The Lamp in the Spine

On a windy November morning last fall, I found myself on the river Cam in a small boat with eight other young men, rowing furiously as dozens of similar vessels moved about around us. It seemed that the whole University of Cambridge was on the water. What had possessed us? Well, it is a fact that a majority of undergraduate students rows at some point while at Cambridge. What a contrast to Harvard, where participation in intramural sports is notoriously feeble. Spending a year in Cambridge to take a master’s degree has offered a chance to those of us from Harvard to ponder, through such comparisons, the meaning of a Harvard education.

I am continually amazed by the richness of College life here. Cambridge Colleges (there are 31) have much that Harvard Houses lack—to begin, a truly tight-knit community. Each has its own social spaces, including a bar, in addition to a social calendar that features a regular flow of themed parties and formal dinners. Moreover, each College boasts dozens of extracurricular societies. While Cambridge undergraduates are as busy with extracurriculars as anyone at Harvard, what seems radically different here is the sense of importance that students attribute to their non-academic pursuits. There is, perhaps, less at stake. Extracurriculars are treated as leisurely activities, a fact that is reflected in the at times offbeat nature of many societies, from the several university-wide outing clubs and at least three wine-tasting societies to the historical costuming society. Yet that doesn’t prevent the ambitious or especially talented from pursuing music with the University-level orchestras and the famous choirs or from debating at the Cambridge Union, where many politicians get their start.

I admire this Cantabrigian combination of activity and leisure. It suggests that pursuing excellence in one area can be balanced with a fulfilling pursuit of mediocrity in others. At Harvard, my friends and I often felt pressured to pursue what we did best at the expense of everything else. My unserious interest in photography was set aside, as was my roommate’s in playing jazz guitar. At Cambridge, finding your personal balance just seems to be given greater weight.

Undoubtedly, in their curricular lives, Cambridge students lack a great deal of the precious freedom we enjoy at Harvard. Students study a single discipline, within which they follow a more narrowly-structured path that consists of units with dull names like “English Literature and Its Contexts, 1300-1550,” “1500-1700” and then “1688-1847.” Within each of these units, known as “papers,” a number of lecture series covers the spectrum of major topics and authors. There isn’t a year at Cambridge in which one can’t attend lectures on any given “foundational” topic in Western history and culture.

How delighted my Harvard friends would be who constantly lamented our lack of a “Great Books” system of education! While I wonder whether this system can be intellectually defended, my advisor, who gives an informative survey of modern political thought, simply admits to his students that the story he is telling is just a fiction spun for pedagogical, pragmatic purposes He believes that undergraduate education is made of such compromises.

While my own undergraduate curriculum sometimes seemed, in spite of my best attempts, like a motley assortment of disconnected subjects, I always consoled myself with the thought that at least the agency I had been given was empowering. I was learning to take control of an intellectual project, formulating questions that interested me and seeking ways to answer them. I doubt that the program at Cambridge has the same intent. It demonstrates less confidence in the ability of undergraduates to create a meaningful program of study. Yet, in spite of such pedagogical constraints, the intellectual life here is just as vibrant as it is at Harvard. The lecture halls may not be as high-tech, but the quality of the debate, in my field at least, is undoubtedly world-class. There is nothing dated or out-of-touch about the ideas that are discussed across campus in the many talks and open lectures given every week.

Probably the most discernible difference between Harvard and Cambridge is the lifestyle. The luxury of Cambridge—the endless formal dinners, the beautiful grounds with expensively maintained gardens, the wine cellars—is premised on that insight that Virginia Woolf expressed so well in A Room of One’s Own. Woolf claimed that “a good dinner is of great importance to good talk. One cannot think well… if one has not dined well. The lamp in the spine does not light on beef and prunes.” As anyone who seeks to work at the pace set by the world economy knows all too well, this isn’t actually true. Harvard has long falsified this particular insight: We all know that it is perfectly possible to do brilliant work on beef and prunes (or pizza and HUDS bagels). But in Cambridge, England, it is in everyone’s interest to keep this fiction going.

Mine is hardly a complaint. After final exams at the end of May, the whole student body will stay on campus for two more weeks, instead of rushing away to start an internship or a job. As we wait for the May Balls, all-night formal dances along the banks of the Cam, we will sit outdoors in the sunshine discussing politics and philosophy. We will watch the punters in the Cam and enjoy some precious hours reflecting on the intellectual discoveries of the academic year gone by.

Alexander Bevilacqua ’07, once a history concentrator in Leverett House, is the Lt. Charles H. Fiske III Scholar at Trinity College, Cambridge, for the academic year 2007-2008.