Friday, December 5, 2008

Setting the world on fire

In an article in The New Yorker about the rise of over parenting, evidence for this trend cited growing pressure on youth to be successful in the university entrance process. Not surprisingly, applicants resort to plagiarism (the Illinois way) when preparing applications. Even Oxford and Cambridge are not immune to this; or perhaps it should be that especially Oxford and Cambridge are subject to this. The article stated that two hundred and thirty-four applicants to read chemistry at those venerable institutions cited the same example, 'burning a hole in my pyjamas at age eight,' as a formative experience. Two things are noteworthy here. One, it demonstrates an alarming bankruptcy of imagination amongst these applicants that they feel the need to search for a formative experience on the internet. Two, it is perhaps even more alarming that said applicants would think that an Oxford don would be impressed by such a puerile notion.

Times have obviously changed in the entrance process to Oxford. Although my memory is dimmed by the passage of time, I don't recall having to cite a "formative experience" in my application. I'm sure I would have been hard-pressed to come up with something suitably impressive. I was just good at it. Isn't that enough? There were the exams, late in the year; then the anxious wait for the summons to the interview. Alan Bennett's account of his interview resonates somewhat with my own experience of what was probably the most nerve-wracking moment of my young career. I had not yet tackled the driving test, for at that age had no interest or need for cars.

In the dark of a winter night I alighted from the train at Oxford station and walked the mile or so to New College clutching the map tightly so as to be able to navigate the narrow, echoing alleys that snake between the colleges. I entered the college through the narrow door within the larger gate by a porter's lodge that was dark and uninhabited. After a couple of laps of the quadrangle I singularly failed to discover any living thing. All was dark, damp and just a little bit terrifying. Eventually someone appeared, as if from nowhere, and was able to direct me to where I needed to go. There was a slit-like opening in what I later learned was the old city wall; and on the other side of that opening lay another quadrangle wherein life prospered. I was then able to locate my room and prepare for the interviews. I can't remember now if a scout summoned me from my slumbers or not; of course, in later life, the scout, a mainstay of the Oxford tradition, would become a stabilizing influence in one's college career. I'm sure they are all vanished from the scene now, doubtless replaced by eastern European immigrants and the like. The scouts of old would display a kind of parallel lineage to the students; my scout had relatives at several colleges and was clearly well bred for the job.

All meals during the interview stay were taken in college, and we candidates quickly discerned preferred colleges whereat to dine at different times of the day: breakfast at Brasenose, lunch at Wadham, dinner at John's, that kind of thing.

The interview itself was a rather quiet affair. Neither of my would-be tutors was possessed of a particularly dynamic personality. They sat back in their armchairs in a dim, musty, ever-so-slightly claustrophobic room, located somewhere up an improbably ancient creaking staircase, while I teetered on the edge of an old, large, leathery sofa (do I dare slide back in it and relax?). Not being possessed of a dynamic personality either, the interview was pretty low-key. I have no recollection of what was discussed, though I am pretty sure I was not asked about any formative experiences. What impression did I make in those few minutes? Whatever it was, it was not bad enough to undo any good work I might have done in the exams, and I was duly offered a place.

When I look back, my education seems frightfully random: the choice of high school, the selection of chemistry, the choice of college; they were mostly accidents. Did I make any real, informed, intentional decisions at any point? I think not. Much like chemistry itself: a series of random collisions.

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