Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Formal halls

Formal halls at Oxford are funny. I guess it varies from college to college. But despite all the beautiful settings, everyone seems concerned with making the students eat as quickly as possible, so they can set the tables again. Sometimes a dessert sauce (like custard) comes out during the salad course, which is confusing. But the dining halls themselves are gorgeous. I like rising for the Latin prayers, and the way you get severely scolded for being late.

Some of my friends at Oxford had complaints about the awkward way that the colleges stick to the letter of tradition, at the expense of convenience and good sense. (You might not get a high grade on an English paper because Tolkein got a high grade, and are you as good as Tolkein?) But when I look back on my college graduation more than a year ago, from a school aggressively interested in staying with the times, my biggest sadness is how disconnected I felt from Harvard's tradition and its centuries of students, and how little I understood the meaning of my education there. In Sever, I'd try so hard to hold in my mind a sense of all the learning that had gone on in each classroom before me, but I'd draw a blank. It felt almost like a stage set. And without being able even to notice or engage with my surroundings, how could I feel anything for the mystery plays and bildungsromans I read there? The gate, the library steps, the ringing bell: all only reminded me of me and my immediate friends. A horrible feeling, like forgetting something very important.

Anyway, at Oxford you can't stay long in the dining halls, but at Harvard people study and talk in them at all hours. 

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