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Conversation and Integration in College Life

[Emmanuel College, Cambridge]Emmanuel College at Cambridge University occupies a special place in the history of the collegiate way of living. More graduates from Emmanuel came to New England during the seventeenth-century Puritan migration than came from any other Oxford or Cambridge college, and one of them was the young Reverend John Harvard. The little institution of higher learning that the Government of New-England established in 1636—and then named for the Rev. Mr. Harvard after he bequeathed to it his library—was intended to echo not the great University of Cambridge, but an individual Cambridge college. It wasn’t Harvard University, and wouldn’t be for more than 200 years. It was Harvard College.

That acorn, planted next to the cow yards of New-Town, eventually grew into an oak the fruit whereof was the American tradition of liberal arts colleges, dedicated not to occupational training but to human flourishing. And as many of those independent liberal arts colleges grew into universities, some of them in turn created colleges within themselves, as a means to recapture the collegiate way of life that had been lost to institutional growth.

A conversation I had last week with Collegiate Way reader John Clare, an alumnus of another Cambridge college, prompted me this week to explore the Emmanuel College website and in particular the website of Emmanuel’s chapel. Among the resources available there are recordings of recent sermons delivered from Emmanuel’s pulpit, and with pleasure I took note of one given on October 12th of last year by the Rev. John Munns entitled “University.”

“The university never has and never should be,” says Munns, “a place where people come simply to be trained in certain skills. We all specialize, we all have our subjects, but those subjects come together to advance the common good.” And how is this coming-together accomplished in practical terms? Through daily conversation and cooperation in the residential environment of the colleges.

One of the advantages of the collegiate system here in Cambridge is that it fosters community. Another is that it encourages conversation. In an age when disciplines are becoming ever more specialized and academic language ever more technical, the collegiate system mixes it all up a bit. Scientists end up eating breakfast with linguists, medics and engineers share staircases with musicians and anthropologists. The conversations that take place in the dining hall or the bar or on the playing field are every bit as important to the life of this place as those in the seminar room or the lab. Living together in college we have to come out of our departmental boxes and converse, and so we have to learn and nurture the virtues and skills of friendship.

This is a perfect expression of the social and intellectual value of the collegiate way of living. And how very different it is from the theme hall model. The theme hall model segregates rather than integrates; it separates out rather than mixes together; it helps to nurture stereotypes of people different from ourselves, rather than helping to break such stereotypes down.

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© Robert J. O’Hara 2000–2021