Bells, Gargoyles, and University

by H.E. Whitney, Jr.

University Archaisms: Campus Bells, Gargoyles, and Reflections on the University’s Purpose

welcometoflorida1The 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 campus—professor 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 whatsoever—seem to be promoting a false image of themselves and their history.

464541gargoylefountain0Gargoyles populate my university’s 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).

It’s 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 can’t 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


  1. Bells and gargoyles and people connected to learning..and writers.

    Thank you for a very easy to read view. I would like to read more by a knowledgeable person (such as you), about the various people who do other work at these large, always spotlessly clean buildings on these huge complexes..(as shown in movies.)

    Such as, who maintains the grounds and the buildings, and who does the many small, but never-ending jobs all around ?

    I am a former South African, now living in Israel, and I have a few times followed a guided tour through such places, and have never before given much thought about this.

    I will wait in anticipation.


  2. It does seem odd that a modern university in Florida of all places should have the bells and gargoyles of the dark ages. Those fear tactics surely do not work on today’s students.

  3. Is that photo a rain-spewing gargoyle or just the typical student after 10 pints of beer?

    Universities should ban bells, gargoyles and beer. Alcohol, religion and superstition have no place in learning. The distractions are overwhelming when you have little time to study what you need to learn.

    They should get rid of the football and basketball also. Sports are a waste of time and money, and they give institutions of learning an image of an idiot club, rather than a seat of knowledge and intelligence.

  4. Thanks for the responses. In regard to Lou’s comment, the cleaning of bells and gargoyles falls to university hired, custodial staff. Since summer school has started, there are fewer students here and the mass cleaning of building exteriors occurs at this time. As far as bell maintenance is concerned, that probably goes on throughout the year. No matter if there is a holiday or what time of year, the bells ring constantly so I’m guessing that they are maintained on a consistent basis.

    As for Hettie’s, comment, I think it’s quite hilarious that my institution seems to have an identity crisis, and is stuck between faux gothic motifs and more “postmodern” architecture. The postmodern architecture involves buildings of geometric shapes compounded upon geometric shapes. There are resident halls here that are just 8 or 9 floor, oblong rectangles which seems to contrast with the gothic styled buildings.

    Arthur, universities and colleges will continue to use bells and gargoyles to give parents of prospective students the image of scholastic diligence: no matter what the academic reputation of the school is. Places where I haven’t experienced these images are generally technically minded schools (e.g., MIT or Wentworth Institute of Technology in the Boston area) where technological innovation is revered more than an allegiance to an outdated scholastic tradition.

    Sports will also remain at universities that invest in them: especially at a school like mine which has established itself as a football university. Recently, we had a cheating scandal here that involved around 60 or so athletes and while the university suspended athletes from participation in games, the NCAA didn’t think enough was done so it ordered the vacation of wins. The university is appealing that sanction but everyone knows the motivation for this is the fact that the football coach here is one of two Division I coaches with the highest win record, and the school would love to have the distinction of having employed a football coach with the most number of wins in Division I football. But cheating is cheating. I thought it was really bad that even the New York Times called out the coach and university on this one:

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.