A couple years ago, I was talking with a college friend about an article describing some politicized insanity on our former campus, and I asked him if he thought this would eventually make the school- or similar schools with similar politicized insanity happening- less elite and popular with potential students or grad school admissions committees or employers.
“Oh no,” my friend said. “It’s all the hysteria that makes it elite in the first place.”
I thought about this when reading the New Yorker article about the batshit craziness at Oberlin. Oberlin isn’t exactly elite, but it’s perhaps the most famous and respected super-duper liberal college that’s famous and respected for being super-duper liberal. While Oberlin graduates aren’t going to be first in line (after the article or before) to be hired at General Dynamics or Duke Power, I can’t see that the article will worsen the average student’s success in the kinds of avenues that Oberlin students are interested in. My sense is that, if anything employers and government look to colleges to see what is coming down the pike, what to adapt to and push for and embrace.
Sure, in my ideal world the response to this latest round of insanity would be to start college from scratch, with a simplified, traditionalist curriculum with much less in the way of administrative oversight and control. Detaching from the society– and letting the society detach from it— would help colleges teach a bit more, and teach more valuable things.
But guessing that’s not to be.
And while colleges used to be less liberal, maybe it was always true that craziness of one kind or another is intrinsic to what make colleges influential in the first place. Here, for example, is a description of the revered and very influential 14th century University of Paris, from Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror.
Above all, the University of Paris elevated the name of the French capital, surpassing all others in the fame of its masters and the prestige of its studies in theology and philosophy, though these were already petrifying in the rigid doctrines of Scholasticism. Its faculty at the opening of the 14th century numbered over 500, its students, attracted from all countries, were too numerous to count. It was a magnet for the greatest minds: Thomas Aquinas of Italy taught there in the 13th century, as did his own teacher Albertus Magnus of Germany, his philosophical opponent Duns Scotus of Scotland, and in the next century, the two great political thinkers, Marsilius of Padua and the English Franciscan William of Ockham. By virtue of the university, Paris was the “Athens of Europe”; the Goddess of Wisdom, it was said, after leaving Greece and then Rome, had made it her home. The University’s charter of privileges, dating from 1200, was its greatest pride. Exempted from civil control, the University was equally haughty in regard to ecclesiastical authority, and always in conflict with Bishop and Pope. “You Paris masters at your desks seem to think the world should be ruled by your reasonings,” stormed the papal legate Benedict Caetani, soon to be Pope Boniface VIII. “It is to us,” he reminded them, “that the world is entrusted, not to you.” Unconvinced, the University considered itself as authoritative in theology as the Pope, although conceding to
Christ’s Vicar equal status with itself as “the two lights of the world.”
As a capital city with a great university, Paris was host to a turbulent horde of students from all over Europe. They had privileged status not subject to local justice but only to the King, with the result that their crimes and disorders went largely unpunished. They lived miserably, overcharged for dirty rooms in dark neighborhoods. They sat on stools in cold lecture halls lit only by two candles and were perennially complained of for debauchery, rape, robbery, and “all other enormities hateful to God.”
Or, if you prefer, here is the first chapter of Evelyn Waugh’s Decline and Fall, his first novel, which begins at Oxford in the 1920s.
Mr Sniggs, the Junior Dean, and Mr Postlethwaite, the Domestic Bursar, sat alone in Mr Sniggs’ room overlooking the garden quad at Scone College. From the rooms of Sir Alastair Digby‑Vane‑Trumpington, two staircases away, came a confused roaring and breaking of glass. They alone of the senior members of Scone were at home that evening, for it was the night of the annual dinner of the Bollinger Club. The others were all scattered over Boar’s Hill and North Oxford at gay, contentious little parties, or at other senior common‑rooms, or at the meetings of learned societies, for the annual Bollinger dinner is a difficult time for those in authority.
