by Monim Wains
Institutions have always been interesting to me. There is a realisation that I have had as I have gotten older: they don’t actually exist, do they?
As an undergraduate with barely two decades of life under my belt, you might already be switching away from this article, wondering what on earth I could know. I think I agree with you! But there is a suggestion in what I would like to put to you. It is based on little experience, I admit, but it is not wrong, I think, and it is powerful. I wonder if you will agree.
What I have found as I ‘become an adult’ is how there is no such thing in the first place. An ‘adult’ was meant to be someone who knew what they were doing. ‘Adults’ knew how the world worked; they could make plans and organise things; they had the answers. But, of course, no one has ever managed all of that – or any of it. Adult or not, we are all adrift in the waves of fate, going on day by day without really knowing how, where to, or why.
I think this realisation about adulthood is common, but have you thought this way about institutions? Have you ever considered whether the ‘system’ or the ‘culture’ really knows what it is doing? And more so, are any of those things really there in the first place? I think not. They are but a mirage, like ‘adulthood’, which disappear in a puff of self-confident smoke.
Consider the university, for example. Or even, the JCR/MCR. It is at a smaller scale, but it is an institution, is it not? It has a voice, an opinion, a position it sometimes takes on in a strongly-worded open letter. It feels like it’s a real… thing, of some kind. But it is nothing except you; nothing but students who have decided to make a few decisions. It is not there at all. Rather, it is a bunch of people in meetings, behind minutes, behind structure, who have become respected as one.
And this goes for the largest institutions of all. The bodies that make up our democracy: the government, the courts, and more. Their machinery is no doubt more complex, and perhaps more stable, but is it really so different? We hear of so many in the government right now, who walked in Oxford just a few years ago. They were not ‘the institution’ then, so why would they have become so, now?
Nothing much has changed in them, I suggest. Instead, it is the smoke and mirrors of ‘institution’ that have hidden them. It is a powerful trick to make it so that it is ‘the government’ at fault, when ‘the government’ is really a few known, named, individuals, as fallible and normal as you and me.
Remember, many editors of the national news may well have cut their teeth in the Cherwell. The politicians hashing it out in the chamber may well have honed their debates in the Union. Even then, they were in ‘the Union’, ‘the Cherwell’,… ‘The Poor Print’. All different scales of things trying to be some sort of institution. All different versions of a group of random people.
It is perhaps a terrifying thought that, inherently, they know no better, but they happen to be in charge. Just imagine that you were to become Prime Minister in twenty years. You wouldn’t become a different person in that time. You wouldn’t suddenly know the answers any more than those ‘adults’ when you were younger. But you would have become an institution for all to follow. ‘The Prime Minister said…’ but it was really only you.
For a few individuals, that imagined scenario just happened to come true.
But this is not a reason to revolt. I am not suggesting that those institutions be ignored. Nor should we disrespect them.
But when the ‘institution’ fails, or becomes the reason why you do things, refuse to believe it. It is an illusion to hide behind. It is a group which has made those decisions, and individuals who must be held to account. Do not let them hide.
But, one the other side, it is just individuals. All of ‘the system’ is really up for change, by people like you. That, I think, is reassuring.