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Artillery Row

An unconventional (Re)Freshers’ Guide

How to be sane and subversive amid student life

Being branded a subversive person is hardly a positive attribute. Going against common fashions is much-needed, though, when these trends are constraining, pernicious and detrimental to the essence of our human nature. To misquote Yves Saint Laurent, fashion fades, but dialogue is eternal.

As another academic year begins — and drunken antics battle against the need to work — academics and students will be contemplating how best to create an optimal educational experience for themselves and for others. I am not just referring to preparing lecture notes or ensuring that the pre-term reading has been at least vaguely completed with plans for termly parties diarised. New students will experience simultaneous excitement and anticipation for the next few years ahead. Those returning after a summer of work and respite will seek to learn lessons — academic and social — from the bygone year. Evelyn Waugh was hardly incorrect in Brideshead Revisited when he asserted, one spends “half your second year shaking off the undesirable friends you made in your first”.

Returning students may, however, want to shake off more than undesirable friends. They may wish to wash themselves clean of the so-called progressive ideologies that proliferated across the campus walls in their previous year. We must be realistic, though, even if it means being pessimistic. Universities have long lost their statuses as Pantheons of enlightenment thinking — of tolerance, agreement and disagreement. Yet, we should not lose hope. Nothing is to stop the return of those halcyon days of lively freedom of discussion, albeit updated for the 21st century. It is no bad thing to be in a class with those you may dislike, encouraged to engage with the ideas of one’s adversaries, rather than cower sheepishly in submission. Such is the heart of developing not just academic ability but, more importantly, the ambiguously-termed “life skills”.

Thus, I present a five-point guide for the new academic year, whether you are a new or existing student, undergraduate or graduate (or even an academic):

Attend lectures

… not just those you are supposed to (but may, on account of a hangover, choose not to) attend as part of your course of study. Try to attend talks and events beyond your immediate subject. One of the best, albeit somewhat contradictory, pieces of advice I was given when I commenced my undergraduate degree was to “read around the subject”. This axiom is not encouraging you to eschew the required readings set by your tutors and, instead, sit under a tree reading Homer’s Iliad. It is encapsulating an inherently valuable aspect of university life: an holistic education.

Our days as petulant teenagers are behind us — we are adults now

The Roger Scruton Memorial Lectures at the University of Oxford offer a fine example of the importance of being exposed to perspectives which, in the last few years, have either become marginalised at universities or, even worse, erased from discussion. These talks will likely not feature in any Freshers’ Welcome Pack, but they offer a powerful antidote to what has sadly become one’s typical induction to university life. Instead of harbouring judgement at what might be said, go forth and listen. You might disagree with the speakers; you might agree with them. Shock, horror — your views may even evolve with time.


… not just in lectures, when you are supposed to be listening, but also in your social life. As any musician would attest, hearing and listening are two different things. Do not be afraid to listen to views that might, initially, make you shudder: you may just learn something new, including how to disagree. In today’s insouciant world, we tend to shrug our shoulders in apathy, shut our ears or, as is becoming increasingly common, flounce out of a room in hysterics having heard views that contradict those expounded by the Grauniad-reading wokerati. You can resist, however.

The ability to listen, especially to so-called untrendy or counter-cultural views, is more important now than ever before. The first university encounters by fresh-faced students comprise workshops about inter-human interaction, emotional emancipation (the meaning of which remains unclear) and, of course, the three boring words: Equality, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI). Why not take a leaf out of Cambridge’s book: ask questions that go against the grain, or set up your own discussion group? At the University of Cambridge, Professor Arif Ahmed — now the Director for Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom at the Office for Students — has revolutionised the student experience. Instead of succumbing to the faddish alphabet soups that sit with pride of place on university agendas, Ahmed’s free speech sessions at Gonville and Caius college have provided the keys to truthful and open debate. Of all places, universities should offer venues for the mature airing of divergent and convergent viewpoints, not shutting them down. Our days as petulant teenagers are behind us — we are adults now.

Find a healthy community

Whilst reminiscing about undergraduate days with a close friend, we concluded that it was not enough simply to find a community whilst at university. Joining a cult as you pretend to be the next Pope is both heretical and unadvised, unless you want to lose friends within a week. It is vital to seek and form a community that is healthy, supportive and fun. It may take some time (and experimentation) to find the community that is “right” for you. Join societies and groups, whether musical, political, sports-based or theological, and meet people far and wide. Fate may dictate that you even meet people who are from your very environs.

In the unique collegiate system of Oxford, Durham and Cambridge, your social life often becomes quasi-monastic, which is a prized asset. Don’t feel afraid to venture beyond the four walls of your courts, cliques and quadrangles, however. A healthy community is not an echo chamber. Have the days really disappeared when friends of diverse views disagreed over which political party should be in power in Westminster, but proceeded to engage in riotous enjoyment at the local pub?

Be tolerant — and don’t be afraid to speak up

… not just within your own community, but beyond. It is well-known that in the present day, academics, as well as students, feel increasingly pressured to avoid ostracisation for expressing allegedly “controversial” views. Here is your chance to be subversive. Wasn’t Karl Marx controversial? Isn’t critical race theory or gender ideology controversial? Whether it is raising a perfectly legitimate challenge to the placement of postcolonial theory on a university syllabi, or saying (politely) that Britain should not follow Justin Welby’s calls to pay reparations to the Caribbean, there is nowhere better than a university in which to air these claims.

It’s too easy to treat university life as a Machiavellian competition

Don’t just challenge the ideological shallowness of your peers. What about your lecturers and tutors? One need not kowtow to views with which one disagrees in the seminar room, simply because they emanate from a supposed figure of authority. Whether challenging the colonisation of curricula by prototype “decolonisers” and warriors (“eco” or otherwise), or whether critiquing socially-conservative perspectives, one is truly upholding the pillars of a university: free thinking, free speech and Socratic discourse. Academia is not activism. You can always ignore the eyesore of the signs that have recently become a prominent feature across university towns, namely those asking if you are a communist.

Remember, it’s not everything

Has this author gone mad? Just Stay Grounded, and Just Stop Grafting for power! It’s too easy to treat university life as a Machiavellian competition for personal gain, be it rising to the presidency of a political society by quashing one’s rivals, or mastering the art of boasting about summer internships (all of which feature in the Idiot’s Guide to Losing Friends). Even within the realm of academic work — the study of sound learning — the years of study you undertake at university ought not to be a mere jockeying with others for the highest marks, but a means of moulding the individual: learning for learning’s sake, making lifelong friendships and becoming the whole person.

Enjoy university, but do not fall asleep as the flames of the prevailing fads engulf campuses and their occupants. As St Benedict of Nursia said, “The sleepy like to make excuses.” Instead of making excuses and dancing to the tune of allegedly fashionable trends, stand up and subvert!

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