Earlier this month two students at Somerville College, Oxford, proposed a JCR motion to ban High Table – that epitome of the Oxbridge scene – which affords its guests a special status not generally offered to students themselves. The motion I understand was heavily defeated; in any case a JCR motion of course has no binding power on the college itself. The symbolism is what matters. One of those students, Sarika Sharma, makes the case for abolition in this Cherwell debate, reproduced here. I oppose.
At a JCR meeting at Somerville College, Olivia Arigho-Stiles and I proposed a motion for the abolition of High Table. While it was strongly rejected for mostly sentimental reasons, our case still stands. Many Somerville students actively voted in support of High Table, believing that it embodies respect for senior members of the college and a celebration of academic success. But this argument fails to take into account the damaging side-effects of this tradition.
In practice High Table elevates the senior members of a college above normal diners, in the spirit of the old feudal order. Society today broadly embraces the idea of egalitarianism, in that all human life is inherently of equal value, whatever class or creed. The High Table system is simply not appropriate for this day and age.
The exact set-up is different in each individual college: some, such as Brasenose, emphasise the division more strongly by providing better quality food and cutlery to those sitting at High Table. Other colleges like Somerville have a more informal atmosphere in hall: gowns are not worn, and the food is the same quality everywhere. Despite this, the literal elevation of High Table creates fundamental distinctions between diners, which is why I proposed the motion.
There is no doubting that the nature of academic institutions is hierarchical, but to have this asserted in a supposedly communal place of eating makes little sense. Where you ought to eat is irrelevant to your place in the hierarchy of academia, and hence high table is a wholly unnecessary act of veneration.
Respecting senior members of the college and celebrating academic achievement must find other, less offensive outlets, which do not place one group beneath another. To abolish High Table would be a simple change and is hardly a radical idea, but it would nonetheless show a strong commitment to inclusiveness, tolerance and other egalitarian values between those who are eating in the college community.
Anachronism is inescapable at Oxford, and while a bit of pomp seems like nice, harmless fun, it also serves to remind us of our university’s socially elitist past.
Oxford needs and wants to improve access to students coming from diverse and under-privileged backgrounds, and this involves thinking seriously about the image it projects to the wider world.
You may be so accustomed to the Oxford bubble, its culture and its traditions, that you would not sense the way in which High Table is likely to be understood by someone from outside our university culture. Guests tend to express either awe or discomfort as they look up to High Table. It gives off a sense of superiority that is very antiquated to the point of being surreal.
Ok, High Table is hierarchal and old-fashioned. And yes, it’s very pleasant to be a guest at High Table and, naturally, the exclusivity of the whole affair is slightly peeving to those who aren’t invited to join it. But once you understand that the only objection of the Somerville students who proposed the JCR motion is ‘exclusivity’, their case begins to fall apart.
Unless you’re in cahoots with the anarcho-communists, you’re not going to object to exclusivity per se. Most of us are inclined to object to any society or institution that excludes people based on race or gender (though the membership policy of the Black Police Officers Association might make you think twice on that one). But few people take issue with groups that discriminate on the basis of some form of merit. The rugby team will pick the best rugby players (alas at Brasenose, I am not among them); socially, we all court friend- ships with some people, at the exclusion of others, because we find them funny, attractive and caring. And higher education of course remains ruthlessly meritocratic, as the top universities admit only those who have jumped over the requisite intellectual hurdles.
Similarly, High Table exists to confer special privilege and status on those who in college’s judgement deserve it. No doubt that judgement may at times be dodgy at best: that the late Eric Hobsbawn, the Marxist historian and Stalin apologist, held that honour at a series of Oxbridge colleges over his long life smacks me as pretty offensive. Nor would it surprise me to learn that a fair number of High Table guests are there by virtue of being mates with the Principal – just like the pre-debate dinner at the Oxford Union is packed out with the President’s cronies dining on your dollar. To suggest that not everyone at High Table deserves to be there does not stretch the bounds of credulity. The selection process, to the extent that there is one at all, is undoubtedly rigged in favour of the elderly, the decrepit, the religious and the wealthy. But that does not mean to say that the institution of High Table is inherently odious. If I may be permitted to throw out a couple of platitudes: don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater; mend it, don’t end it.
You may not think that the current crop of suits who enjoy High Table are particularly deserving, but in that case we should change the rules about who is entitled to dine there, rather than abolishing the practice altogether. If High Table is an anachronistic injustice, then so is Oxford and indeed, most of human society. The Somerville motion was resoundingly crushed by their eminently sensible JCR for the obvious reason that there is such a thing as achievement. Only the envious and miserable would deprive colleges of the right to laud achievement by serving something a bit fancy for dinner.