It is not accurate to call this an annual event, because quite often the Club is suspended for some years after each meeting. There is tradition behind the Bollinger; it numbers reigning kings among its past members. At the last dinner, three years ago, a fox had been brought in in a cage and stoned to death with champagne bottles. What an evening that had been! This was the first meeting since then, and from all over Europe old members had rallied for the occasion. For two days they had been pouring into Oxford: epileptic royalty from their villas of exile; uncouth peers from crumbling country seats; smooth young men of uncertain tastes from embassies and legations; illiterate lairds from wet granite hovels in the Highlands; ambitious young barristers and Conservative candidates torn from the London season and the indelicate advances of debutantes; all that was most sonorous of name and title was there for the beano.
‘The fines! said Mr Sniggs, gently rubbing his pipe along the side of his nose. ‘Oh my! the fines there’ll be after this evening!
There is some highly prized port in the senior commonroom cellars that is only brought up when the College fines have reached £50.
‘We shall have a week of it at least, said Mr Postlethwaite, ‘a week of Founder’s port.
A shriller note could now be heard rising from Sir Alastair’s rooms; any who have heard that sound will shrink at the recollection of it; it is the sound of the English county families baying for broken glass. Soon they would all be tumbling out into the quad, crimson and roaring in their bottle‑green evening coats, for the real romp of the evening.
‘Don’t you think it might be wiser if we turned out the light? said Mr Sniggs.
In darkness the two dons crept to the window. The quad below was a kaleidoscope of dimly discernible faces.
‘There must be fifty of them at least, said Mr Postlethwaite. ‘If only they were all members of the College! Fifty of them at ten pounds each. Oh my!
‘It’ll be more if they attack the Chapel, said Mr Sniggs. ‘Oh, please God, make them attack the Chapel.
‘I wonder who the unpopular undergraduates are this term. They always attack their rooms. I hope they have been wise enough to go out for the evening.
‘I think Partridge will be one; he possesses a painting by Matisse or some such name.
‘And I’m told he has black sheets on his bed.
‘And Sanders went to dinner with Ramsay MacDonald once.
‘And Rending can afford to hunt, but collects china instead.
‘And smokes cigars in the garden after breakfast.
‘Austen has a grand piano.
‘They’ll enjoy smashing that.
‘There’ll be a heavy bill for to‑night; just you see! But I confess I should feel easier if the Dean or the Master were in. They can’t see us from here, can they?
It was a lovely evening. They broke up Mr Austen’s grand piano, and stamped Lord Rending’s cigars into his carpet, and smashed his china, and tore up Mr Partridge’s sheets, and threw the Matisse into his waterjug; Mr Sanders had nothing to break except his windows, but they found the manuscript at which he had been working for the Newdigate Prize Poem, and had great fun with that.
Sir Alastair Digby‑Vane‑Trumpington felt quite ill with excitement, and was supported to bed by Lumsden of Strathdrummond. It was half‑past eleven. Soon the evening would come to an end. But there was still a treat to come.
* * *
Paul Pennyfeather was reading for the Church. It was his third year of uneventful residence at Scone. He had come there after a creditable career at a small public school of ecclesiastical temper on the South Downs, where he had edited the magazine, been President of the Debating Society, and had, as his report said, ‘exercised a wholesome influence for good’ in the House in which he was
head boy. At home he lived in Onslow Square with his guardian, a prosperous solicitor who was proud of his progress and abysmally bored by his company. Both his parents had died in India at the time when he won the essay prize at his preparatory school. For two years he had lived within his allowance, aided by two valuable scholarships. He smoked three ounces of tobacco a week — John Cotton, Medium ‑ and drank a pint and a half of beer a day, the half at luncheon and the pint at dinner, a meal he invariably ate in Hall. He had four friends, three of whom had been at school with him. None of the Bollinger Club had ever heard of Paul Pennyfeather, and he, oddly enough, had not heard of them.
Little suspecting the incalculable consequences that the evening was to have for him, he bicycled happily back from a meeting of the League of Nations Union. There had been a most interesting paper about plebiscites in Poland. He thought of smoking a pipe and reading another chapter of the Forsyte Saga before going to bed. He knocked at the gate, was admitted, put away his bicycle, and diffidently, as always, made his way across the quad towards his rooms. What a lot of people there seemed to be about! Paul had no particular objection to drunkenness ‑ he had read a rather daring
paper to the Thomas More Society on the subject ‑ but he was consumedly shy of drunkards.
