Cambridge Day 1: town and gown

My school offered me the opportunity to attend on of the Oxbridge Academic Programs: Cambridge Teacher Seminar at Cambridge University. A blurb from the program's website: "Held in Westcott House, one of Cambridge university's most intimate and picturesque institutions. Here, teachers find an inspiring setting for intellectual reflection and cultural enrichment. The diverse program of plenary speakers and cultural events makes accessible much of the scholarly wealth and intellectual history of the university."  I've been in the UK for a week now. This country has never really part of my list of places to visit. Not because there aren't many things to see but rather I (problematically) viewed it as the motherland for many white people: growing up, the only people I knew who visited the UK were wealthy white families who flew to the UK to visit relatives. I later began to associate it with the place where many black nurses in South Africa moved to for better work opportunities and the place where many of my friends would move to for postgrad studies. But here I am in my country's former coloniser.

I decided to make a holiday of the trip so I visited friends for the first week and today was the first day of the seminar. From what I've seen and heard it's an interesting program. I am here for a week as a pseudo-student exploring various issues in education. I selected a program at Cambridge because the selection of seminars to choose from were more interesting compared to the Oxford program: English Literature, Issues in International education and Why History matters. I selected Issues in International education. For the remainder of the week I will post a reflection from this program and hopefully share some of the discussions happening in the hallowed halls of Cambridge University.

Today's program started at 5pm with a walking tour of the town. We were accompanied by Dr Nicholas James: an expert in the life and times of Cambridge University. While listening to him I couldn't help but reflect on my experience at Rhodes University. It's no secret that Rhodes was built in Grahamstown with Oxford and Cambridge University in mind: how else did Rhodes become known as "Oxford in the bush". Dr James made the distinction between "town and gown": the student community in relation to the town's community. While visiting Oxford last week I was amazed at the similarities:

  • In Oxford there's a High Street (quite a busy street) and so does Grahamstown

  • The Oxbridge Universities pride themselves with the college system that makes the universities unique. Rhodes has a hall system and a tutorial system that operates in the same way as these Universities. 

  • The local government building in the centre of Cambridge
    • All three universities are steeped within cultures that evoke a colonial legacy. I think this is particularly interesting given the multicultural nature and the influence of globalisation on all three institutions. As residence universities Oxbridge and Rhodes University the legacy and history of the institutions are quite central and often contested in the South African context thanks to the "Rhodes must fall" campaign in South Africa. At Cambridge and to a certain extent at Oxford, I get the feeling there's a sense of pride in the legacy and history even though it is mired in white supremacy and the colonial project. The fact that these universities have large endowments means that legacy is crucial. Most of the buildings have maintained the archaic architecture and everywhere in the town tourists are mesmerised by the architecture which furthers the prestige of the universities.
    One of the oldest towers with remains as old as 1000 years at Pembroke College chapel
    • At Rhodes University there's New Street: the main site of attraction with pubs and clubs for students (with the popular ones being EQ, Olde 65, Rat and Parrot and just off New Street Friar Tucks). In Cambridge there's King Street with most of the town's pubs (according to Dr James)
    A plaque demonstrates the kind of intellectual legacy at Cambridge University (read closely)
    • These universities have an interesting relationship with the rest of the town. In Grahamstown, Rhodes is the enclave of privilege in a largely poor and small community. Oxford and Cambridge don't seem to be bothered by poverty. These universities have an existence that is confirmed and perhaps protected by the rest of the community. There are student centres that cater to the student population while the university buildings are interspersed throughout the town and if one isn't looking carefully one might miss the difference between a university building and a town building.
    The altar in the chapel at Emmanuel College
    • Cambridge and Grahamstown have a similar design: the main church in the town is situated near an open "market" space as well as a prominent local government building. The similarities are quite bizarre when one sees them.
    My home for the next week: Westcott House on Jesus Lane

    One of the many churches in the small town: Wesley Methodist Church
    • Both towns are quite crudely separated into a space for the locals and a part of town for the student and more privileged community. When I arrived in Cambridge this afternoon I took a walk to orientate myself and discovered a part of town with The Grafton and Burleigh street. This is not to suggest that students don't venture to this part of town but it is interesting to see the clear distinction where the pockets of privilege lie. In Grahamstown: students tend not to venture into Market Street which leads to the township that begins in Raglan Road(unless they live in the area). This brings into question how seamlessly the university and the town coexist. 
    These are just first impressions of the university and hopefully they will be challenged as the week progresses.


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