My Say: Schools, Universities and Old Boys Clubs
According to the American National Basketball Association’s website, Michael Jordan is, by acclamation, “the greatest basketball player of all time.” Before joining the Chicago Bulls in 1984, he was a college basketball player at the University of North Carolina for three years, where he was coached by legendary basketball coach Dean Smith.
A fun fact about Jordan is that throughout his NBA career, even after all of his outstanding accomplishments in winning championships, most valuable player awards, defensive player of the year awards and many more so, he always wore his North Carolina basketball shorts under his Chicago Bulls. shorts every game. In fact, Jordan is widely known for his unwavering loyalty and passion for his alma mater.
In Playing for Keeps by the late David Halberstam, he writes: “To [the University of North Carolina’s basketball programme], the past not only lived on and was embedded, but was skillfully used to open the door to the future. The sense of the past, of all these great teams and all these great players…was an important part of the mystique, sacred and very much alive. As the late Chuck Daly, a legendary NBA coach, once said, “The Dean Smith thing in North Carolina is like a cult.”
It is perhaps unsurprising that an individual’s school and classmates can have a profound impact on that individual’s life. After all, it may form the basis of that individual’s social group in the future—for example, the friends I talk to the most are largely from my high school—as well as potential networking opportunities for that individual. In fact, many of my interests were developed through my friends at school – Magic the Gathering, Dota, comics, etc.
But being influenced by friends at school is one thing, being influenced by the school itself is another. As Halberstam wrote, the history of the University of North Carolina and its basketball program was “an important part of the mystical, sacred, and very much alive.” It is probably not an exaggeration to imagine that a particular school culture could have this impact on an individual, but what could be the societal consequences of this impact?
Schools and universities are probably the best places to form “old boys clubs”. Essentially, a group of students – usually boys – become friends at school or university and have a merging identity with that school or university. In other words, the culture and traditions of this institution are part of its identity. This can lead to a feeling of “Oh, he’s one of us, but this other person isn’t” and this feeling of “one of us” can carry over into adulthood. Maybe decide to partner up with a friend to start a business, or connect with another for a job search, and more.
To give a clear example, Financial Times writer Simon Kuper very recently published a book called Chums: How a Tiny Caste of Oxford Tooks Took Over the UK. In this book, Kuper describes how the culture and environment of privilege in this particular talent pool – and therefore, the friendships and worldviews it created – have shaped the UK today. The individuals in the book are all prominent politicians in today’s UK – Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, David Cameron, George Osborne, Theresa May, Dominic Cummings, Daniel Hannan, Jacob Rees-Mogg and others.
This is certainly not to say that Oxford is the ultimate cause of the political climate in the UK today; rather, it highlights how a particular group association can have ripple effects in the future. The Guardian, a British newspaper, reviews the book and writes: “It goes without saying, reading this story, that the overwhelming influence of one type of graduate from one university (and often one school, Eton) at the top of British public life has been deeply damaging.
A recent research paper by political scientist Joan Ricart-Huguet documents the same scenario at Makerere University in Uganda. Makerere is the oldest university in East Africa, founded in 1922, whose alumni include former presidents of their respective countries such as Milton Obote of Uganda, Julius Nyerere of Tanzania, Mwai Kibaki of Kenya and Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
In this article, Ricard-Huguet analyzes the cultural differences within Makerere University, particularly between the halls of residence. The university’s halls of residence have distinct cultures, developed in the 1960s and 1970s. As Ricard-Huguet writes, “Livingstone Hall, which opened in 1959 and is named for missionary and explorer David Livingstone, has long been known as a “gentlemen’s room” because its culture emphasizes respectful and calm behavior. Lumumba Hall, named after Congo independence leader Patrice Lumumba, has been a socially and politically “militant hall” since its opening in 1971. Northcote Hall, inaugurated in 1952, was a “statesmen’s hall socially coherent that has developed a well-defined policy. and the military hierarchy (the State Supreme Revolutionary Command Council).
What is particularly interesting about these halls is that despite the fact that students are randomized into these halls, the culture of the halls persists, influencing interpersonal outcomes such as trust between these students. Therefore, it is not that a budding political activist can choose to live at Lumumba Hall; it is that a regular student who is randomized into Lumumba Hall is likely to embrace the identity and culture of Lumumba Hall. According to the author, the competition between rooms for status creates a fusion of identity within these rooms, which allows both a sense of belonging and a feeling of comparison with another group. And if there’s anything we know about human nature, it’s that we like to pit our group against “the other” even though the groups were determined completely at random.
To be clear, not all schools or universities necessarily have a distinct culture or identity. For example, with my high school, I don’t know if I can tell what specific standard or behavior I’m practicing now because of this. But there are a lot of schools, especially boarding schools, that have their own extremely strong sense of identity. School spirit is great and fosters deeper connections, but we also need to be clear about the longer-term consequences of those connections, for better or for worse.
“New blood” in Malaysia – whether in politics, business or almost any other field – is often described as very welcome and, in fact, necessary. But “new blood” necessarily means going against the status quo. This status quo may be ingrained for a variety of reasons, including the types of bonds developed since adolescence, forged in boarding schools across the country, similar to what has been described by Kuper at Oxford, Ricard-Huguet at the University Makerere or Halberstam at the University of North Carolina. Progress demands the “new”—we must be sufficiently aware of the consequences, positive or otherwise, of the persistence of such old boys’ clubs.
Nicholas Khaw is an Economist and Research Director at Khazanah Nasional Bhd