Out of the night Lumsden of Strathdrummond swayed across his path like a druidical
rocking‑stone. Paul tried to pass.
Now it so happened that the tie of Paul’s old school bore a marked resemblance to the pale blue and white of the Bollinger Club. The difference of a quarter of an inch in the width of the stripes was not one that Lumsden of Strathdrummond was likely to appreciate.
‘Here’s an awful man wearing the Boller tie, said the Laird. It is not for nothing that since pre‑Christian times his family had exercised chieftainship over unchartered miles of barren moorland.
Mr Sniggs was looking rather apprehensively at Mr Postlethwaite.
‘They appear to have caught somebody, he said. ‘I hope they don’t do him any serious harm.
‘Dear me, can it be Lord Reading? I think I ought to intervene.
‘No, Sniggs, said Mr Postlethwaite, laying a hand on his impetuous colleague’s arm. ‘No, no, no. It
would be unwise. We have the prestige of the senior common-room to consider. In their present state they might not prove amenable to discipline. We must at all costs avoid an outrage.
At length the crowd parted, and Mr Sniggs gave a sigh of relief.
‘But it’s quite all right. It isn’t Reading. It’s Pennyfeather ‑ someone of no importance.
‘Well, that saves a great deal of trouble. I am glad, Sniggs; I am, really. What a lot of clothes the young man appears to have lost!
* * *
Next morning there was a lovely College meeting.
‘Two hundred and thirty pounds, murmured the Domestic Bursar ecstatically, not counting the damages! That means five evenings, with what we have already collected. Five evenings of Founder’s port!
‘The case of Pennyfeather, the Master was saying, ‘seems to be quite a different matter altogether. He ran the whole length of the quadrangle, you say, without his trousers. It is unseemly. It is more: it is indecent. In fact, I am almost prepared to say that it is flagrantly indecent. It is not the conduct we expect of a scholar.
‘Perhaps if we fined him really heavily? suggested the Junior Dean.
‘I very much doubt whether he could pay. I understand he is not well off. Without trousers, indeed! And at that time of night! I think we should do far better to get rid of him altogether. That sort of young man does the College no good.
* * *
Two hours later, while Paul was packing his three suits in his little leather trunk, the Domestic Bursar sent a message that he wished to see him.
‘Ah, Mr Pennyfeather, he said, ‘I have examined your rooms and noticed two slight burns, one on the window-sill and the other on the chimney‑piece, no doubt from cigarette ends. I am charging you five‑and‑sixpence for each of them on your battels. That is all, thank you.
As he crossed the quad Paul met Mr Sniggs.
‘Just off? said the Junior Dean brightly.
‘Yes, sir, said Paul.
And a little farther on he met the Chaplain.
‘Oh, Pennyfeather, before you go, surely you have my copy of Dean Stanley’s Eastern Church?
‘Yes. I left it on your table.
‘Thank you. Well, good‑bye, my dear boy. I suppose that after that reprehensible affair last night you will have to think of some other profession. Well, you may congratulate yourself that you discovered your unfitness for the priesthood before it was too late. If a parson does a thing of that sort, you know, all the world knows. And so many do, alas! What do you propose doing?
‘I don’t really know yet.
‘There is always commerce, of course. Perhaps you may be able to bring to the great world of business some of the ideals you have learned at Scone. But it won’t be easy, you know. It is a thing to
be lived down with courage. What did Dr Johnson say about fortitude?… Dear, dear! no trousers! At the gates Paul tipped the porter.
‘Well, good‑bye, Blackall, he said. ‘I don’t suppose I shall see you again for some time.
‘No, sir, and very sorry I am to hear about it. I expect you’ll be becoming an schoolmaster, sir.
That’s what most of the gentlemen does, sir, that gets sent down for indecent behaviour.
‘God damn and blast them all to hell, said Paul meekly to himself as he drove to the station, and then he felt rather ashamed, because he rarely swore.