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An American at Cambridge

— Princeton University scholar Anthony Grafton is on leave at Cambridge University this year, and in today’s edition of the Daily Princetonian he offers his students and colleagues back home in New Jersey this friendly and informal sketch of Cambridge residential college life.

The academic life — as others live it

I’m at Cambridge, the one across the pond, spying on a different kind of academic life. It’s not the first time I’ve had the chance to do this. Back in 1983–84, my family and I spent a year in Oxford, where I was a visiting fellow at Pembroke College.

Before this fall, though, I enjoyed many pleasant lunches in the Senior Common Room but otherwise kept my head down. I spent long weekdays working in the magnificent Bodleian Library and long weekends having fun with my family, heard little from Princeton (no email in those days) and learned even less about the Oxford system.

This year, times are a bit different. I’m working hard again, on what I hope will be described in much the same way as Prince William Henry, Duke of Gloucester and Edinburgh, legendarily said to the historian of the Roman Empire, “Another damned thick book! Always scribble, scribble, scribble! Eh, Mr. Gibbon?” Every day I spend long hours in the Rare Book Room of the Cambridge University Library, reading books so obscure that even Firestone doesn’t have them. But the Rare Book Room has wi-fi; and the splendid room where I work has DSL; so this year, the world and New Jersey are never very far away, as this column shows.

These days, though, I’m also more engaged in the local scene. My wife couldn’t come with me, and my children are grown. Here alone, I spend much more time in college than I could a generation ago. I know more people, and I go to more events—from college lunches and dinners to seminars in the History of Science program. In many ways, the more of Cambridge I see, the better I like it.

Take the architecture. I don’t have an office; I have rooms—a huge living room/study that looks out on the Fellows’ Garden of my college, plus a tiny bedroom and kitchen. The college—the college of Milton and Darwin—has scaffolding up and work going on, as Princeton always seems to have. But most of its buildings are sweet, slightly crooked harmonies in sun-warmed stone, Tudor and Palladian—and there’s more like them in every direction.

Then there’s the collegiate life. Many younger academics actually live in college. Relations between them and students are remarkably warm and informal. Alcohol plays a part here in a way it can’t at home. I don’t think all supervisors give their pupils sherry these days, as they once did, to oil their weekly meetings. But through the year, great scholars share meals and glasses of wine with their pupils. It seems a bit more civilized than our office visits. For that matter, the college runs a bar for students, where they sit in the evenings, engaged in conversation that looks lively and doesn’t seem to end in mass vomiting in the bushes. Outside the college, to be sure, there’s mass vomiting on every side in the late evenings—the porters in the lodge are the thin black-clad line that protects us from Anarchy in the United Kingdom. But inside the walls, civility reigns.

The core of the matter, though, is what Americans call academics. The British don’t really have a term for it because it seems so evident to them that it is the core of what a great university is about. Cambridge is serious—more serious, as an institution, than any school in the states except Caltech. Unlike Caltech, it’s as committed to classics and English and history as it is to science and engineering. Faculty, not professional deans, handle admissions. They then work with their students they let in, one on one, sometimes following them from admissions to the Ph.D. Hearing them talk about they way they prepare students for the all-important exams is like listening to the trainers at the Kentucky Derby. They are professionals, and the task engages them deeply.

Don’t cry for the Cambridge students. They look cheerful, play lots of sports and clearly enjoy their lives. But they also work really hard, even in the humanities—as you see when you drop by the libraries and note that they aren’t empty during the week. The curriculum is incredibly demanding—less research-oriented and more reading and writing-intensive, and it moves quickly. Even extracurriculars demand a lot: Student theater produces a striking number of those actors and directors who are the glories of the London stage.

When Woodrow Wilson, Class of 1879, visited Oxford, he wished he could stay. Instead, he came back to Princeton, determined to civilize the young men by encasing them in Gothic architecture, making them work closely with preceptors and installing residential colleges. There’s plenty wrong here (did I mention the food?) Above all, the split in resources between Oxford and Cambridge on the one hand and the rest of Britain’s universities, on the other, makes the American system seem egalitarian. Still, I, too find myself wishing that I could import customs that work so well here—or at least find American counterparts to them. Nothing cures the Princetonian propensity to self-satisfaction more effectively than visiting a university that cares as much as we do about both scholarship and teaching—and in some ways does a better job at combining them.

Anthony Grafton is the Henry Putnam University Professor of History.

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