A note on scholars’ gowns

Paddy Summerfield, The Oxford Pictures 1968–1978

I will not deny the experiences outlined in the article recently published in Cherwell — indeed, the competition in Oxford is often sky-high, sometimes to the detriment of students’ well-being. I would lie if I said I’d never caught myself marvelling at fellow students in scholars’ gowns — even though I was wearing one myself! That said, this is probably the tradition I’d defend to death if I had to pick one, and not for self-destructive reasons.

Impostor syndrome, feelings of inadequacy and shame are more complex than the authors of Cherwell article suggest. In fact, they exist regardless of small things like gowns — I bet many scholars, like me, are not absolved of all negative emotions once they get this academic achievement. A Distinction will not automatically make anyone at peace with themselves (I would know) — the change should instead occur through attitudes and greater investment in welfare.

To me, banning scholars’ gowns is, first and foremost, a lie — akin to the notion that first-year exams do not matter. You can strip scholars’ of their gowns, but it will not account for the fact that their grades are, in fact, different, which might (not in every single case but still) affect landing internships, getting postgraduate offers, and developing self-esteem. Demographic disparities identified in the Cherwell article will also not go away — just concealed under the faux notion of sameness.

The article talks about a dilemma faced by the scholars themselves (one which, frankly, has never been an issue to me). Apart from glossing over the fact that scholars, according to university rules, are entitled to wear either of the two undergraduate gowns, it conflates wearing a scholars’ gown with putting others’ down. If anything, this strikes me (even if not intended by the authors) as a disgraceful shaming tactic — for some reason, taking pride in your achievements is considered worth condemning.

One can rightly ask why does this notion of shame extend only to academic achievement: I have not seen articles calling, for instance, for banning the system of Blues or awards for community engagement. When both are, to some extent, dependent on chance, it is not clear whether awarding one and not the other is an expression of smugness and superiority. It is especially surprising in Oxford as a place built on academic excellence — shunning rewarding it here seems absurd, especially since most current students have been accepted to this university by virtue of performing better than their peers.

While many argue that scholars’ gowns reinforce demographic distinctions and biases, I find this argument somewhat condescending. I can only speak for myself and my experience as a member of some groups mentioned by campaigners, but, in no way, I feel like I should be given a leg up because of my gender, nationality, or mental illness. When you attribute academic success solely to one’s privilege, you alienate members of marginalised groups who exceed expectations and perform well against their odds, and, more disgracefully, stop them from celebrating their success. As it was mentioned in the OUSU debate on the issue, academia remains a safe haven for many students who were bullied in school and/or suffer from mental health problems. Should we, as a community, ignore this dimension of student life and virtually make one’s social standing a matter of popularity contest? The answer is not as obvious as the opposing side suggests.

One might roll their eyes at this piece and consider me smug and generally unpleasant — which is not surprising considering how success and ambition are often treated with contempt. However, the only point I want to get across is that there is a separate side to this argument: no matter how you vote, it all comes down to prioritising some feelings and experiences over others, and it would be offensive to suggest that some of them are intrinsically more valuable. Let’s focus on less divisive issues first: the cost of gowns and disparities between different colleges in terms of scholarships/exhibitions are easier to address and will arguably make more positive impact.

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