The abusive nature of institutional constructs of success
‘I wanted to hate this place for its cruelty and power, but I find the beauty working its way inside me. I want to walk straighter, as if my own rhythm has been altered in some subtle way by the austerity and calm’.
Not my words, but those of Anna Small in her exceedingly clever musical-dystopian novel The Chimes. Although her Oxford, a locked musical fortress, is fiction, it captures the spirit of my alma mater so deftly that reading it transported me back to my days among the dreaming spires, breathing in the heady scent of learning yes, but also, undeniably, cruelty and power. The literary world is obsessed with Oxford, from Philip Pullman to Inspector Morse, Evelyn Waugh to Martin Amis, along with, literally millions of others. When you’re there it’s a thing too – the Great Oxford Novel. To an outsider even the concept sounds ludicrously pompous, and it is. But it’s that very pomposity, that sense of self-importance, that seems, by its very nature, to inspire so many words, even these. In the same way that a revoltingly egoistical rock star can make a million fans scream, despite their obviously obnoxious levels of self-involvement, so Oxford continues to captivate writers, academics, tourists and of course students – to hold them in its thrall despite its clear and present awfulness. The university, the city, the architecture, dress code, language (there are special words for everything), and culture is a self-fulfilling prophecy, a myth built on a myth so often repeated that it makes itself true. If you tell yourself and the world that you’re special, important, unique enough times, people begin to believe you.
Being a part of that culture is toxic. For me, my three years at Oxford were exactly like being in an abusive relationship. First, you’re set up to believe you’re not good enough to belong there. You have to audition, fight off competition, be sure to be at your very very best. You are told that making it in is everything – a sign of your worth, a marker of your status in life. If you don’t make it, you feel like a failure, and if you do, the institution gives you permission to laud your success over your peers. You are validated, told how clever and special you are. How you are now a winner – made for life, guaranteed the best of everything. The elite. But that love can and will be withheld if you don’t jump through the right hoops, if you don’t submit yourself entirely to the system. There’s no space for independent thinking, unless it’s independent thinking that isn’t actually independent because they told you to think it. No place for negativity, no support if you are struggling and any sniff of failure is met with censure and disdain. Perhaps you don’ deserve this love after all. Perhaps you’re not special. Prove it, prove how special you are. Show me what you can give me, show me how far you’re prepared to go to keep my validation. Sit, roll over, beg. The power the institution holds, the way it knowingly builds you up, preys on the weakness of impressionable teenagers, toys with your expectations, your dreams, your sense of self is cruel and dangerous. You are told you must be your best self all the time, and not even your own definition of your best self but someone else’s. You must conform and perform in equal measures. And they will slam your square peg into their round hole and tell you it’s for your own good, however much you scream.
Of course, for those naturally round pegs, the whole experience is a walk in the park. Their life experience up to that point has, mostly, already consisted of self-aggrandising pomposity, institutional validation and a strong sense of their own power in the world – all hail the British public school system. If you need an example just look at the UK’s current political leaders. But if you’re not one of them, if you’re not from the right school, the right family, the right mindset or, worst of all, the right level of intellectual snobbery, the skills and talents that you do have are constantly gaslit in an attempt to break you down and remake you in their image. By showing you how much love the institution can lavish on its chosen ones and then withdrawing it at will, by forcing unfair and unnecessary conditions that amount to cultural and intellectual blackmail on you, your spirit, your individuality and your ability to believe in yourself are systematically crushed. Then, as you sink into yourself, low and despondent, crushed at the having that balmy sheen of praise whipped away, they tell you that they are right, look how weak you are. Of course you didn’t belong there in the first place, how could they have made such a silly mistake. You were never deserving, not bright and shiny enough. Inadequate. Unworthy. Whether you’re trying and failing at being what they want you to be or just trying to be yourself and get by, they will come after you, kick you and laugh as you fall. You see the promises they made you, the future they told you to believe in, fall away and you’re left weak, small and confused – positively heart-broken.
We call out this kind of treatment when it’s dished out in intimate relationships, families, even friendships, but we still allow institutions to abuse and bully – particularly ones that are the beneficiaries of their own successful propaganda. Whether it’s Oxford, Harvard, the City of London or Sillicone Valley, powerful prestigious institutions inject their criteria for success and failure into you like a proverbial virus (no, not that one). And the sense of failure doesn’t go away – especially if you’re at a stage of life where you’re very mush still discovering and defining who you are. When you’re held to a standard, a set of ideals like that, rightly or wrongly a part of that dogma can stick in your brain, particularly if you’re a young adult. ‘Give me a girl at an impressionable age and she’s mine for life’ said the inimitable Miss Jean Brodie. And it’s true. So what’s the point of a this? To say that beauty, power, even cruelty can be seductively aspirational, make you want to be better, different, than how you are, but for all the wrong reasons. Set you up for a fall but refuse to catch you. That dogmatic definitions of success are dangerous and harmful, and that it’s easy to lose yourself in a Jenga-tower of results-dependent affirmation. All of this. Or maybe it’s just me dredging up old memories and ranting. Which of course doesn’t make any of it less true or real or relevant. There’s still a discomfort, an unsettling seeping sense of failure when folks discover my academic background. A ‘but you went to Oxford, why aren’t you running the world?’ accusation that can still fill me with shame the same way that my tutors and my peers used to. I tried, but I failed. But even if I didn’t fail, I feel like I failed. False promises and gilded lilies – Oxford dishes out both in spades. I wish I could say it made me stronger, brighter, more savvy. I wish I had been able to walk taller instead of just wanting to. I wish I could know for sure if I really am a failure or have just been programmed to think I am.