Pointing fingers: Should Oxford Students be Writing about Politics?

by Zixin Jiang


Aristotle once declared that it is unfit for a young person to learn political science, ‘for he is inexperienced in the actions that occur in life’. [1] I do not know if Aristotle had in mind teenagers or whether his statement would apply to modern undergraduates as well. But I do know that he is not the only one who has been anxious that the young, whoever they are, should refrain from meddling in political affairs they do not understand.

For example, when the nineteen-year-old Hongkonger Joshua Wong—China’s most famous student leader since 1989—criticised Hong Kong’s ‘gerontocracy’ as one of the big problems in local politics, he received a backlash even from some of his own supporters, who echoed the idea that those with more years behind them are simply better equipped to be lawmakers. ‘Meritocracy—not exclusion by discrimination’, wrote one man in a Facebook comment.

“It is humbling to realise how easy it is for academia to completely lose touch with the rest of society.”

What is more, Oxford-educated so-called intellectuals can be prone to having their heads in the clouds. Last week, I read—for my paper on political theory—an essay by the philosopher Elizabeth Anderson in which she scathingly describes how academic debate on political equality has become ‘strangely detached from existing egalitarian political movements.’

She writes how even as the public was grappling with issues related to universal suffrage, and campaigning for equal respect for LGBT and the disabled, professional philosophers were debating whether or not society should compensate beach bums for their lack of hardworking genes. It is humbling to realise how easy it is for academia to completely lose touch with the rest of society.

We might be tempted to conclude from all this that young Oxford students are the worst commentators on politics. But there is a fine line between being aware of the weaknesses discussed, versus conforming to the popular but misguided notion that young people do not have much ‘life experience’, or that students and academics do not understand the ‘real world’.

“Each person’s experiences are limited, but limited in a unique way.”

To say that one person is just generically more experienced than another (without reference to any particular kind of experience) is to assume that different persons’ experience or knowledge can somehow be measured on the same scale—that they are ‘commensurable’, so to speak. Or, they assume that there is a body of general knowledge that is a basic requirement for understanding politics.

Different experiences are simply that, different; one cannot be substituted for another. And even so-called generalists have a special combination of expertise.

So let us accept that each person’s experiences are limited, but limited in a unique way. This is true for all of us. What we have to figure out is how to contribute to contemporary discussions whilst being aware of our own individual limitations.

By now I must have convinced the senior editors that I do not know how to write an article that is not somehow related to Hong Kong or China; but that hardly matters because there are many other students in Oriel who know how to write about, for example, why the Labour government lost the last election (which remains a complete mystery to me).

The Poor Print’s Current Affairs section is, therefore, a platform for Oriel students to apply their particular areas of knowledge from study or experience to political issues. Some writers might want to delve deeply into the technicalities of a single problem, while others might prefer to illustrate a wider combination of concerns involved in an issue.

My hope is that despite our individual limitations, as young students with fresh voices on current affairs, we can surely make even Aristotle think again.

[1] trans. W. D. Ross.


The Poor Print

The Poor Print is Oriel College's student newspaper, with contributions from across the JCR, MCR, SCR, and staff. Our current Executive Editors are Siddiq Islam and Jerric Chong.

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