The St Andrean image problem

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Photo: The Saint

Pompously self-obsessed, unashamedly privileged and pathologically insecure in the face of Oxbridge. Sound familiar? These are the principle traits of our dear university and of the students therein, if the article of certain notoriety from the Edinburgh Tab is to be taken as Gospel. Within a few hours of its publication, there were few in St Andrews who were not at least aware of the piece, and by the next day a response from our own branch of the Tab, The Stand, had already been penned and promulgated across that favoured conduit for all manner of outrage, Facebook.

Even as I collected my thoughts for my own contribution to a rebuttal in The Sinner, one particular aspect of the Edinburgh article stuck out in my mind: the complete unoriginality of what the author had to say.

Affluence and exclusivity are caricaturing concepts with which anyone who has been in St Andrews for approximately five minutes is familiar, and therefore the line of argument taken by Mr Zister proved to produce ultimately uncreative and boring satire. If you want a stick with which to beat St Andrews, then there’s a very obvious one labelled “posh” invariably close at hand.

However, with over a fortnight having elapsed since the publication of the offending piece, what has been even more striking on reflection has been the ephemerality of our indignation. Once everyone had had their five minutes of harrumphing and at least someone had written some semblance of a reply, it was back to business as usual.

It seemed enough that the rebuttal article had simply (and a little unconvincingly) told our cousins in Edinburgh that they were wrong over and over again. That was the end of the matter.

Unfortunately, when it comes to perceptions, what is ‘factually’ or ‘statistically’ accurate is barely half of the story: what matters is what clicks with the imagination and what paints the most vibrant picture. This has been something which no one has been willing to entertain, let alone address, in the wake of yet another tiresome accusation that we all have a pair of red chinos hanging alongside the red gown in our wardrobes.

If people really cared about how those beyond the Old Course viewed us, then by now there would have been some serious and popular discussions about how we could rid ourselves of the image we have been assigned. We would have identified the root causes of that image and set about either extirpating them or promoting lesser-known and arguably more laudable aspects of our university.

But we haven’t, because- frankly- we as a whole love it. Even if not all of us fit into the stereotype, we collectively love the aura of old money, old traditions and Old World manners which emanates around us all. Even those of us who passionately believe that there are horrendous flaws in our institutions and student dynamic upholding the St Andrean image problem, something keeps us back from ever acting upon those opinions. It could be due to overriding apathy or a pessimism regarding the chances of ever actually changing anything, although truly passionate belief rarely befalls either of those fates. More accurately, perhaps, we see those aspects of our university with which we may disagree as not only fundamental to our communal identity but, if a little guiltily, revel in them.

Who hasn’t, chuckling to themself, described a display of excess, wealth or good breeding as “So St Andrews”? Who of us who never made it past the first encounter of the dusty study of an Oxbridge don hasn’t cracked a self-deprecating joke about the failure? Very few, I would wager. We have all found ourselves cast as some sort of troupe of pantomime villains on the stage set of Scottish universities, and it’s a role which we all seem to end up playing with not just a little relish. After all, this pantomime villain is rich, intelligent and has a good chance of landing the dream job after graduation.

Pompously self-obsessed, unashamedly privileged and pathologically insecure in the face of Oxbridge. These are the characteristics which we have constructed for ourselves, the characteristics which we have allowed to be seen most clearly and most prominently. Yes, we may expend a little time and energy through pointless faux outrage whenever someone dares to call us out on our flaws but we are all too ready to indulge in those flaws every other minute of the day.

The next time someone brands us a bunch of stuck-up toffs with a sense of entitlement, we have two options: we can either do something constructive about it, or we can more readily and honestly admit that they have highlighted a very St Andrean image problem, and- what’s more- it’s an image that we love.

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