You can only know a university if you have attended classes in it as a student. Otherwise you can only prowl around it as a visitor, and that, of course, doesn’t count.
I have frequently prowled around Oxford as a visitor, but I was not able to gather much about the place except that it was conveniently situated in fairly close proximity to Morris-Cowley’s motorworks. I thought that this was rather useful, because if an apprentice to the motor industry found that the task of turning out brass screws of various intricate dimensions on a lathe was beyond the range of his intelligence, he could switch over, instead, to the University, and learn something easy, like Latin and Greek.
Every time I returned from a visit to Oxford I felt glad that I had not gone there as a student. Because I was satisfied that I would never have been able to learn anything there. I would have been too much impressed with the buildings, which were not in any way what I had expected them to be, but were all low unto the earth, with rough-looking walls – real mediaeval bricks covered over with a yellowed mediaeval plaster.
I have seen many a stately pile, heavily encrusted with history, thick with dust and tradition, sanctified through the intimacy of its association with a nation’s fortunes, through the centuries a silent witness of dooms and splendours – I have seen such a building, cathedral, abbey, palace, mausoleum, and I have not been impressed.
But because the walls of Oxford did not tower, but seemed sunk into the earth, almost, and because with what was venerable about the masonry that had lasted from the Middle Ages there went also a warmth and richness of life that time could not chill, I realised that if I had gone there as a student, I would never have been able to do any work in the place. I would have gone to Oxford and spent too many years in the more idle kind of dreaming.
Then there is Wits. I was a student at the University of the Witwatersrand in the early days, when there was still the smell of wet paint and drying concrete about the buildings at Milner Park. There was something in my eighteen-year-old soul that revolted at all this newness. When I went there recently, to attend a play in the Main Hall, I was still appalled at the feeling that Wits had not acquired any of the external characteristics of poise and suavity. The girl who sold me the programme was gauche.
When I was a student at Wits I had a contempt both for the buildings and the professors. I could not reconcile myself to the idea that any really first-class man from Europe would bring himself to apply for so obscure and – as I then thought – Philistine an appointment as a professorship in a South African mining-town university where the reinforced concrete slabs were still wet inside.
Needless to say, my views in this regard have since that time undergone a very profound change. I have seen some of the things that first-class men get reduced to doing in this life. Myself included. And I feel only a sense of humble gratitude towards those men from overseas who came to the University of the Witwatersrand when it was first started, bringing with them that vital breath of culture that includes the Near East and Alexandria and the Renaissance, that rich Old World of thought in whose inspiration alone the soul of man can find a place for its abiding.
It is strange how the past all looks like the other day. Before they erected the main gate you could wander all over without knowing when you were inside the University grounds. I remember once when I went to look for a department that was housed away from the main building. I must have got to the wrong place. Because I asked a man in charge there: ‘Is this the Wits Philosophy Department?’ And he said: ‘No, this is the filling-up section of the Lion Brewery.’
It was only then that I noticed all those bottles stacked around, and I realised that not even a philosophy class could get through that quantity.
It all depends, of course, on what your view is as to what a university should be. If you believe that a university is an institution where you go to acquire technical knowledge, then it does not particularly matter what the buildings and their surroundings are like. On the other hand, if you believe that you go to a university in order to have things done to you that will make you useless for the requirements of practical life, deepening and enriching your spirit in the process – and either view of the functions of a university is legitimate – then the atmosphere of the place in which you are to spend a number of years is highly important.
There must be tall, old trees through whose branches the sunshine falls dappled on the walks. There must be winding lanes and unexpected vistas and sequestered nooks. There must be mildew and ruin and dilapidated facades. There must be aged and crooked corridors and aged and crooked professors. All these advantages – or disadvantages – will no doubt accrue to the University of the Witwatersrand in time. For while there are two schools of thought on the question as to whether or not a university that is a non-technical seat of learning should be lousy – and I can quote highly venerable authority in this connection – it is unanimously conceded that it should be mouldy.
The University of the Witwatersrand will grow mellowed with the centuries, with the generations of men and women passing through the doors, and I wish that its future may be fortunate, that the enduring things of the mind may remain, the imperishable nobilities of the spirit that will live on, when the gold mines of the Rand have been worked out and forgotten, when the mills that crushed the ore have fallen into a long stillness.
And those solecisms about the University of the Witwatersrand that distressed me as a student will belong with the unremembered past, also.