Oxford’s Scholar’s Gowns – An Hypocrisy in Equality

The University of Oxford, as well as being one of the most prestigious Universities in the world, is famous for being something of an anachronism in terms of its operation. One need merely walk down the streets, passing through its cobbled alleys and mediaeval cloisters to see and appreciate its ancient heritage. As a student, it is this heritage which makes the Oxford “experience” special. Nevertheless, as with most Universities these days, the influence of those cancerous individuals who characterise themselves as “progressives” is ever-present, not least in the students’ union known as OUSU.

There is not a year that goes by when OUSU does not hold a referendum trying to abolish Oxford’s academic dress, known as “subfusc” from the Latin subfuscus meaning “darkly coloured”. This academic dress has been in use since the middle ages, and for men stipulates a black or dark blue suit, black gown of varying description (we will come to that soon enough) and a characteristic white bow tie made of silk or marcella cotton, occasionally topped by the traditional mortarboard cap. For women it is much the same, though usually dispensing with the suit jacket, and the white bow tie is replaced with a black ribbon tied loosely, or in a bow. See below for an example.

oxford gowns

Subfuscus, Oxford’s undergraduate dress

In the photograph from left to right we see: women’s subfusc with a commoner’s gown; men’s subfusc with a scholar’s gown; the same, with commoner’s gown. A commoner’s gown is the sort which all undergraduates begin with, and then, upon completing their first or second year examinations, if they receive a distinction/first class moderation, and thus are predicted a first class final degree, they are often awarded an Exhibition or Scholarship from their college, which bears the privilege of roughly £150-300 cash, and the wearing of a so-called “scholar’s gown” (centre), which resembles a knee-length clerical gown compared to the more ragged, hip-length commoner’s gown (it should be made clear that the term “commoner” has nothing to do with class here, it is merely a traditional term for an undergraduate without a scholarship or exhibition). These gowns are required at public examinations and at some colleges’ formal dinners, where the fellows too wear their academic attire.

OUSU has consistently been defeated in referenda when it comes to abolishing subfusc, but now it seems they have turned their eyes to a more covert wearing-down of Oxford’s traditions, they wish to abolish the scholar’s gown. The arguments that subfusc in general was “mediaeval” and “unwelcoming” having failed, OUSU now turns its attention to presenting the differing scholar’s gowns as “hierarchical” and benefiting only those who could pay to go to “the best schools”, as presented by this linked article. My first reaction upon hearing these arguments was despair – it’s an item of clothing, get over yourself. But fine, perhaps I am being too harsh on the poor things, let’s have a debate, on their terms; after all, in this world where fancy dress can be seen as “cultural appropriation”, who I am to claim that clothing cannot be a weapon of trans-national imperialism and systematic class oppression? (read: irony) – I guarantee you they will still come out badly.

First of all, I will get the most common (but arguably the worst) defence of scholar’s gowns out of the way: it’s tradition, and traditions are fun. It doesn’t directly harm anyone besides within the regressive left’s pitifully neurotic imagination, so no harm done by them, surely? One of the arguments that you can read on OUSU’s websites attacking scholar’s gowns claims that: “[Examination] results are more of a reflection of a student’s educational background than their grade in Finals. As a result, allowing the wearing of differential gowns…gives an extra advantage to those who have had the privilege of attending better schools, whilst those who aren’t so fortunate are disadvantaged in examinations despite the equalising influence of an Oxford education.” Ridiculous! I know of many people, my own fiancée included amongst those ranks, who had to work very hard to gain a place at Oxford after coming from a state comprehensive school, and won an Exhibition at her Preliminary Examinations. Many people work hard to overcome this exact same educational “disadvantage” that they cite, and now they wish to take away the fruits of their hard work from them. That is not an act of egalitarian liberation, that is an act of restriction, punishing the very people that the left harps on about allowing to succeed more than those who went to public schools. Now of course those who went to better schools will be likely to achieve firsts, but I know from experience that this is by no means always the case, there are plenty of public school students at Oxford without firsts – but look here, if public school students do come to University and do well because of their educational background, they should be rewarded for their success, because they are still clever. If their parents could send them to a good school, it’s because they wanted what was best for their child – it’s called living in a free society.

The article linked above argues against scholar’s gowns because of the following: “The intensity of the problem varies from subject to subject, and is particularly sharp in STEM subjects, where not only are men the majority, but are also disproportionately awarded firsts…’I couldn’t stand that the men looked as if they were cleverer.'” said one such precious snowflake. This is not even an argument – the fact that men achieve the majority of firsts in certain subjects is completely irrelevant to whether or not there is an ethical case for not wearing scholar’s gowns. If the plain and simple reason is that these women would prefer men not to receive rewards for their work, then that reason is misandry, here for all to see. I know of some people who achieved first class results in their examinations, and refuse to wear the scholar’s gowns they are entitled to because they feel it is wrong, or incites some sort of “nasty competition” between students. If they wish to choose to not wear their rightful gowns, then that is their choice – but they should not have the right to enforce their own ethical choices on others, certainly not over such a trivial waste of everyone’s intellectual energy as this. It is somewhat ironic that some of the people I have spoken to who hold this view are also the sorts of people who will spend over £200 on some expensive white-tie ball ticket, but won’t dare to wear a gown, because it is too “elitist”. Put that elitism in your pipe and smoke it.

Finally I move on to what is arguably the most important argument against gowns to address: “Exams are stressful enough without being forcibly reminded that you didn’t do as well as other people the last time round.” Ah here we go – it comes out, the true reason is envy. People who didn’t do as well as others wanting to drag those who did better than them down; it’s always the way in situations such as these. Well I have news for them: life isn’t fair, and no matter how much you complain, we are not all equal. The real world is full of economic inequality, social inequality, personal inequality. We are all better at different things, we all have our independent talents. For some that is not high-brow academia. There will be those who lead, those who follow; those who run business and those who work within them: such is the nature of a free society. This obsession with forcing everyone to end up in the same position serves only to stagnate society, and hold back the very people who deserve to progress forward up the social ladder – those from the worst-off backgrounds who deserve to climb to the top of the hierarchy. Those people cannot succeed if the hierarchy itself is destroyed; that merely leaves every single one of us at the bottom.

I am grateful that this referendum is merely a consultation and is not binding, but to allow OUSU to begin to make waves within the University for the abolition of scholar’s gowns will lead to what? The abolition of gowns in general? The abolition of scholarships? The abolition of Oxford’s selectiveness? It is merely the first part of a Fabian agenda to deconstruct institutions which provide beneficial elitism – the sort of elitism that raises up the deserving. If you are an Oxford student reading this – follow the link to the website, and please vote “NO”, against the proposals. If you truly care for the advancement of those from disadvantaged backgrounds, this destructive policy must be opposed.

Link for voting. You can also read some of the arguments for scholar’s gowns’ opposition. It makes for comic reading: https://ousu.org/representing-you/allstudentconsultation/



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