Oh, Gentle Reader, what a special day this day turned out to be. Dennis Ryan and I became tourists by taking a 45 minute punt tour on the Cam guided by Dan, a punter and teller of tales of the first water. He was never at a loss for an anecdote during our leisurely punt up the “backs” of the colleges of Cambridge that abut the Cam. His stories, mostly true I think, were entertaining and informative (if we can rely on their accuracy and I think we actually can).
Then Dennis and I hopped aboard a tour bus that makes an hour circuit around Cambridge and Madingley, the site of the American Cemetery. At Madingley—a 30 acre site, which is officially American soil—you will find 3,809 headstones with the remains of 3,812 American servicemen. You will also find a wall inscribed with the names of 5,127 American servicemen missing in action. Included on the wall are the names of Glenn Miller, the American musician, and Joseph P. Kennedy Jr., the man who might have been president, both lost at sea, 1944.
Interesting enough to be sure. But the moving moment of the day, for me, came when we made our way back to Sidney Sussex College at about 4 o’clock on a lovely Cambridge afternoon and graduation day for many of the Cambridge colleges, including Sidney Sussex College. When we pushed open the great wooden gate that stands as a bulwark against the madding crowd (and, believe me, the streets were filled with madding crowds today), and entered into the almost cloistered tranquility of the college grounds, before us stood five fresh-faced youths who, having completed the prescribed course of education for mathematics, physics, and linguistics (the degree taken by the young lady, Julia Black, on the right in the featured image above), were about to receive their Cambridge degrees. As Ms. Black revealed to us her degree, the last one to do so, she said it was really “the only proper degree among the lot.”
Look at their faces. Beaming, happy faces. Maybe the world will wipe the smiles off their countenances in years to come—I hope not—but in this moment, they were happy. A.E. Housman, the classical scholar and poet (you probably remember him best as the author of The Shropshire Lad), who was the Kennedy Professor of Latin at Trinity College, Cambridge from 1911 until his death in 1936, once said, “I find Cambridge an asylum in every sense of the word.” Although I am sure there are reasons to ascribe the sense of asylum as an “institution for the mentally ill” to Cambridge—Dennis and I have seen examples of street people who probably would be better off institutionalized, and there are no shortages of stories about more than eccentric Cambridge Dons—the sense of asylum as a place of refuge, of shelter or protection from harm, certainly applies here, as it applies to many colleges. Students at Cambridge are sheltered from the storm. They are supported to the extent they do not need to work during term, in fact, are actively discouraged from holding outside jobs; they live on the grounds of their selected college. For the three years of their undergraduate education they are provided with a tutor and a supervisor in addition to the lectures which, by the way, they are not required to attend. They must, however, meet regularly with their tutor and supervisor, the penalty for not doing so being that they are not allowed to take the exams for graduation. As an interesting aside regarding the extent to which Cambridge University was willing to go to protect its students from the evils of the world (read London), the train station is located well away from the enclave of Colleges. Not a problem with today’s modern transportation to the station, but more difficult in different and older times. In fact, the University had its own police force, called Bull Dogs, whose officers were empowered to arrest Cambridge University students who were found at the train station in possession of a train ticket.
I suppose the strictures now are not so confining as they were “back in the day,” but the sentiment is, at its core, grounded in a true sense of responsibility for the welfare of the students entrusted to the maternal arms of the Colleges. In loco parentis run a muck.
But consider the words of Michael Oakeshott, the British philosopher and political theorist, graduate of Cambridge’s Gonville and Caius College where he became a fellow, and commentator on education philosophy. He wrote that a college education is an “invitation to disentangle oneself, for a time, from the urgencies of the here and now and to listen to the conversation in which human beings forever seek to understand themselves.” Does it always work? Of course not. Did we listen to those conversations when we were undergraduates? Sometimes. But Cambridge, not alone among the colleges of the world, Cambridge does seek to allow students to disentangle and to listen to the conversations around them, conversations like the ones Watson and Crick had at the Eagle Pub on Bene’t Street where they lunched and talked about (and finally announced) unlocking the secret of life and then broke the DNA code. And so many more life altering conversations with the likes of Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Stephen Hawking, Ludwig Wittgenstein; funny conversations among comic notables like Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, and John Cleese. How wonderful.
When I looked into the faces of these five undergraduates and saw the joy that reposed there, I thought that maybe, just maybe, they had found that shelter and protection from danger that is a sense of the word asylum, and that they had, for their time here, if not for all time, disentangled themselves from the urgencies of the here and now. And for a brief moment of their time, before they marched into the Sidney Sussex Chapel to be released once again into the world, Dennis and I were part of that asylum. That, Gentle Reader, was worth the trip to Cambridge.