Holy Hogwarts! "High Table" is All Class

Seemingly archaic and snooty, the formal dining rituals of Cambridge colleges prepare awkward youths to enter Establishment ranks
Holy Hogwarts! "High Table" is All Class

Flawlessly attired porters have lit the final candelabra and students, wearing academic robes, gather in the dining hall. Wine begins to flow, and conversations follow. A door at the far end of the room opens. The students stand, and the college fellows enter and take their place at the high table. The gong sounds. Latin grace is said. Dinner officially begins.  

This may appear to be a scene straight out of Harry Potter’s fictional Hogwarts School, but it is, in fact, an 800-year-old tradition that continues to this day: “high table” is a fixture at University of Cambridge in the UK, where colleges hold formal dinners daily.  

In an age of Facebook, Twitter, and texting, why would anyone want to get dressed up in academic robes to eat? Is the high table ritual a meaningless relic that lives on due to tradition or does it hold more significance? 

There certainly is more to high table than meets the eye, according to Queen's School of Business Professor Tina Dacin, Director of the Centre for Responsible Leadership. On sabbatical in 2010, Dacin studied the role of high table in institutional maintenance, and found that the tradition is part of the glue that keeps the class system together in the UK.  

Working with Cambridge colleagues Kamal Munir and Paul Tracey, Dacin attended 25 formal hall dinners at various Cambridge colleges and interviewed a number of individuals, from staff and undergraduates to Masters.   

When they began their study, the researchers viewed the Cambridge rituals as “hangovers from the past, expensive and extravagant undertakings that served no other purpose than to keep alive an artificial sense of grandeur among the participants,” as they wrote in the Academy of Management Journal

But when they analysed the interviews and took stock of their own observations, they concluded that dining rituals serve as “powerful devices for socializing new generations of actors who, when they leave Cambridge, go on to reproduce various aspects of the British class system.”

Dacin and her colleagues found that formal dinners at Cambridge are the foremost method of social adjustment for students. As one alumnus noted: 

“It is a grand thing to feed where so many great men have fed before; to reflect that their Hall formed part of their daily life, and that the attendant associations possibly had great influence on their after career; and from the latter, because it is equally grand to think that I may have a future archbishop on my right and a lord chancellor on my left.” 

The changes in students are gradual yet significant. Students often lose their regional accents. Culinary tastes are developed. Comportment at dinner is taught. A former student recalls:

“At our first formal hall, a couple of people got up to go out and have a cigarette in between the courses and the sort of the head waiter came up to them and said loudly, ‘You are not peasants! Getting up and smoking in between meals is for peasants!’ That incident has just stuck in my mind.”   

Dacin, Munir, and Tracey suggest that there are three ways Cambridge dining rituals prepare students to be part of the Establishment. First, college dining demystifies the elite by exposing participants to the establishment, “giving the impression of a sophisticated social order that participants want to be associated with.” Second, the experience at high table provides “cultural knowledge about how to behave and interact with people from the establishment.” And third, the rituals allow students to become part of “one of the most powerful social networks in the UK.”  

Interestingly, it does not seem anyone is directly trying to make students become part of the establishment. It’s not as if Masters of all the Cambridge colleges meet to determine their progress in maintaining the class system and then decide to have at least one more formal dinner per week. As their study suggests, one of the benefits of maintaining tradition is the subtle schooling going on beneath the surface. 

A lesson for business?

How is this research useful to business leaders? Social traditions such as those found in formal dining are important because skills learned there are what differentiates schooling from education. The comprehensive education provided at Cambridge creates leaders who are smart, well mannered, and socially adept.  

If you haven’t attended Cambridge, perhaps the next best thing is to follow the advice given to the fictional Jack Dawson from James Cameron’s Titanic. Confused by the vast array of flatware at the table, Dawson was advised by Molly Brown to “start from the outside and work your way in.”

Brad Barbeau

For background:

Dacin, Munir, and Tracey 2010. Formal dining at Cambridge colleges: linking ritual performance and institutional maintenance. Academy of Management Journal, 53:1393-1418.

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