Friendships founded on intellectual exchange

Courtesy Emily Rutherford ’12

The following essay is adapted from remarks delivered by Emily Rutherford ’12 at an April 29 dinner for the Behrman Undergraduate Society of Fellows. Rutherford, a history major at Princeton, earned a master of philosophy degree from the University of Oxford as a Marshall scholar. She is pursuing a Ph.D. at Columbia University with a focus on the intellectual and cultural history of modern Europe.

When I attended this dinner as a senior three years ago (which is a frightening thought!), we were given copies of Andrew Delbanco’s book College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be. Delbanco’s account is essentially a romanticized history of higher education in America, beginning with the establishment of Harvard as a religious foundation for the training of ministers. He argues that despite a lot of structural changes since the 17th century, there’s an essential continuity in the mind-and-soul-shaping mission of residential liberal-arts colleges that needs to be valued and defended. Delbanco’s account has a few limitations: There are very few women in it; he doesn’t consider arguments against the old-school western civilization canon that he believes should be at the center of liberal-arts education; and his nostalgic historical narrative is just a little too good to be true. But he also draws attention to some things that we should value about, well, gatherings like this one — that I don’t think get talked about often enough. He really captures the radicalism of opting out of getting and spending to read, write, and think for four years, and he focuses in a way that few writers about college do on the importance of the space of the residential college as facilitating that goal. And this is the really important thing that I want to expand upon a bit.

Delbanco defines the college as an institution in which a majority of the students live on campus, which is small enough to be a personal, familiar, non-anonymous society, and which has some shared values in terms of undergrad curriculum and student life — in contrast to a vast “multiversity,” where none of these things are likely to be true. Princeton is, I think we’ll all agree, a college, not a multiversity, fortunate to have such healthy finances to be able to support its mission very well — and you might think about your time here as I suggest that the college is a pretty unusual institution in modern American life. Where else do you find so many people between the ages of 18 and 22 living and eating and learning together, playing sports and acting in plays and staying up all night talking? And where else do you find so many “Real Adults” dedicating their working lives in large part to making this possible, from graduate students to dining hall staff, faculty of all levels of seniority to deans and directors of student life? What other institution runs on two distinct philosophies of time: that of undergrads, for whom their four years in college are, for good or ill, a standout moment in their lives; and that of faculty and staff, who year in, year out watch students matriculate, graduate, and experience over and again the same kinds of intellectual and personal revelations born of being young adults? What other institutional spaces are so especially semi-permeable, where crises about student life or institutional politics can often explode out of proportion, but where the mission of preparing students for a life outside the institution’s walls is taken so seriously? And where else, in particular, is so much sociability centered around the common meal? Princeton is unusual in its single-minded devotion to putting people into social boxes based on where they eat, but it’s not original among colleges in considering that an important part of sociability.

In part, Princeton got this idea from Oxford and Cambridge’s collegiate system. As some of you probably know, Woodrow Wilson went to Oxford for a weekend conference and came back full of notions about how he wanted the architecture and organization of physical space in Princeton to evoke that of Oxford. This was a popular notion at the time, and there was even an argument in the letters page of the Prince in the 1890s about whether students should be required to wear academic gowns all the time. The conclusion was that gowns were anti-American, and so the notion was dispensed with.

When Wilson was in Oxford, he took a fancy to a monumental sundial in the main quad of one Oxford college, Corpus Christi. Corpus offered Princeton a cast of the sundial in recognition of transatlantic amity, and the British ambassador unveiled it at a ceremony in McCosh courtyard in 1907. Take a look next time you’re walking past and you’ll see Corpus’s emblem, the pelican, topping the sundial, and the crests of Oxford and Corpus on its sides. The original at Corpus is restored, brightly painted, but the unpainted Princeton one reminds me of how many 18th-century art critics and poets romanticized the alabaster sculptures of Greece and Rome, which they thought had always been plain marble.

Through a series of lucky circumstances, I wound up spending two years at Corpus Christi College, Oxford. Ultimately, I saw through the romanticism that captivated some Princetonians of Wilson’s day, but I learned a lot there about what a meaningful college environment is, and how to create one — not because of the formal requirements of my course, the books I was assigned, or even necessarily the shared meals and the conversations, though there were lots of those, extremely important to how Oxford still operates. Instead, through my academic research I came to spend quite a lot of time with a man called Arthur Sidgwick, a fellow of Corpus in the late 19th century.

Sidgwick was born in 1840, he went to a fancy boarding school called Rugby, and then he went to Cambridge in 1858, where he studied math and classics. At Cambridge, he belonged to a highly exclusive, secretive essay and discussion society called the Apostles. They got their name from the practice of only having 12 active undergraduate members at once, but alumni and faculty also often attended their meetings, creating a mixed-age group. They met every week on Saturday nights to discuss a question that members had proposed the previous week, such as “Ought all Education to be conducted on an analytical system?” or “Was Humpty Dumpty justified in assuming his position in view of the consequences?” No-holds-barred discussion would follow, after which members would record votes in favor of or in opposition to the original proposition. The proceedings were and still are top-secret, but if you want an inside look at what one of these discussions might have looked like, check out the first chapter of Apostle E.M. Forster’s novel The Longest Journey, in which some Cambridge friends debate whether a cow outside their window is real. The object of the Apostles’ discussions was to ascertain Truth about the world, and these brilliant undergraduates — who became fast friends — really believed they could do that.

Sidgwick took part in all this, but he was much more interested in the formal workings of the society: he started the tradition of preserving members’ photographs in an album that’s still used today; he kept track of alumni’s contact information and invited them to an annual dinner in London. He undertook the nuts and bolts that are always necessary to keep this kind of sociability, this friendship founded on extracurricular intellectual exchange, running.

