and although you are already texting people to ask what they’re up to now, mental exhaustion has set in.

Those who are high-functioning zoom around, and for others, getting out of bed in the morning gets progressively harder. But for everyone, the fulfilment derived solely from ‘studying at Oxford’ is hedonistic and drip-fed. Perhaps there is not much to really champion about being here, and that is a lie we sell ourselves, as exhibitionists for the rest of the world. It has only been a month, but the risk of the hamster wheel is one that promises a loss of motivation. The sleepless nights, personal statement drafts, interview paralysis, and eight-month waits should not all have been to become an institutional wallflower and fit the ‘Oxford student’ trope, at the behest of even marginal self-discovery.

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