My Advice to Freshers? Be a Snob.

A-Levels well and truly in the past, exam certificates already lining the bottom of your wardrobe, you’ve made it to one of the top universities in the country. Congratulations. You’re young, intelligent – the cream of the crop – and you can do anything, right? Well, so they tell you anyway. We’re bred on the American Dream (yes, even here in good old Blighty), which proclaims that you can achieve, you will succeed, and that it’s your right and privilege to do so. But the problem is, it isn’t that easy; success – as a serial failure, I can attest to this fact – is not glamorous and takes a lot of effort (more even than those glossy film montages would have you believe, as inconceivable as that is) and yet few of us are held to the standard required to go on to great things by those around us.

Education is geared to helping you pass exams, not to developing a critical and engaged mind. And worse still, there seems to be a taboo within society when it comes to telling people that they are wrong, that their logic is faulty or their conclusions lazy. Certainly, we’re more than happy to snipe at one another across the internet provided, of course, we are either hurling insults at an accepted out-group or we confine our arguments to the purely aesthetic/inconsequential (“Look at her in that dress – ssluut!” “Only wa***rs play Pro Evo” etc.). Perish the thought that we might actually condemn someone else’s opinion on the basis of reasoned argument.

At its worst, this inability to criticise on a substantial level has infected our classrooms and lecture theatres. Exams are designed to be passed (only 2% of A-levels were failed this year, and when you include thickos like me in those figures, the rest of you must be pretty switched on). Failure doesn’t do any of the key ‘stakeholders’ (teachers, exam boards, education ministers, etc.) any good, and so educators – far from challenging their students to strive for clarity in their thinking or, dare I say it, innovation – settle for gently moulding students’ thinking away from the lazy and towards the mildly-derivative. After all, exams demand tediously regimented answers (anything verging on original or outside of the prescribed norm jeopardises those precious exam results). It’s a sad fact, but one that you may well be aware of by this point in your academic career.

But why is it we feel so uncomfortable with holding each other to account? Perhaps we’re all far too polite to point out fatuous thinking when we hear it, or maybe we’re so wracked with self-doubt about our own intellectual standing that we daren’t challenge somebody else. It’s far easier to snipe at ‘thieving bankers’, ‘greedy benefit cheats’, ‘stupid politicians’, or ‘meat-headed footballers’, than to turn a critical eye to the everyday, or even to engage with the bigger issues on a more sophisticated level. We’re dabblers – the stream of vintage-style photos on our Instagram walls and the shallow entreaties to sign the latest ‘good-cause’ petition that litter our Facebook streams demonstrate this new brand of the meagre polymath, but, as Professor Yaffle of Bagpuss acclaim would say, few of us are “properly serious”.

My solution? Well, snobbery. Obviously. Don’t get me wrong, traditional snobbery is a right downer; everyone has the right to be who they want to be, and in whatever way they choose, without anyone looking down their nose at them. What I’d support is a resurgence of the intellectual snob. Again, that’s not to say sneering at others for a lack of knowledge – clearly an unpleasant idea – but rather, refusing to accept lazy reasoning or imprecise argument either in oneself or others and never dumbing down a topic so that it’s more ‘accessible’ for those too lazy to drag themselves up to the standard required to fully enjoy it. Centuries have passed since the Enlightenment and yet moronic and feeble reasoning still abounds and, as Einstein (quite brainy) reflects, “the difference between stupidity and genius is that genius has its limits.”

I’m frequently ashamed of the huge gaps in my own knowledge, and those people who bend their standards to fit my awareness do me no favours by allowing me equal standing in any conversation I cannot fully comprehend. As Harlan Ellison famously wrote, “You are not entitled to your opinion. You are entitled to your informed opinion. No one is entitled to be ignorant.” I do, however, console myself with the fact that, like that clever, beardy fella from toga-wearing times (Socrates, for those not in the know), I’m under no illusions about my own ignorance.

But critical thinking and rigorous intellectual standards are more than a question of idealism, personal standards, or even the nobler endeavour of maintaining a high standard across society – they are essential skills. The world is an increasingly complex and difficult place to navigate and university is a microcosm of that world, with different groups each trying to ensnare you with their own particular ideologies. I urge you neither to dismiss nor accept any of these ideologies without being able to clearly discuss your reasons for that choice. Because, I believe, tolerance comes from fully appreciating (not necessarily respecting) one another’s positions on certain things, even when we don’t agree with them. If you can condemn the Christian Union as being a group for mystic fantasists, the Labour Soc. for idealistic commies, or Humans vs. Zombies for socially-awkward fantasists then, clearly, you’ve not taken the time to appreciate the value of each.* University should be a time for being open-minded, for experimenting intellectually, socially, sexually, and in any other way you fancy, you flighty bugger. That said, always be discerning, and never allow yourself to adopt the opinions of others without fully appreciating the arguments yourself. Now, that can be a big ask at times, so for Buddha’s sake, don’t let the pressure of it all get you down – mindless pleasure is as important as brow-furrowing contemplation, so keep it all in balance.

University offers the opportunity to discuss ideas with people genuinely informed and impassioned, so I implore you, uphold the Ancient Greek tradition of having a good old barney about everything, open your mind and strive for intellectual rigour. No one will demand it of you, so demand it of yourself. Refuse to accept easy, narrow arguments; rather, appreciate the rich variety of opinion before formulating your own ideas. Realise your own ignorance, and embrace it – don’t become entrenched in any position, but be open to ideas, supple to changes in the facts, and most of all don’t waste the opportunity that lies before you. As Susan Sontag (you’ll become familiar) says, “Attention is vitality. It connects you with others. It makes you eager. Stay eager.”

But don’t take it from a marauding simpleton like me, make up your own minds – now go out there and be the beautiful nit-pickers you have the potential to be!

*Incidentally, I’m not a subscriber to any of these groups mainly on account of being a rational atheist who doesn’t believe in political tribalism, and who is far too lazy to allow for proper Zombie hunting, but I’m sure they’re all lovely.