CAMBRIDGECategory: Educational System
My coming to Cambridge has been an unusual experience. From whatever country one comes as a student one cannot escape the influence of the Cambridge traditions — and they go back so far! Here, perhaps, more than anywhere else, I have felt at one and the same time the Past, the Present and even the Future. It’s easy to see in the old grey stone buildings how the past has moulded the present and how the present is giving shape to the future. So let me tell you a little of what this University town looks like and how it came to be here at all.
The story of the University begins, so far as I know, in 1209 when several hundred students and scholars arrived in the little town of Cambridge after having walked 60 miles from Oxford. As was the custom then, they had joined themselves into a “Universitas” or Society — the word “University”, like the word “College”, meant originally a society of people with a common employment; it was only later it came to be associated with scholarship.
These students were all churchmen and had been studying in Oxford at that city’s well-known schools. It was a hard life at Oxford for there was constant trouble between the townsfolk and the students. Then one day a student accidentally killed a man of the town. The Mayor arrested three other students, who were innocent, and by order of King John (who was quarrelling with the Church and knew that the death of three clergymen would annoy it) they were put to death by hanging. In protest, all the students moved elsewhere, some coming to Cambridge; and so the new University began. Before long there were new quarrels with the townsfolk, for the University was anxious to be independent of the Town, and the Town was equally anxious for authority over the new student population. “Town” and “Gown” battles were frequent.
The boarding-houses and shopkeepers cheated the students, who very soon organized themselves under an elected leader called ; a Chancellor, and he fixed prices that ‘should be paid. Gradually ’ the University gained control.
Side by side with the fight for freedom from Town rule was another for liberty from Church rule, until by 1500 the University was its own master at last.
Of course there were no Colleges in those early days and student life was very different from what it is now. Students were of all ages and came from everywhere. Those from the same part of the country tended to group together and these groups called “Nations” still exist, by the way, at some European Universities.
The students were armed; some even banded together to rob the people of the countryside. Gradually, the idea of the College developed and in 1284 Peterhouse, the oldest College in Cambridge, was founded.
Life in College was strict; students were forbidden to play games, to sing (except sacred music ), to hunt or fish or even to dance.
Books were very scarce and all the lessons were in the Latin language which students were supposed to speak even among themselves. They studied Grammar, Logic and Rhetoric, and when the student went for his degree examination it took some time for him to show his knowledge of these subjects. So he was allowed to bring a small stool or “Tripos” to sit on, and to this day the degree examinations at Cambridge are called “Tripos” examinations.
If he proposed to be a teacher he also had to show that he could use a rod, which he would do by beating a small boy who wTas afterwards paid for his pains!
In 1440 King Henry VI founded King’s College, and other colleges followed. Erasmus, the great Dutch scholar, was at one of these, Queen’s College, from 1511—13, and though he writes that the College beer was “raw, small and windy” he also mentions a plesant custom that unfortunately seems to have ceased.
“The English girls are divinely pretty,”
Erasmus says, “soft, pleasant, gentle, and charming. When you go anywhere on a visit the girls all kiss you. They kiss you when you arrive. They kiss you when you go away and again when you return.”
Many other great men studied at Cambridge, amongst them Bacon the philosopher, Milton the poet, Cromwell the soldier, and Newton the scientist. The University was closely associated with the great movements of English History, its power sometimes growing, sometimes declining according to whether the ruler of the land favoured it or not.
Yet the undergraduate seems to have altered very little in six hundred years. In 1340 we hear of students being spoken to sternly for their concern with fashionable dress, and in the middle of the seventeenth century a student writes home asking (as students still do) for more money and also for a new hat which must be “thinner and narrower in design, as is the new fashion.” Today the fashion seems to be corduroy trousers and coloured waistcoats.
Now let me give you some idea of what you would see if you were to walk around Cambridge. Let us imagine that I am seeing the sights for the first time. It is a quiet market-town and the shopping centre for quite a large area, but I notice more bookshops than one normally sees in country towns, and more tailors’ shops displaying in their windows the black gowns that students must wear, long gowns that hang down behind to the feet for graduates and shorter ones for undergraduates.
In the centre of the town is the market-place where several times each week country traders come to sell their produce. Everywhere there are teashops, some modern and many in old buildings,
. reached by climbing narrow stairs. The streets are narrow and crowded, but here and there among the modern shops and offices a quiet opening tempts one away from the rush of the shopping centre. There is a great deal of bicycle traffic, mainly undergraduates who race along without thought of safety, with long scarves (in various colours to denote their College) wound round their necks. Crossing the market-place with its Town Hall and cinemas I come to a tall grey church, very imposing and old with a fine tower standing up proudly. From this comes the sound of bells striking the hour, and its deep note has a ring of authority and solemnity. It seems beyond time; it has measured so many hours! I feel it is somehow the sort of bell one would expect such a church to have, and in the noisy, hurrying traffic of Cambridge market-town it reminds me forcibly of the other Cambridge, the University. This church is great
St. Mary’s, one of the most reverenced of the many churches here.
Continuing, I find my way to the river which flows behind the College buildings and curls about the town in the shape of a horseshoe. This narrow river (a good jumper could almost leap it) is the Granta, and a little farther on it changes its name to the Cam. It flows slowly and calmly. The “Backs”, as. this part of the town behind “the Colleges is called, have been described as the loveliest man-made view in England. It is indeed beautiful. To the left, across the stream, there are no buildings, merely meadows, College gardens and lines of tall trees. Everything is very green and peaceful. On the river-bank willow trees weep their branches into the water. At intervals along the river, stone bridges cross the stream and lead into the Colleges which line the right bank. The deep- coloured brick or stone of the College walls, sometimes red and sometimes grey, is 500 years old. The walls rise out of their own reflection in the water and their colour contrasts charmingly with glimpses of the many green lawns.
Walking along the river-bank, where the only sound is the noise of the gentle wind in the tree-tops, I come to my College, King’s College. Across a bridge and beyond a vast carpet of green lawn stands King’s College Chapel, the largest and the most beautiful building in Cambridge and the most perfect example left of English fifteen-century architecture.
The Colleges join one another along the curve of the river. Going through a College gate one finds one is standing in an almost square space of about 70 yards (the size varies from College to College) known as “court”. Looking down into the court on all sides are the buildings where the students live. The Colleges are built on a plan common to all. There is a chapel, a library and a large dining-hall. One court leads into another and each is made beautiful with lawns or a fountain or charming old stone path. The student gets a good impression of all the English architectural styles of the past 600 years — the bad as well as the good.
There are nineteen Colleges, including two for women students which were built near the end of the last century. (Women students do not have a very active part in University life at Cambridge, by the way, but they work harder than men and one seldom sees them outside of the classrooms.)
It is difficult to walk around the quiet courts of the Colleges without feeling a sense of peace and scholarship. And the sense of peace that green lawns always suggest to me is found in the town too, for often one is surprised to meet open stretches of grass in the midst of the streets and houses giving a charmingly cool countryside effect and reminding one of the more graceful days of the eighteenth century. I’1l finish on that note as I began, the feeling one has here of the past in the present, of continuing tradition and firm faith.
(From Essential English for Foreign Students by C, S. Eckersley)