Later, from 1879 until 1914, Sidgwick taught ancient Greek at Oxford, and he and some colleagues undertook to provide their students with opportunities like the Apostles to develop intensely intimate friendships founded on extracurricular academic exchange. Sidgwick helped to found a student organization called the Pelican Essay Club, which met to discuss modern literature — something completely outside the ken of the Oxford curriculum at that time, which was almost entirely focused on classics. Sidgwick often kept the minutes, and he also had this club start a photo album. What is more, he went to astonishingly great lengths to keep the students entertained — in one case, he kept reviving this one in-joke making fun of an embroidered banner a student’s love interest had sent him (long story) for 10 years. Every time a new crop of students entered the club, Sidgwick told them all about this “holy relic” and got them involved in having silly mock-rituals about it. For 10 years. Through this dedication to play, he won his students’ admiration and enthusiasm. They thought he was funny, and they wanted to go to the Pelican and talk about Dante or Robert Browning while making friends and drinking and smoking (remember, this was the 19th century) in a “grown-up” way, instead of binge-drinking and destroying college property. In this same period, rowdy drunk undergrads burned down an entire building at another college and nearly took the Bodleian Library along with it — and so Sidgwick had real reasons to want to change the undergrad culture!

I could talk to you for hours about Sidgwick, who is such a cool person, tells us a lot about how educated men of his generation used Greek and a wider discourse of classical learning, and was a really kind, dedicated, and progressive teacher. But I brought this up because it was my experience at Princeton that helped me to understand what exactly Sidgwick was up to when he kept going on about this embroidered banner. When I was in the archive reading the minutes of the Pelican and other Corpus clubs, I thought of a lot of not dissimilar Princeton faculty and societies, and I particularly thought of Jeff Nunokawa at Rocky College, who was a formative influence upon me and who, much like Sidgwick, has made an art of meeting students where they are socially and emotionally. Of course, the circumstances in which Jeff and Sidgwick operate aren’t entirely comparable: Sidgwick’s college was all-male, and its population was from one specific social class; there were certain upper-middle-class manners it was important to observe. Jeff’s charges are, like our group tonight, far more diverse than anything Sidgwick could have imagined, and the social mores of our time and our country allow less formality.

But the principles are the same: Those of you who have any idea who Jeff Nunokawa is are probably imagining him wolfing down pizza in his gym clothes in the Rocky dining hall, his instantly-recognizable laughter echoing across the ridiculously vast room. A lot of Princeton students past and present to whom I’ve talked about Jeff seem to regard his lack of interest in conforming to the rules about what a professor, and a grown-up, should look like as a sign of deeply incomprehensible eccentricity. But there’s actually a method to Jeff’s madness. He is more intimately acquainted than most people with the early sociologists of the late 19th century, like Emile Durkheim and Georg Simmel, whose interest in understanding the mechanisms of society stemmed in part from period concerns about how modern urban life was anonymizing and atomizing. I don’t want to put words in Jeff’s mouth, but I think he wants to push back against this same modern anonymity: He learns students’ names — all of them. He keeps abreast of their personal problems. He’s happy to talk to them about their TV shows and their love lives. And he understands that there isn’t much of a gap between these concerns and those of the Victorian novels he teaches or the other literature he writes about in his Facebook notes. When I lived in Rocky, this concern about crafting sociability by meeting students where they were, and by creating space for them to be, was everywhere — and so much depended on the dining hall, this chance meeting place and marketplace of ideas, this site of friendships and debates and encounters — between undergrads, mostly, but also all kinds of people from different facets of the university community.

Some of the most nostalgic of scholars of the western humanities writing about what college should be sometimes say that colleges should cut costs and revert to their essential mission by throwing out all the fancy services fancy American colleges provide to entice students these days — after all, Socrates found his students in the marketplace, and taught by talking and listening. I don’t entirely know what I think about that. But I do know that at Princeton, at least, the dining hall is the agora, and that some of the most successful teachers of all are those who know how to use humor and capitalize upon their inner Young Person to win students’ trust; who know when to plonk themselves down at a dining-hall table and start talking, and when to stay back and let the students get on with it because they’re doing just fine.

One of the things that I was surprised to note when I became a Real Grownup is that there are no dining halls. Now, obviously this is not in itself remarkable; the first thing you do when you get a job (or, in my case, a grad school admissions offer with a stipend) and move to a new place is to look for an apartment, not a dorm. You’ve got a kitchen, you probably can’t afford to eat out that much, and even if you like cooking, you have to face the prospect of doing so even when you’re exhausted from work. But sadder than the loss of the constantly-available amazing food is that agora, which you don’t get back. I’m a graduate student at a top research university, and I have wonderful colleagues. But I don’t have a space that I can enter anytime I want, where people from all over the university gather, where I never know what people are going to be talking about or what intellectual revelation is about to happen. Those spaces — and they’re not only dining halls — are special to what college is, what happens when you scoop up a lot of bright 18-22 year olds and make them live on top of each other. It’s special to this extraordinary time in young adults’ lives when they — you — are figuring out who you want to be and what sort of life you want to live. There’s a certain magic to that, which makes me think that the nostalgia of many commentators about what college is may not be entirely misplaced.

The good news is that, while there aren’t dining halls in the real world, there are always opportunities to start conversations, and always times to be an Arthur Sidgwick, or a Jeff Nunokawa: to be the kind of adult from whom you think younger people might be able and willing to learn. This is why teaching matters, why colleges matter, why clubs and societies, like this one, matter, and, happily, why even my research about 19th-century Britain matters.

And it’s maybe a reason to be hopeful, even as you venture out into the big, scary, extramural world.