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We flatter ourselves frequently that we are approaching to the true university spirit here in Cambridge as it is exemplified in England and Germany. Not that any servile copy of our pattern is to be desired, but we have great lessons to learn from our elder and more experienced "foreign cousins." The stamp of the early doctrines gained in their university life is very manifest in the life work of many an illustrious statesman or literrateur, who passed his college years in some intellectual centre, such as Oxford or Heidelberg. Can we sincerely say that men shape their modes of thought in any lasting form while at Harvard? I doubt if traces of a student's four years' training are ever distinct enough to be discovered ten years after he leaves Cambridge. The man who possesses the most original mind by nature receives none of those impulses found in a sympathetic band of thinkers. Usually he simply moves along the even tenor of his way unbenefitting and unbenefitted.
It is no fault in our courses of instruction that I wish to signal out, but rather an accident in our college life. It is scarcely fair to expect men of the average age of the American collegian to compete in strength or breadth of mind with the older class who frequent European universities, but there are other equally valid reasons for our shortfallings.
The term "atmosphere" has fallen into such disrepute that it is dangerous to use it seriously. It would be a lamentable fact if the air of a university town were not a little rarified, if there were not that purer ether and diviner air around us; but people laugh at the idea, and arguments break like straws against ridicule. But this atmosphere is very apparent, let us say at Cambridge, England, where each college has its characteristic feature, and hence offers peculiar inducements to men of this or that taste. To be more specific, at Cambridge there are seventeen colleges, differing in the advantages offered, from which the incoming student elects according to preference. The choice is made according to the class of men with whom he wishes to associate. The more studious man will look to the college which offers the best prizes and affords the best opportunities for gaining instruction. But that large class of men which goes to college with other considerations equal to that of acquiring knowledge and culture, also bears in mind what kind of men it will be thrown in with in one college rather than another and decides accordingly. This is no small attraction of English university life; that is to say the intimacy which one enjoys with men of the same general turn of mind, and the possible benefits derived from such intercourse. It gives a certain social and intellectual tone to men, more or less appreciable according to their resistance or pliancy of character. There are some who lead the opinions and others who will rise to the average of their companions. This is an almost realized Utopia.
To return to our own position again, we see the same thing partially true here, but not to its fullest extent. The mutual advantages of such intimacy seem to me illimitable and extremely desirable, but is such a system of life practicable at Harvard? I think it is, at least to a far greater degree than is now existent. The system of separate colleges is not necessary, but perhaps the separation of dormitories might partially effect the same object, especially if more uniform rates of rent were secured. Some one may object that in Germany no such college division exists, and yet men move in cliques of taste and thought and form companionships of creed. But in Germany there are all sorts of societies and bands which answer the purpose equally well.
It seems to me a weakness in our college life, which detracts considerably from its serious side and robs it of some of its most pleasant phases. There are the facts, but who will solve the riddle? I trust it will not prove that we are not intellectually strong enough to have schools of thought among us.
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