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Sandstone-Tinted Glasses: On College Culture

November 29, 2017

Attempting to define the culture of particular groups is fraught with problems. Consider, for example, definitions of Australian culture: taken at face value, they give the impression that Australians are all thong-wearing larrikins whose diets comprise VB and sausage rolls. Such definitions rarely entertain the thought that some Aussies enjoy listening to orchestras under the sails of the Sydney Opera House or drinking coffee roasted by self-proclaimed Bondi Hipsters. While the distinction between cultural reality and cultural mythology is unambiguous when national groups are concerned, it is less clear in the case of residential colleges; few have firsthand experience against which to assess accounts of college culture (a small percentage of university students attend colleges in Australia). For most, interface with these institutions is therefore mediated solely by journalists, who have been known to wear sandstone-tinted glasses from time to time. The words below seek to address this issue by casting light upon some of the cultural norms that seldom enjoy expression in stereotype-laden newspaper articles and news segments. Its aims are, at the risk of overdoing the analogy, akin to informing those who have never lived in Australia that Aussies do not ride kangaroos to work or drink Vegemite smoothies.

Defining college culture should be as difficult as defining national culture; for fear of reductivism, the most one should strive to do is identify a few “dominant cultural traits”. Applying this approach, it might be agreed that there are only two such traits, both of an ontological nature, that apply to all residential colleges. The first relates to the idea upon which these institutions are predicated: that the line drawn between education and life is an artificial and undesirable one. In the spirit of the so-called “Oxbridge” tradition, college education does not, in theory, comprise solitary study sessions with a few drops of fun and collaboration in the margins; it affords individuals the opportunity to become “whole people” (as distinct from robots with a knack for regurgitating information) through exposure to cultural, sporting, spiritual, social and academic experiences. Dining hall conversation and social drinks are therefore as much within the purview of education as attending lectures. The second trait is the freedom afforded to students. While this often involves a degree of celebratory post-school drinking, that need not be the case; how such freedom is utilised depends on the individual. Attempts to define “college culture” must then give way to a separate pursuit: considering the cultural traits specific to particular colleges (a distinction seldom made). The “case study” of this article is St Andrew’s College.

Understanding the culture of Andrew’s begins with identifying its “dominant cultural traits”. In the abstract, these are codified by its values (which loosely translate to service, community and attainment), while in everyday life they manifest in the scenes photographed and printed in glossy pamphlets: smiling students dressed in blue and white, young women and men rehearsing for drama plays, science majors studying next to history majors in a library lined with Commonwealth Law Reports, and sweaty athletes slogging it out on the tennis court. Then there are the less visible – but no less integral – cultural traits of Andrew’s. These range from the solitary pursuit of excellence (embodied by the many daily hours of practice undertaken by the organ scholar or the early morning training sessions of the rowers) to the culture of pastoral care (exemplified by peers who lend their shoulders behind closed doors or the private meetings between students and the Vice-Principal when things go wrong). One might also add to this category intimate group dinners, hosted by the Principal, that aim to provide students with the opportunity to express their thoughts on College life. Other seldom-reported traits include the overwhelming amount of community service undertaken by residents and the commitment to providing those with limited financial means access to education (expressed in $1.5 million of annual scholarships and bursaries). Clearly, these nuances are not included in blanket definitions of “college culture”, but are certainly part of the cultural fabric of Andrew’s.

There are, of course, problematic traits as well. Before identifying them, it is important to articulate what they are not: young people getting the study-social balance wrong in their first year of university, consensual participation in absurdly stupid initiatives, and so on. These tendencies might be euphemistically referred to as “taking the HSC shackles off too abruptly”, and are neither unique to particular institutions nor something tertiary institutions should actively try to eliminate; removing the opportunity for young adults to make mistakes means introducing regulative measures that would also constrain the freedom upon which other elements of college life are contingent (for example, student leadership opportunities). Obviously, this category does not encompass activities that harm others. It is this distinction that gives rise to a second category of issues (all of which can and should be eliminated): the presence of unsavoury traditional rituals and chants (though I must admit that the sinister ones have faded during my time at Andrew’s), pressure felt by individuals to participate in events they would prefer to miss (a blue and white species of fomo), and anecdotally rare instances of harassment.

What should be unequivocally recognised as a non-issue at St Andrew’s College is, contrary to popular belief, a lack of opportunity for women to obtain leadership roles due to entrenched sexism. The narrative of female leadership opportunities at Andrew’s is best expressed as a historical overview. Fifteen years ago, the College opened its doors to female residents (135 years into its far too… masculine history). Since then, students have, against a backdrop of increased female representation on Council and equitable celebration of male and female sporting competitions, been encouraged to consider the individual traits of potential leaders and reminded that voters “get the leaders they deserve”. Fifteen years later (in 2017), the students of Andrew’s voted in 8 women to fill the 11 available student leadership positions (two of which were specified as male positions). It is the narrative of gender equality that Australian companies and workplaces should envy, and an exemplification of Liz Broderick’s oft-quoted comment: “Gender equality is not a battle of the sexes, it’s a battle for equality, a battle that men and women must wage side-by-side”. It is clear that both the women and men of Andrew’s channelled this sentiment into the ballot box this year.

One could not write an article about college culture without mentioning the Elizabeth Broderick & Co Review. One of the questions colleges will have to answer is how, in light of the findings, heads of colleges ought to wield the double-edged sword known as “student freedom and autonomy”. Three possibilities of varying soundness come to mind. The first is to destroy the sword (that is, constrain the freedom and autonomy of students and adopt a pseudo boarding house model). The second is to wield it ferociously and spar with the media (arguing, for example, that one is far more likely to be harmed at a house party than a college, and that when things go wrong at the latter, professional support is made available). And the third is using the findings as a roadmap to long-term, meaningful change. It is hoped that the latter will be adopted. After all, the finding of just one instance of sexual misconduct (of any form) justifies investing time and energy in cultural renewal. All change must, of course, be led by students; history has shown that while disciplinary measures suppress the symptoms of underlying issues, empowering students as the architects of their community and working with them creates tangible, long-term change.

Perhaps this article will be accused of espousing an uninhibited pro-college stance. And without a doubt, there will be a college patriot out there who interprets it as a timely defence of college culture. For these readers a second reading is in order. The point made above is merely that the only way of understanding “college culture” is by abandoning futile attempts to define it in general terms. College culture is not – and could never be, even if it were desirable – a homogenous cluster of social behaviours that permeate all structures made of sandstone. Perhaps it would even be better to deny the existence of “college culture” altogether; there are, it could be said, as many college cultures as there are colleges.

  • Will Cesta, fr 2013 & Dean of Admissions

Will Cesta Headshot

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