14 Nov
Benedict Cumberbatch is trending on twitter today. This is primarily because he is ‘complaining’ about the ‘posh-bashing’ he gets for having gone to Harrow. Some people are writing some very nasty things about an actor who has become very successful after many years of hard graft doing a job which is considered valuable in today’s popular culture.
Benedict Cumberbatch has a voice which is instantly recognisable as an educated one, and he speaks intelligently and fluently. He dresses well, because he earns a lot of money. He can go on nice holidays or move house if he wants to, because he has the financial resources to do so. Incidentally, he happened to make the choice – when he was a child – to take up a scholarship to go to one of the most prestigious public schools in the country. Of course, he’s taking the piss a bit – as I believe Caitlin Moran adroitly pointed out on Twitter. But the furore that’s sprung up as a result means it’s worthwhile to address the prejudice that lies behind it.
Now, if you have been raised to think that education is a valuable thing, then of course you are going to take an opportunity like a scholarship. You will not consider, at the age of ten, the ways in which people will hold it against you in the future. And maybe it won’t have been the academic side of things that will have convinced you – maybe it’s the chance to do sport three times a week, or to not live with your annoying parents who won’t let you repaper your room with comic books, or because you didn’t have a good experience at primary school and you really want to go somewhere new and different. Maybe it’s because you know your parents want you to do the best you can, and you worry that you will be letting them down if you turn down this offer. Maybe you like the uniform.
It’s not fair to criticise people for the educational choices they make when they choose to succeed. Moreover, it only reinforces the system of privilege. If we continue to demonise everyone who is able to go to a good school or a good university or both, then we make it ok for people not to want to go there. We chop the top off the aspirational ladder – we invert it, in fact. If it’s a vice to be well-educated, then it follows that it’s a virtue to eschew the system, and to drop out or even to get kicked out is tantamount to sainthood. ‘Look at that guy, he’s got a degree. What a tosser’. How is an attitude like this going to encourage people to take their education seriously?
At the other end of the scale, this can make those who have succeeded protective, self-conscious, embarrassed. The well-educated form cliques which seem impenetrable to those less lucky. Some of these really are vile overhangs from an age with very different values to our own and I too will be lining up to throw rotten eggs at the Bullingdon Club et al when the revolution comes. Some of them, however, are constructs created by generalisations in the minds of the public and perpetuated by the media. These include ‘Oxbridge’. Oxbridge is stereotyped as a tiny section of society filled with slimeballs, red-trouser-wearers, heirs to great estates and yacht owners. They all hang out together drinking champagne and messing about in boats because they simply can’t abide to be seen cavorting with the plebs, dahling. There’s no denying that there are people in Oxford like this, and they do seem to stick together. Similar groups exist at Bristol, Durham, various London colleges and so on. But also populating these places is a considerable number of people who are there for the right reasons. There are even red-trouser wearers in this category. It’s possible to be the heir to a great estate and be possessed of a humility that makes you feel incredibly lucky to have been given the opportunities you have, and to want to work really hard to make them count. If someone slags you off for doing that because other people don’t have the same opportunities, what are you supposed to do? Renounce your wealth and your education, and live as a hermit? Or carry on, in the hope that you can make a positive change one day?
Now consider this. What about if you have parents who didn’t go to university, but who have scrimped and saved and sacrificed to send you to a good school – either by paying through the nose for it, or by moving to the right catchment area, or by filling the house with books they will never read but that they hope you will? If you are clever, and you want to study, you can go on to a very good university – and even if you’re not a stellar student you can do a respectable course at a respectable institution. Why on earth would you reject an opportunity to go somewhere amazing and make something of yourself?
Oh yeah – because you might be criticised for selling out, for joining the club, for being ‘posh’. You might go to a job interview one day and be rejected because your manager – who worked their way up from the floor – is threatened by your ‘elite’ label. You might be typecast with all the other stereotypes. You might find yourself adopting those stereotypes in order to feel part of something, since you’ve been cut off from the culture which spawned you. And that, there, is right where the problem is. We turn people into the stereotypes we loath by not allowing them to cross artificially-imposed social boundaries.
When we bitch people out for being clever, or funny, or successful, we are really just explaining to ourselves why we aren’t in the same position.
This isn’t a love letter to Benedict Cumberbatch. It’s a plea. We have to stop seeing boundaries in order to eradicate them. The Olympics Games have shown us that people really can come from all backgrounds and be national heroes. Matthew Pinsent isn’t criticised for going to Eton. Steve Redgrave isn’t criticised for sending his daughter to the best girl’s school in the country. Somebody criticised Cumberbatch, and he responded with a bit of wit. We’ve turned it into a class crisis because we are so class conscious.
Ok. I’m done.

One Response to “defence”

  1. Hera November 22, 2012 at 5:14 am #

    “When we bitch people out for being clever, or funny, or successful, we are really just explaining to ourselves why we aren’t in the same position.”

    THANK YOU! Anyone criticising Cumberbatch for being (dare I say the dreaded word?) needs to ask themselves why they need to tear others down rather than better themselves.

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