McDonalds Does Not Have a Gong
25 October 2006 (collegiateway.org) — One of the most soul-deadening aspects of modern higher education is its McDonaldization: dining halls run by huge conglomerates like ARAMARK that become indistinguishable from one another no matter where they are; generic institutional furniture manufactured by the same companies that appears in every campus lounge-with-giant-TV from coast to coast; and on and on. I sometimes imagine a conversation between a university official and a prospective student: “Have you been to our campus?” “I think so. Your campus is the one with the Chik-fil-A and the Pizza Hut, right? Or was that some other campus?”
Human life is meaningful when it is particular and distinctive, not generic and industrial. A residential college should have endless buried treasures, walls of home-made art, countless playful traditions, voluminous idiosyncratic vocabularies, and hosts of peculiar rituals of all kinds.
And the best ones do.
Herewith a student journal entry seen on the web this week, written by an American undergraduate beginning a year of study abroad at Cambridge University in Great Britain. I don’t know which Cambridge college she now belongs to, but perhaps someone will recognize the description. The weight of the story rests on the last line.
Today was a really wonderful day, but not the kind of wonderful that translates to a blog entry, you know? The things I did were fairly ordinary—went to lab and joked around with my officemates while still managing to actually get work done, had a meeting with my advisor who is just so nice and brilliant and supportive, hung out with the other newbie to the lab for a while just talking, came home, took a shower, changed into my robe, got inaugurated into the college, went to my first formal dinner, and then came home. None of this is terribly interesting. What is interesting is this.
Apparently, my college has a gong. I know this because they RANG the aforementioned gong several times during the formal dinner. It was all very ritualized. We filed into the hall—there were seating charts, and somehow, I got seated next to the Master of the college, at the head table—right in between the Master and his wife. Now, while you may think it’s weird that we have a master, I have become acclimated to this over time, as Yale’s residential colleges had masters, too. So anyway, I file in and begin to reach for my chair (I was one of the first ones in there), but the master just says, “Let’s stand, shall we?” And then I realize—everyone is standing, and we keep standing until everyone is at their assigned place, and then this guy comes over to the master and says, “Ready, Master?” and the master inclines his head slightly, and the guy GOES AND RINGS THE GONG.
Of course, I am sitting there going, “We have a gong in our dining hall? Seriously?” But in case I had any doubts, the ready-master–gong sequence was repeated several times throughout the meal. So I’m sitting there, eating my British food, talking to the Master and his wife, wearing dress robes straight out of Harry Potter and keeping one eye on THE FREAKING GONG in the corner of the room, and it hits me: I’m really not in Kansas anymore. And you know what?
I think I like it here.