by H.E. Whitney, Jr.
University Archaisms: Campus Bells, Gargoyles, and Reflections on the Universitys Purpose
The central campus bell at my university clangs promptly at 8am (beginning of the school/work day), noon (lunchtime), and 5pm (end of the work day, although classes still begin and last long after that hour). A different campus bell that is off in the distance softly chimes each hour and each half hour between those three all-important hours.
I have often wondered whether the university really needs a campus bell to mark specific times during the day since virtually everyone on campusprofessor and student alike–has access to time through cellular devices. (I would perhaps, in a less sober state, argue that the cell phone is probably even more ubiquitous than time itself.) Moreover, the campus bell’s marking of time appears somewhat superfluous when we consider that the human body has its own internal chronometer (e.g., the lunch hour stomach roar or morning caffeine withdrawal) to direct our actions.
Perhaps the real reason for the campus bell is not simply to signal specific times throughout the day but to provide a rather sentimental image of the university’s religious past. Obviously, most listeners would think of a church when hearing the campus bell. But would this perception be valid for universities or colleges that have had no historical affiliation with any particular religious congregation or sect? This image would be particularly ironic for an institution dedicated to the pursuit of truth when there is nothing in its history to signify an affiliation with a religious past. While my institution does have such an affiliation in its history with religion (the university originally began as a seminary), other universities that make prodigious use of campus bells–universities whose origins or history have had no religious roots whatsoeverseem to be promoting a false image of themselves and their history.
Gargoyles populate my universitys campus (probably more prominently than students) and some of them are built into the sidewalk to serve as barricades for limiting vehicle access to walkways. One of the original uses of gargoyles during the age of Gothic architecture was to serve as water conduits on building tops. So there is some awkwardness in seeing gargoyles springing from the pavement instead of howling or spewing water from the roofs of campus buildings.
Additionally, one of the important uses of the gargoyle during the age of Gothic architecture was to scare off evil spirits. Yet I seriously doubt universities that adorn their landscapes or buildings with gargoyles wish to be even seen as postulating the existence of spiritual realms since we are so far along now in the age of force, gravity, and quarks. (Ironic, isn’t it, that science has perhaps enabled us to discard outmoded occult powers and entities for its own!)
The archaisms of the campus bell and the gargoyle raise several questions. Should we think of the university as a monastic institution? If we do, then such a thought would seem to suggest that the university was a secluded, regimented sort of place where the study of scripture and the striving for the religious ideal were dominant goals. We certainly don’t have anything close to that anymore in academia: modern universities in America have for the most part become skill factories and groupings of social networks geared to prepare students for the work life instead of for the next life. In many universities that have dominant business and/or technical programs, students in those programs will probably have taken little or no classes in religion or the human disciplines for the matter.
In light of business world criticisms of the humanities disciplines, should we be concerned that universities now want to limit the exposure of their students to the human disciplines by requiring undergraduates take a bare minimum of mandatory or required classes that involve writing and/or critical thinking?
It is one thing to make writing a requirement: advertising any class as a requirement generally frightens the student into taking the class. And when they finally take the class (sometimes after much delay), they put little effort into it (sometimes only barely passing).
Its another thing to make such subjects appealing as pleasures for their own sake. Universities need to show students how writing well can not only enhance their lives materially (obviously no employer wants to hire someone who cant put together a sentence) but also provide a genuine source of intellectual pleasure. This would also be true of critical thinking which teaches students not only how to detect fallacious reasoning but to craft valid, sound arguments. The problem is that the all too familiar routines and character of modern life–with its churning, whirring, push button, bleeping, pop up, point and click efficiency–often resists critical thinking and literariness. Modernity, with its obsession with technological domination and instant satisfaction, has perhaps relegated the very idea of intellectual pleasure to the dustbin of archaisms.
I guess this is just a midday mental meandering. Or a tea-time rambling: depending on what time your internal chronometer tells you it is.
H.E. Whitney, Jr. is a PhD student in history at Florida State University. H.E’s fields of study are the history of science, intellectual history, and technology and culture. H.E. is originally from Suffolk, Virginia but has called California, Ohio, North Carolina, Massachusetts, and Florida home at some point. H.E. has taught philosophy and graphic design/multimedia studies at the college level and enjoy creating digital art when not pontificating on scientific, cultural, or historical matters