In “The problem with high tables,” I mentioned the stigma associated with Trinity College: it’s “pretentious,” “snobby,” “elitist,” and so much more. And these are words that are often associated with the college. There are multiple issues worth exploring in connection to this stigma. Why does it exist? How much truth is there to it? Is it bad? If so, what can the college administration and student body do to combat it?
Why does the stigma exist?
Trinity College has a long, rich, and vastly interesting history. Founded by Bishop Strachan as an Anglican rival to the newly secularized University of Toronto, Trinity College has its roots in religious tradition: Wednesday Choral Evensongs, special services for holidays, and a mascot that is a literal pope. Trinity College’s religious influence, however, cannot be seen as a source of stigma, as the traditions are never mandatory. Instead, they are introduced to members of the college in an open-minded, respectful manner, and the college has taken special care to not allow religious intolerance on campus. The same cannot be said for traditions that find their roots in an aristocratic, blue-blooded, and haughty class.
For instance, I was surprised to find out just how few students at the college knew the actual origin of pouring-outs. In fact, I received many complaints about my previous article, claiming that I mischaracterized the tradition. ‘Pouring-outs’ involve — with consent — removing a student from Strachan Hall for doing something infamous. However, if you do a bit of research, you will find that pouring-outs used to be known as ‘pooring-outs.’ These pooring-outs involved physically — and without consent — removing a student from Strachan Hall for not wearing the required gown, which made them look ‘poor.’ Thus, what is now known as ‘pouring-out’ is actually a reformed tradition of an extremely classist, offensive tradition.
It is also worth giving special mention to Episkopon, the secret society founded in homophobia and racism that was banned from the college campus in 1992. It still lives on off-campus and members still participate in it.
Disconcertingly, there is an intimate connection between these ‘pouring-outs’ and Episkopon: academic standing and wealth. It is no secret that Trinity College stands out to those applying to U of T. Trin apparently requires the highest marks, and it mandates a special application to narrow down the number of applicants. So immediately, most students entering U of T will have the perception that Trinity College is, in some way, ‘special.’ And, in many ways, it is.
Trinity College has a remarkable academic record. Not only do half of its students graduate with distinction or high distinction, but it has consistently produced a Rhodes Scholar once every three years. But is this academic success intrinsic to the college? Do the students succeed because they are in Trinity College? Almost certainly not.
Most are aware that many of the students who are accepted into Trinity College come from wealthy, privileged backgrounds. And it is not unusual that those from privileged socioeconomic backgrounds also tend to have higher grades. So it is not just that the stigma comes from being academically successful and wealthy. It is also that the latter is perceived as driving the former. Many believe that Trinity College students essentially lucked out by being born into privileged families, gaining opportunities not available to many other students.
The fourth and final cause is the most potent: that members of the college recognize the stigma and embrace it. They recognize that Trinity is a wealthy college and often choose to apply to Trin because of this fact. Alternatively, some were forced to come by their parents, who are alumni of Trinity College. After talking to many students, I’ve also regularly heard that it is because of Trinity’s historical traditions. Some acknowledge where these traditions come from and wish to participate in them because the Trinity students see their culture in such traditions. This embrace simply perpetuates the effects by reinforcing and exemplifying the stigma.
How much truth is there to the stigma?
That these are some of the causes of the stigma, I have no doubt; however, it begs the question about how truthful it is. I want to suggest that, in essence, it’s true.
Firstly, it’s important to remark that such a stigma cannot be fairly applied to all members of the college. There are many who take efforts to avoid being associated with the stigma, and, therefore, should not be labelled as such. Rather, the stigma is applied to the vocal, popular, entrenched group at Trinity College who see the stigma and choose to do nothing about it. These are the individuals who often come from privileged backgrounds, fail to recognize the harm of participating in and reinforcing the negative traditions described, and who readily embrace the stigma associated with the college.
That these members of the college are ‘wealthy’ is true: we know that many members of the college come from highly privileged backgrounds. That these members of the college are ‘pompous’ is also likely true. I believe this because of the fact that they readily participate in a variety of traditions with offensive roots. It might be objected that the traditions now present at Trinity College are not classist and are not offensive, for they have been reformed and changed. To this I disagree; however, I shall address this point at the end of the article. But, that these members of the college are ‘academically elitist’ is likely not true, at least not in comparison to other students of the university. I see no evidence that members of the college are more snobby about their grades than other undergraduates at U of T. Rather, the elitism arises from the socioeconomic backgrounds and societies that these members grew up in.
Is the stigma bad?
I feel it is crucial to mention the reception to my previous article. I was a bit taken aback by the amount of openly negative comments I received. While I expected some, I didn’t anticipate so many to openly fail to recognize the prime issue I was attacking in the article: the professor-student hierarchy. Rather than address this point, many resorted to mocking me for not being ‘social enough’ in the college to have a fair opinion on these matters. Perhaps it never struck them that the reason I am not as social as I could be is because of the types of stigma associated with such members, and what their involvement reinforces.
Perhaps these points are too anecdotal — maybe I am making up or exaggerating my claims. If you believe this for whatever reason, then you need only look at the recent student experience survey at Trinity College. In an article published in The Varsity, it was revealed that the survey “included comments that alleged classism, racism, and election influencing by ‘Social Trin and Episkopon.’” If this is not evidence enough that there is a systemic problem at Trinity regarding the embraced stigma by those who are privileged, I don’t know what else could satisfy you.
Surely, the administration does not want to have this reputation. As time goes on and individuals become less and less tolerant of institutional classism and elitism, Trinity College could become the butt of a joke: all it shall be associated with is its stigma. People won’t see Trinity College for its long list of positive attributes: its rich religious history, advocacy of student democracy, energetic and enthusiastic student body, excellent clubs and groups to meet a diverse range of interests, and many more. Surely the administration at Trinity College wants to be seen as an active player in combatting the negative attitudes described in this article. Surely it wants to be ahead of the game. But how can we help?
What can be done?
I leave the bulk of the question unanswered — it is to be thoroughly investigated in a future article. I do wish to offer one solution to the problem: abandon the traditions with roots in classism and privilege. It has been suggested to me that we should keep certain privileged traditions because it reminds students that they have privilege. That we should keep pouring-outs, high tables, and the like, because it allows us to recognize how privileged we are to have them in the first place. I find this rather silly. Surely the fact that you come from a high-income bracket and are white is enough to recognize your privilege? I think such excuses are given to mask the fact that these traditions have assisted in forming the community of Trinity College and that their removal might begin to make these students feel less like they belong to a close-knit community on campus. I agree that this would certainly be the result if no traditions were designed to replace the old. But what is the issue in creating a new wave of traditions? Why can we not leave the traditions of the privileged, archaic elite behind and create a new set that represents the diverse, inclusive, and caring community that Trinity now has?