Tigers have charm, but Bulldogs are better

(Editor’s note: This column is a response to the column “Tiger? Bulldog? Tiger?” by Princeton history professor Anthony Grafton, which was published in the Daily Princetonian on Oct. 23. See http://www.dailyprincetonian.com/archives/2006/10/23/opinion/16303.shtml for Professor Grafton’s article.)

So here I am at Princeton, that towering Southern bastion of learning and civility in the North, sitting alone in the stunning Gothic Revival splendor of University Chapel, and meditating. Unlike Yale, Princeton isn’t crammed with so many competing events, talks, galleries, museums, rallies and labor actions that you guiltily feel your time is ill-used if you do not immediately get out and about. There is time for reflection — and for life. So I’m spending a few minutes contemplating and beginning to think about that eternal question: What is the difference between Bulldogs and Tigers?

And what better place to do it than in Ralph Cram’s chapel with its Great East Window, where, we are told, the oak pews in the nave are made from wood originally intended for a Civil War gun carriage, the magnificent pulpit, brought from France, probably dates back to the mid-16th century, and the wood for the pews in the chancel, where the choir and clergy are seated for services, came from Sherwood Forest in England and took 100 people over a year to carve? It makes sense that Princeton formally opens and closes each academic year with an interfaith service in this Chapel, whereas Yale has its freshman addresses and baccalaureates in a concert hall.

Because Princeton is a spiritual experience.

What do I mean by this? The first thing that strikes you is the sheer beauty of the place: It is in keeping with its ethos that every building seems to have a lawn, or a garden, even when it does not. The buildings tower up from the mist like well-kept English manors in Henry James novels. Everything is lush and well-manicured. The Faculty Club, to which all faculty and staff automatically belong, offers “attentive table service in a beautiful glass enclosed room over looking gardens.” Where else would a recent menu include pumpkin bisque with toasted pepito seeds and Miso Crispy Shrimp? Not Yale, which at least until quite recently had deteriorating residential colleges and Spartan, gritty classrooms, where the Gothic Revival of the buildings was well-imitated in the bathrooms as well as common rooms, and where the Faculty Club long ago went under to red ink.

Then there’s the civility. Everywhere you go, people are being kind, gracious, even considerate of one another. The Daily Princetonian, by comparison to the Yale Daily, is (almost) polite. Having experienced Princeton hospitality, I can assure you that there is no tradition at Princeton that suggests that life of the mind requires sleeping on a motel bed of nails, or eating Welsh rarebit and calves’ liver at Mory’s, wonderful of its kind as such fare is. Even great poets, philosophers and Nobel prize mathematicians through the years have loved to dine at the cosmopolitan Lahieres, and the French food, like the genteel setting of Princeton itself, gives the life of the mind room for expansion and play. Marvell’s “delicious solitude,” which allows for the creation of “far other worlds, and other seas,” becomes more than an apparition in the spacious sweep and cultivation of a green and quiet universe.

Do I envy anything? Well, yes, a little. I like that the tallest building on campus belongs to the Mathematics Department, and that Engineering is a School. I like the intimacy that makes you feel you are in a special small family — no wonder Princetonians contribute to their alumni association at a rate beyond that of any other school anywhere. I envy the motto “Princeton: In the Nation’s Service,” to which some contemporary genius thought to add: “And in the Service of All Nations.” I like the dignity, the splendor, the decorous cultivation that allows a life without endless constant critique.

And I am an unabashed fan of the traditions. Yale has its wonderful traditions, too, of course. But there are just too many Yalies who cannot wave their white handkerchiefs without a dose of mocking irony. There’s something just a little bit wearisome about the clang and spit, the holler and bother of the eternally disagreeing factions in New Haven that leads to heartburn. Perhaps it is the setting that makes the bearded Princeton professor in the beret, the Institute classicist on a bicycle, the athlete, tall, gleaming and powerful in her orange and black, all seem to have walked off the timeless set of Oxbridge as seen in a Hollywood film.

On the whole, however, I’m happy to be the city mouse visiting the country. I like the more stressful, competitive atmosphere that keeps Yalies in a state of exhausted and edgy excitement. I like the hum and drive of the city, the sense that there is a poorer universe at your door that keeps you awake and alive and responsive to a world beyond your own luxury. I like the four schools of the arts, where young people are painting and making music and building and acting and pushing the boundaries of creative experience, the pop and fizz of Chapel Street on Friday evening before two or three openings at the Rep and the Dramat, I like the galleries and museums, those gorgeous entities, where something is always going on in front of ageless beauty.

I like the wild heterogeneity in the international world of the Center for Globalization and the MacMillan Center, the film festivals and conferences at the Whitney, the residential colleges with their quirky flags and cheers and hometown spirit, the walls in the Law School where dissenting opinions are posted, the refugees from the medical school scurrying across Chapel Street from Starbucks in their white coats, the passionate environmentalists who fill op-ed columns with lectures on sustainability, the plethora of journals and periodicals and even scandal sheets that emerge in the rotunda of Woolsey Hall, sitting there and practically daring you to question their options for free speech.

Most of the time, even when I am frustrated by the din, I like the fact that nothing is ever calm, no one is ever satisfied, few ever agree, something big is at stake at every instant, and Yalies — like William F. Buckley vs. William Sloane Coffin or John Ashcroft vs. John Kerry — are constantly duking it out on opposite sides of everything. And I would dare to compare the best senior theses from Yale with the best completed by students at any school.

Slightly bigger is best. The scale and clamor, beyond the domestic settings of the residential colleges, help us to test big ideas, give us a representation of what trying to achieve something credible in the real world might be, allow a vital background for change and growth. Mastering Yale is not easy. But master Yale and you have mastered life. I love to visit Princeton. But I know why Yale is home.

Penelope Laurans is an associate dean of Yale College and special assistant to the president.

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