Friday, October 26, 2007

Cambridge Days

I was not a good student at Cambridge. That's the plain truth. Just out of twelve years in the internment camp of a couple of British boys' boarding schools (by the way, those interested or suffering from the post-traumantic stress induced by this experience would do well to check out Nick Duffel's organization, Boarding School Survivors,) I had been thrust all unprepared into "life," and set out to find out what it was all about. I discovered to my delight that there was another sex, about which I had learned nothing until then. Oh, and that beer tasted good and was fun to drink. So I spent three years studying mostly life and incidentally Modern and Medieval Languages and French Philology. (Three years was the norm for a Cambridge undergraduate degree. Not sure whether this is still the case.) At the end, I barely scraped past my "tripod" exams--quaintly named for the three-legged stool on which the examinee used to sit. My one moment of glory was the French oral exam, in which I scored a triumphant "first"--the equivalent, I suppose, of an A+ over here.

These thoughts occasioned by dinner last night in the company of visiting representatives from my old Cambridge college, Gonville & Caius (pronounced "keys"). The restaurant, which we picked from recommendations in a part of town midway between where we live and their hotel, proved undeservedly expensive: food not great, wine okay. But the moment gave me the opportunity to reflect on how greatly Cambridge, and Caius, have contributed to my life. I confess to having been profoundly--and I have to say ungraciously--disrespectful of the greater part of my highly privileged education. For the most part, it was an excruciatingly painful experience. But Cambridge... Cambridge was fun and freedom. Cambridge was exploration and experimentation. It was also a time of terrible mistakes, and heartbreak, and excess. It was punting on "The Backs" and dancing through the night. It gave me the first opportunity, really, to find things out about myself I had never known existed. The lectures, the tutorials, the exposure to truly disciplined, great minds--it was only much later that I began to value this.

I have learned, in recent years, to acknowledge and appreciate the privilege. Cambridge has opened doors for me that I would not have passed through otherwise. It gave me access to my first real studies, which led to a doctorate in Comparative Literature. It left me with an academic record that assured me a good place in line for a series of rewarding jobs in academia--before assuring me the inner fortitude to leave academia behind and become a writer. It was my boot camp as a poet. Privilege, I think, can be hard to bear with dignity and gratitude. It can lead so easily to snobbery and the unjustified, thoughtless assumption of superiority. Or it can lead to the reverse, a sense of guilt that festers into a kind of self-loathing, a self-deprecation, a lack of conviction in one's innate ability: it feels like too much has been given, and that without it one is nothing. As one victim of a different kind of privilege put it, "Less Than Zero." I believe that I have experienced both extremes.

But now is the time for simple acknowledgement and gratitude. I aspire to the grace to practice these qualities without reserve. Thanks, then, to Cambridge. Thanks to Caius for the many gifts received in my three years there. I was perhaps, in some ways, a better student than I knew.


TaraDharma said...

I, too, think about how I squandered much of my college days. I knew, on some level, I was priviledged, but youth, hormones and depression had their way.

I tend to think of these things as the overwhelming experience, though I know that I did lots of good thinking and working in those years as well. I read papers I wrote for various lit classes, and I think, "Damn I was smart!" ;-)

PeterAtLarge said...

td--and obviously still are... Cheers, P

Illini Alum said...

I'm a longtime reader (of both this blog and the original Bush Diaries) and first time commenter.

There certainly is a mystique surrounding Cambridge (and Oxford and Harvard.) But for me and perhaps others who attended less iconic schools, it can be difficult to understand what truly sets Cambridge (and the educational experiences it offers) apart from the pack. As someone who has had exposure to many different universities, do you think the mystique is warranted?

In other words...what have I missed?

PeterAtLarge said...

Good question, Illini alum! Thanks for joining us, and thanks for being an assiduous reader.

My sense of the "mystique" is that it's in part the history: Oxford and Cambridge have been around as centers of learning for eight or nine hundred years, and you can actually feel it in the bones--the buildings, the lawns, the "backs" where the daffodils return each spring as they have for centuries... Not to mention the history of great human thought--the great science, the great literature and philsophy that originated here. You can't help but be aware of these things. Then there's the college structure, both the collegiality and the college rivalry: each one is its own community of diversely-specialized resident students and scholars, rather than a "faculty" dedicated to a particular field of study. Speaking of which, these universities undoubtably continue to attract the best living minds as teachers, and the best developing minds as students.

Have you been to Cambridge? It's worth a visit, because being there for even a short time will give you a much better sense of what's special about the place. Something in the air...

So yes, I think the mystique you ask about is warranted. It's not all about the snobbery--and much less so, I think, since the time that I was there. In those days, family connection and pure Birtish "class" could still get you a place at the table. Nowadays, not so much.

And sure, there's always the bullshit, too.

(A curious note: there was a package waiting for us when we got back to the cottage yesterday--a thank-you gift from my son and daughter-in-law for the weekend in Cambridge we had given them to celebrate their birthdays. I opened it up to find a wonderful, Cambridge blue polo shirt with the familiar crest of Gonville & Caius college! Such a strange coincidence. I guess it was probably the vibes put out by those monks!)

Thanks for checking in, anyway. I do so much value questions, observations, challenges, thoughts...