Is Cambridge special?

AYAZ MANJI asks if there’s anything about Cambridge that makes it different.

If you’re reading this and about to come to Cambridge, you might be wondering whether it’s worth it; whether this place is really special or if it’s going to change your life in any meaningful way.

I can guarantee you that you’re going to have an awesome time. I can nearly guarantee you that you won’t regret it. What I can’t do is promise you that there’s anything special here – there’s just the illusion of it. But maybe that’s just as good.

In Space Jam, Michael Jordan leads the Loony Tunes to victory by selling them on his ‘special stuff’. It’s tap water, but it works. It makes them believe that they have something in them that makes them better. It makes them believe that they’re destined for greatness, that what they do matters.

Plato was another believer in the power of false confidence. In the Republic he envisages a society set alight by a ‘great lie’. Some would be born with the literal belief that there was gold in their hearts and that it set them apart from all the others. Those would become the elites and the leaders of men.

That ‘great lie’ is Oxbridge’s biggest secret. Sure there may be more contact hours or a heavier workload than other universities but that’s not what sets them apart.

Intelligent, motivated people will continue to do well wherever they find themselves and to pretend that Oxford and Cambridge are the only institutions full of great talent is at best naïve and at worst the product of an appalling kind of prejudice.

Instead what makes them different is the fact they’ve bought into their own self-image. They’ve constructed themselves as these monolithic temples of learning and endeavour and maybe even privilege. What young student isn’t going to be seduced by that?

Every day I find myself constantly in awe of my friends both from home and from college. They rail against the world and its injustices and produce ridiculously beautiful things. They have thoughts and then they make them happen.

But I don’t think they’re special. There are so many people like them and there would be countless more if only that message of privilege didn’t just exist in Grammar Schools or ‘elite’ universities.

Owen Jones wrote about wanting to get rid of a system that systematically privileges a small, often already wealthy, section of the population. In her letter rejecting Oxford Elly Nowell wrote about how intimidating the grand setting of Magdalene College is to people who haven’t grown up with a certain kind of background.

Maybe both of them neglected something important and good that’s often disregarded as elitism. It’s a good thing to make young people feel like the world is theirs. It’s a good thing to convince people that what they do at university could be original and inspiring and historic. It’s a good thing to make people feel like their education isn’t just a standard part of their life but an unimaginable privilege. The challenge isn’t destroying that feeling, it’s making it as wide as possible.

So right now you might not be feeling too inspired or too confident but that might change. Once you get here you can do anything you like. You can set yourself up to make a lot of money or try and change the world or learn incredible things or just have fun with some brilliant people.

Some of those goals are worthier than others and I shouldn’t be in the business of judging but just know that you can do all of those things because there’ll be people here who make you believe that you can. That’s big and that’s something and you’ve just signed up for at least three years of it.