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The limits of student hedonism

09 October 2015

THIS week has been freshers’ week at Oxford and Cambridge. Here in Oxford, the streets have been full of new arrivals wobbling on new bikes, Mum and Dad having deposited them and all their gear last weekend (Comment, 2 October).

When I went up to Girton in 1969, I went on the train with my bike — my trunk having been sent off weeks before. At the freshers’ fair, I joined the Union, a volunteer group for visiting the elderly, and, bizarrely, a country-dancing club, which I attended only once. Later I was inveigled into joining the Robert Hall Society (Baptist) by an extraordinarily persuasive rep.

Cambridge and Oxford were innocent then. The most alarming invitation I had was to my tutor’s sherry party. But, during the past 20 years (of which I have spent 15 in Cambridge and five in Oxford), I have become aware of a darker side to undergraduate initiations — and I don’t mean the alleged fooleries that may or may not have happened at the Piers Gaveston Society in David Cameron’s time.

It is more the widespread expectation that everyone will be up for sex, and unless you have found a partner within the first week, you are a loser. There is also, in some circles, the expectation that astonishing quantities of alcohol will be consumed. One early morning in Cambridge, I remember tripping over bottles, glasses, cast-off high heels, and some other astonishing items of clothing — all strewn across the road before the street-cleaners moved in.

University students are under pressure, and have always been known for potentially disruptive behaviour, especially in the earliest and final weeks of their time. Some years ago, however, I began to wonder what freshers’ week might be like for, say, a Muslim student, brought up to stay sober and be cautious around the opposite sex. We so often assume that the values of the majority are liberating and fulfilling, but I see nothing liberating or fulfilling in the group pressures that can be put on new students to drink too much and have sex with virtual strangers.

Chaplains and others are ready to pick up the casualties, but I wonder why we assume that casual sex and too much drink are a normative initiation into university life. These days, I feel ashamed of this taken-for-granted hedonism, and wonder exactly what values we are defending. After all, Muslim students arriving at university today have much the same personal boundaries as many young Christians once had. There is nothing radical (in the extremist sense) about chastity.

It is surprising how old-fashioned puritanism — hard work, sobriety, and continence — can appear both relevant and refreshing.

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