If you read the post from two weeks ago about the complex politics of flag-flying, you might have gathered that Cambridge is an institution that prides itself on its traditions. And when you’re talking about a college like Pembroke that has been around since 1347, those traditions tend toward the archaic. When I arrived in the fall, one of my first tasks was to officially matriculate to the college, which involved signing my name in a ledger with a fountain pen — the kind that has to be physically dipped in ink.
It’s not just Cambridge, though — on a larger scale, England as a country (and presumably the United Kingdom generally, though I’ve been spending my time in England so I won’t make that claim here) is equally invested in tradition.
Balanced on the Edge
But of course England is a modern nation, regardless of its deep history. And in fact in many respects it’s ahead of the curve compared to what I’m used to. I talked about the proliferation of automation last week, but there’s also the much more sensible method of credit card payment in restaurants (using those handheld chip-and-PIN devices, a practice common in Europe and infuriatingly absent in most of the United States), contactless debit cards (and we’re so behind that cards with chips are only now rolling out in the States), RFID transit cards (okay, Boston and DC have those…if only the MTA could get their act together), even RFID checkout systems at the library. You just plop the books on top of the pad in a pile and it detects them and checks you out. Much faster than scanning each one.
And yet in some ways the country and its institutions are mind-blowingly archaic. When you open a bank account they send you your PIN in the mail! Pembroke celebrated the 30 year anniversary of the admission of women in 2015; Magdalene College was the last Cambridge college –in fact, the last Oxbridge college — to admit women, and their dissenters held a funeral for academia to protest the decision. And then just a couple of weeks ago there were a bunch of articles discussing the decision by the House of Lords to record its acts on archival paper instead of vellum. The concern being that archival paper has a lifespan of “only” hundreds of years, while vellum can last thousands.
That’s not to say that we should just jettison every artifact of history and abandon all traditions. There’s something comforting in continuity of action and values. That’s half the reason I came to Cambridge, after all — for the experience. And the experience includes gowns and Latin graces and Gothic libraries and confusing boat races. I could wish it also meant double-glazed windows and a housing lottery that didn’t literally involve pulling paper scraps with names out of a hat, but you have to take the bad with the good.
I’m interested to hear if others agree — what are your thoughts on the value of tradition? Is it meaningful, or should Cambridge get its head out of the 14th century and join the 21st? (Even if it means no more amusing emails).