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Summer Postcards 2013

The High Table


CAMBRIDGE, United Kingdom—At the back of the dining hall of Trinity College, Cambridge (we just call it “hall,” with no article—as in, “I’m going to hall for dinner!”) there’s a raised platform. Unlike the raised part of Quincy dining hall, the tables on this platform face the rest of the tables in the dining hall at a right angle. And also unlike the raised parts of Quincy dining hall, students are not allowed here. High Table is where fellows—post-docs on research fellowships and faculty associated with the College—eat their breakfasts, lunches, and dinners sitting up above the lowly undergraduate and graduate students, enjoying nicer food served to them with real silver cutlery and strawberries every night.

At 7:30 pm each night, that night’s dinner guests file in, often wearing black robes. Someone rings a gong and everyone in hall must stand silently while the College Master reads a prayer in Latin—even if you’re sitting below and have already finished your meal. Grace at the high table takes precedence over the continuity of undergraduate dinnertime conversations.

Professors praise High Table as a social and intellectual space where they can exchange valuable interdisciplinary conversation lubricated by unlimited free alcohol. But High Table also institutionalizes a strange hierarchy into Trinity College life. Why do the fellows here dine in the same hall as undergraduates but on a raised platform apart from them? My guess is that it’s the same reason there are lawns in this College that only fellows can walk across and everyone else must walk around: partly, to give younger scholars something to aspire to, and partly, because that’s the way it’s always been and no one wants to change it now.

A few weeks ago, Amartya Sen, current professor of economics at Harvard and former Master of Trinity College, came to visit Cambridge, UK. As a former Master, he sat in the throne at the head of the table at High Table dinner. Someone from the dining hall staff rung a gong, and I put down my mashed potatoes to stand while Amartya Sen read a Latin prayer. Having met Professor Sen at Harvard, seeing him at High Table made me reflect even more strongly on the contrast between Trinity and Harvard. If someone rang a gong every evening in Quincy House as the Masters were about to eat dinner, would everyone drop their forks and stand for a Latin prayer? My hunch is that they would not—we are much too irreverent, and not just in the religious sense. (Then again, Harvard students are fond of tradition. When our University declared in 1961 at it would change its diplomas from Latin to English, thousands of students protested on the steps of Widener.)

Some days at lunchtime here I’ll cast my eyes up to the High Table and notice that of the twenty or so fellows dining there, every single one is a white-haired man. Perhaps the fellows of Trinity College are disproportionately old men. Perhaps these are the fellows who like the tradition of High Table best, and thus forsake lunch with their families (surely some of them must have wives or kids?) to dine with their intellectual peers in hall. Either way, it seems that High Table may be functioning more to maintain the social hierarchy than anything else. If High Table is supposed to be an inspirational performance for undergraduates, I can imagine it might be hard for female students, or students of color, to imagine themselves up in what is an extremely white-male-dominated space. And if it’s supposed to be a place for interdisciplinary conversations, there are some important voices missing. Perhaps there are some traditions that ought to be changed.

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Summer Postcards 2013