Joe's problem with Cambridge is summed up in this paragraph:
It's true that not all of Cambridge's excesses are compulsory. Most of the time no one's making you eat in formal hall or buy a ticket to your college May Ball, but there's no denying the resounding expectation. You'd have to be fairly strong-headed to not even attend your own college's May Ball, while "I can't afford it" is the sort of comment that causes uncomfortable looks rather than being the expected response to, "Why aren't you going to an event that costs over £100?"
I have to admit, I did not go to Cambridge, but to the Other Place. However, Goodman is clearly including Oxford in his criticism:
By putting the most promising and ambitious students who haven't grown up with a silver spoon firmly attached to their face through three years in Oxbridge's gold-plated mangle, what are we doing for the future of our country?All I can say is that my experience of Oxford was very different from this. I rarely ate in formal hall, nor was I expected to. I did go to one Ball, but as a musician*, playing in a band. I never paid for a Ball ticket and neither did most of my friends. There simply wasn't the ubiquitous culture of expectation and entitlement that he describes. And I went to one of the posher colleges, as it happens.
I am sure that the culture he describes exists; but I am equally sure it was not ubiquitous. Indeed, many of us mildly disliked those who subscribed to it; but we didn't spend much time worrying about them, as we were (as most undergraduates are) rather too concerned with our own interests and affairs.
Which brings me back to Helene Hanff. In one of her books (either 84 Charing Cross Road, or The Duchess of Bloomsbury Street - I forget which and someone has 'borrowed' my copy...) she recounts how she was looking forward to her trip to London, and talking with a Londoner about it. He assured her that people find the London they are looking for: if she wanted the England of English Literature, then she would surely find it.
I wonder if the same applies to Cambridge and Oxford: that undergraduates find the University (or Varsity) they are looking for. And I bless my late Father, also a Magdalen man, who told me, before I went up, that one of the best reasons to go to Oxford was that it meant for the rest of my life, I would be immunised from any false respect for an Oxford degree.
He was right. I made many friends, and I observed many fools. I watched, from varying degrees of distance, the undergraduate lives of people who went on to become MPs in the three main parties; and made friends with people who made a career in anything from the Health Service to (hiss) Consultancy to (hiss hiss) Banking.
The only extravagance I acquired at Oxford (and the one I maintain to this day) is a liking for the excellent shoes hand-made by Ducker and Son. Other than that, I remain a tightwad. As for a sense of entitlement, perhaps that's not for me to judge; but if I acquired one, I seem to have mislaid it some time ago.
* On reflection, I think I overstate this: I was a drummer. As in the well-known joke: what do you call a chap who hangs around with musicians? A drummer.