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Home > Media

Journojism: Middle Class Woes

24 September 2006

We've commented before on the embourgoisement of newspapers, particularly the Sunday supplements, with their aspirational lifestyle crap, their plugs for modernist kitchen gadgets and yummy mummy journalists endlessly relating the minutiae of their lives. But it's reached such staggering proportions that we've come to the conclusion that some sharp-witted publisher should make a few bucks by collecting all this crap in one tiresome volume: 'Middle Class Woes' magazine.

A regular contributor could certainly be Anna May Mangan, who described in mind-numbing detail how her son didn't get into Oxford in The Mail on Sunday's godawful 'You' magazine this week. (It shouldn't really be called 'You' - 'Me' is much more accurate.) Her son, Jack (well, he wasn't going to be called 'Dave', was he?) was 'a straight A-grade state school student who was turned down by Oxford'. He got his Oxford rejection on Christmas Eve, which is a pretty shitty thing to happen to anyone, whatever university you're applying to. However, more unfortunately, he's got a mother who hasn't got a massive sense of proportion. Anna May says: 'The distress I felt when I read that "go away" letter was worse than when I was told my mother had died.'

Quite right. Jack's life is effectively over now, not having gone to Oxford for three years, and he will forever be known as 'Oxford reject scum'. However, the story does not end here. Mangan began to have suspicions that there might be more to Jack's rejection than merely stiff competition for places. She writes: 'I went to the church carol concert [Christmas, remember?]. It was at the social [event] afterwards that I felt the first stirrings of discomfort. Friends who heard he'd been rejected were asking questions like "Which tutor did you use?", "Where did he do his interview training?"'

Mangan started to realise that people have been keeping things from her when a friend 'whispered' that she and Jack should have been reading a book (which we'd certainly never heard of) called 'So You Want to Go to Oxbridge? Tell Me About a Banana...', a book that teaches you how to deal with tricky interviews. Mangan fumes that this advice had come too late and expresses a desire to stick her mince pie in her so-called friend's face. She concludes: 'My son was gutted, my friends were vipers and I felt stupid and lazy.'

Mangan then did what anyone would do in times of crisis - she went on the Internet. And here she discovered a plethora of resources to help people get into university. And although Jack's Oxford application had failed, and his life was effectively over, Mangan's twin daughters (Victoria and Lucy) soon decided they wanted to study medicine. 'I was out of the traps and gone,' she says, having decided to find out 'all there was to know' about putting in a tippy top med school application.

What this turned out to involve was a hideous amount of effort prepping her kiddies for interviews: 'Our kitchen table became the setting for hours of interview practice. We used the oven timer to take turns answering ethical and motivational questions that might arise at interview (taken from a free website), such as "One liver, two transplant patients - who gets it?"; "If medicine was music, what would it sound like?"'

We won't bore you with the rest of the details, but essentially Mangan turned her children's university applications (successful in the end) into something resembling a military campaign. And while everyone wants the best for their kids, it does raise a few problematic issues.

Quite apart from the question of why anyone wants to read innumerable articles about other people's largely irrelevant problems (university applications, for fuck's sake), the fact that Mangan devotes so much time and money to coaching her children for university interviews smacks of total self-interest. OK, you may be competing against other people doing exactly the same thing, but there's something deeply repulsive about the way that Mangan doesn't stop to consider that what she and other people are doing is just using their own money and education to give their offspring an advantage - something that a lot of parents wouldn't be able to do.

But where the whole project starts to fall down is that going to a good university is *not* a guarantee of *that* much. Sure, a good degree helps you get a job and university gives you the opportunity to do things you wouldn't otherwise have done. But there's a lot more to getting a job you want than just waving a degree around. And going to Oxford is constantly misrepresented in the popular imagination - people seem to believe that an Oxbridge degree somehow means you're either going to be Prime Minister or Stephen Fry. Sorry, but life doesn't work like that. And looking at the even bigger picture, getting into Oxbridge most definitely isn't a guarantee of leading a successful or happy life.

What's horrible about Mangan's whole story is the brazen self-interest and the way that university applications, already a time-consuming and stressful exercise, have been made even more competitive and pressurised. Oh, and of course the fact that newspaper editors think readers have an endless appetite for the travails of the self-obsessed media middle-class.

Comment on this article: letters@thefridaything.co.uk

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