The Corner

The Misty Beginnings of the Ivory Tower

Merton College, Oxford — Walking into Mob Quad at Merton College in Oxford University is to reach back to the very beginnings of the academy in the West. Masters and students have been living and studying in Merton for just under 750 years, and the worn 13th-century stone walls of this first quadrangle at Oxford bear the imprint of 25 generations of seekers of wisdom and knowledge. Other colleges at Oxford claim to be older, but Merton’s trump card lies in its statutes as a self-governing, self-consciously-designed community of teachers and apprentices, the oldest in the English-speaking world.

While the college, still a substantial landowner, now spreads out far from Mob Quad, this is the core of the college and, by extension, of the university system in England. Along two wings of the second story of the quad lies the Upper Library, built in 1373, the oldest continually used academic library in the world. Now limited largely to specialist scholars and visiting groups, it retains the readers’ benches in between age-old wooden bookshelves, some with a few of the original chains by which books were attached to the shelves. Stained- and painted-glass windows, some from the 14th century, shine soft light onto 8th-century tiles from a local monastery that now pave the floor. Its original 14th-century ceiling is hidden by a later one, but is still up there, with the thick, dark wooden beams supporting the roof. For any scholar, this is the sanctum sanctorum of academia — where the concept of a life spent in the pursuit of ideas first emerged and sustained itself through the centuries, outlasting war, famine, plague, poverty, and abundance.

Yet spending time in Merton, with its medieval town wall and irenic Fellows’ Garden, also makes one think of the failures of that very ideal. Probably it was always so, with fads, trends, drunken escapades, petty rivalries, and ignorance competing on an equal footing with the quest for knowledge. Merton is a powerful ideal, a symbol of what so many have aspired to, but its beauty cannot efface how out of step much of the university world has become with its host societies, at least in America. Originally born out of monastic origins, the university is returning to its shell — most notably in the humanities, where political radicalization and often-uninformed beliefs have reigned rampant for the past four decades. Many professors proudly look upon their fellow citizens with contempt, publicly insult their country, deride the world of business and commerce, and overwhelmingly adhere to just one set of political beliefs.

Other problems abound. Large numbers of students now treat university as a vocational or technical training school, grudgingly taking basic courses in history or literature. In many schools, young men and women just out of high school are forced to share bathrooms and pass by fishbowls filled with free condoms. For their part, administrators the world over increasingly treat the university as a business proposition, seeking to maximize revenue, grow endowments, and gain media attention, despite students who graduate with no coherent body of knowledge or any greater ability to think critically.

Not all professors are radicals and not all students are timewasters. Many still seek knowledge, if not wisdom, but gap between the ideal and the reality has seemingly never been greater. Similarly, the gulf between the scholars and the world around them yawns ever larger than before. Or maybe it’s just the same as it always was, even within the walls of Merton.


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