#VestGate: UK University Challenge Program Ignites Controversy Over What It Means To Be “Intelligent”

University Challenge, hosted by Jeremy Paxman and witness to the UK’s most intelligent of students going head to head to represent their universities, is a show which can clearly be seen to favour substance over style.

Focused on providing only the most gruelling of questions, its reputation is one of baffled English home-audiences rejoicing when answering correctly between themselves, university pride, and the classic jumper-collared-shirt combo. However, one episode, which aired last week, hosted one contestant whose choice of attire raised more than a few eyebrows.

Kamel Shah of King’s College, Cambridge, injected a certain amount of controversy into the show courtesy of his leather vest and gold chain.

Raising questions on the idea of propriety, some argued that the values of BBC 2, typically home of the straight-edged middle-class crowd, had been compromised. For many, the clothing choice was regarded as a sign of disrespect, aligned on ideas of good manners and appropriate attire which being on a show as esteemed as University Challenge supposedly demands:

However, the issue of the vest could be seen to prompt a much deeper discussion. When it comes to representations of intelligence, is there something inherently problematic in disputing the decency of someone who refused to toe the line of what many see as an out-dated ideal?

 It is no secret that questions on the University Challenge appeal to an educational standard more at home with the privately-educated than anything else; which isn’t to say that its audience must simply be privately-educated. It simply suggests that when questions are focused on, for example, literature of the 17th century, Latin translation, or minimalism in music, one wonders at the concept of common knowledge, and knowledge in itself.

An example of previous University Challenge questions:

Your starter for 10: A schoolboy play-on-words between Latin and English, what jocular translation is usually given to the phrase semper ubi sub ubi?

Three bonus questions on the opening lines of novels:

(a) Which novel, first published in serial form from 1914 to 1915, begins “Once upon a time and a very good time it was…”?

(b) “It was a dark and stormy night”’ are the first words of the 1830 novelPaul Clifford by which writer, whose other works include Eugene Aramand The Last Days of Pompeii?

(c) The novels Midnight’s Children, The Thirty-Nine Steps, Robinson Crusoe and Tristram Shandy all open with which word?”

What does intelligence mean and what is it measured by? When contestants famously previously failed to recognise a musical question sampling the modern R&B sounds of Frank Ocean, one must wonder as to what extent the non-typical, but very valid, contributions of the rest of the world are unnoticed by the majority’s standards.  

It is very likely that Shah’s vest is improper, a fashion faux-paux which does not do well to read too much into. We cannot be sure that he donned the chain and the vest to question the legitimacy of educational standards. However, it is also clear that the impropriety can be interpreted as a sign of defiance. Within the elitist environment with which we both patrol the playground of the deemed intelligent and set the standard, there are remnants of inequality which would favour the symbolism of, for lack of better words, of the jumper-wearer over the vest-wearer.

#GeekAndGangsta. The hash-tag speaks for itself. It’s clear our clothes feature their own identities, can speak without saying of our cultural awareness. But as culture is so easily manipulated, the inference of what this can mean cannot be easily decided upon.

The conclusion is that Shah chose to don non-typical attire on a game show set to test intelligence and provided the ripples of an aftermath which suggest that clothing is not just clothing: the underlying current of values being tied up with appearance, and in this case intelligence, is definite.

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About the Author
Mariam Ansar is a student at the University of Cambridge. Residing in England, she is hesitant about calling herself a journalist but admits she enjoys critiquing and analyzing most things and then writing about them later. Twitter: @mariamwrites

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