TAYLOR: Of monks and mason jars

Tell It Slant

Eight centuries ago, a couple of bros in England decided to band together to rent a house. With a little backing from their friend the Bishop of Ely, the monks shacked up in a mass bachelor pad they decided to call “Peterhouse,” I can only assume because “Animal House” was taken. That was the beginning of Cambridge University, and Peterhouse, the oldest college in Cambridge, still stands today.

Lots of things have changed since the foundation of Peterhouse. For example, women: Apparently, women are now smart enough for college (a moment of silence for the lost sausage fest). On the other hand, we can no longer drink through dinner. But one iconic part of the undergraduate experience has remained more or less unchanged: dorm life. There’s slightly more indoor plumbing and probably a lot more sex, but for at least eight centuries, the “college experience” has been entirely immersive: residential and academic all-in-one.

But living in dorms kind of blows. Personally, my least favorite thing about living on campus is sharing a bathroom. Last year, the handicap facilities in my hall of singles were co-opted by a suite of sophomore boys. They produced a lot of smells.

I barely know what day of the week it is anymore, but intuition tells me that the rest of you underclassmen with lives and futures have begun the process of planning your housing for next year. I bet a lot of you — especially those of you who have lived downwind from a group of 19-year-old boys — are considering off-campus living. I know I did.

I would advise you to think twice. As someone who tried to cook over spring break and set off a smoke alarm three times while frying one omelet, I urge you not to overestimate your domestic skills. Gas stoves are basically little death machines. Toilet paper depletes much faster than you think. Are you really ready to endure these constant threats to your well-being?

Yes, I hear you say. You are so excited to scrub the moldy floor of your shower. You love finding bits of eggshell in your runny scrambles and discovering what receptacles are and aren’t oven-friendly. With your ever increasing workload, you will have all the time in the world to ruin your every dinner for an entire month. Also (and this is legitimate) you are going to save tons of money and thousands of utils of pleasure by at last escaping the meal plan.

Also, you add confidentially, people who live off campus are cool. Really cool. And you want to be one of them. You’ve heard that their closets are magical. Their shoes multiply. You want to drink tepid coffee out of Mason jars — real ones — and you’re ready to eat only pasta sauce for a month to acquire a full set. You want to be able to say, “I love New Haven. People really need to get out of the campus bubble,” and you want to mean it. You want to go there, on your attractively battered fixie bike.

It is, I agree, a beautiful dream. But can’t it wait? Look, I might be biased, and I’m certainly jealous, but dorm life is the quintessence of college. It’s in the name: co-legio. We read together, we eat together, we sleep together and wake up together in the middle of the night to the faint moaning of other people who are also (albeit more actively) sleeping together. We enjoy the whole gamut of adolescent emotionality on display — in the library, in our common rooms, roaming the basement at 3 a.m., everything from self-absorbed lust to self-absorbed stress to, again, self-absorbed lust.

I think Old Ely was onto something when he moved his “worthy but impoverished fellows” into their quarters on the river Cam. There’s something (don’t laugh) attractively monastic about the on-campus lifestyle. Okay, so living at Yale is pretty much the opposite of poverty, chastity and obedience, but — more broadly — like monks, we also do without: not without luxuries, no, but without the world, and our sense of self in the world. We give that up in order to be together, to be absorbed into the college, into that life.

Is that dangerous? Yes. And that’s why it can only last four years, and why, probably, Milton (a Cambridge grad) believed in the fortunate fall. There is world enough, and time — we have a whole life of glorious off-campus living ahead of us. For now, we’re in college — where being there, together, is enough.

Michelle Taylor is a senior in Davenport College. Her column runs on Fridays. Contact her at michelle.a.taylor@yale.edu .

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