Friday, November 16, 2007

Studenti saepe in horto vacant

I am sitting in my cell in the university, alone. One hour more, and I will be able to retire to the country for the weekend. From the quadrangle below, the noise of recreating students of both sexes rises to my open window. I call it a quadrangle because of its shape, but it isn’t really, at least not in the sense of those one finds at Oxbridge colleges—merely a four-sided open space around which the Newman building rises. This space is overlooked by teaching rooms and staff offices, and is hardly a private place. Due to the fact that the Arts Café opens onto this area, with tables and chairs provided for the convenience of those who wish to take their coffee or their lunch in the open (weather permitting), it is often a hive of activity, with groups of students gathering to socialize and chat with one another. The walls of the building on each side channel the sound of chatter upwards, whence it enters through the windows of those whose offices overlook the courtyard. The sound being naturally amplified by these surroundings, what are ostensibly private conversations inevitably become public, whether the speakers desire it or not.

I am not disturbed at my work by the chatter itself, but by its content. Every day I have to listen to some disagreeable account of the beer-soaked debaucheries of someone’s night before. These tales, typically told to an audience of at least three sitting at the same table, and doubtless exaggerated for narrative effect—or at least I hope so; God forbid that much of the nonsense I hear should actually be true—are recounted at an invariably loud volume, interspersed with guffaws and liberal uses of the f-word, not to mention blasphemies against the Most Holy Name. And the worst offenders seem always to be women, inasmuch as their tales are more explicit in that domain regulated by the sixth and ninth commandments. Women they may be, ladies they are not.

The din and the hooting and the obnoxious braggadocio about matters which are more appropriate to the confessional than to a social gathering in the public forum reminds me of one of those Irishman’s Diary columns by Kevin Meyers in The Irish Times. This piece was published some years ago, and the point that Mr. Meyers was making therein escapes my memory, but one particular sentence struck me when I first read it, and it has stayed with me ever since. It was about students—my bread and butter, since I make a living teaching them—and how they have changed with the passage of the years. As is the case with society generally, the standard of ettiquette and public behaviour among members of the student body seems to have coarsened to the point of the children of tomorrow not having the faintest notion how to comport themselves in front of other people, or at least in front of others not as amused by their antics as are their peers. Nor does it seem to have occurred to our dear juniors that they ARE in public, that they ARE being observed, and that the way they behave in front of others speaks volumes about the kind of people they are—as well as the kind of people their parents are; a decided lack of respect for people generally is evinced by the carry-on of those who remain unaware that they ought to behave differently in public to how they behave in the company of their closest friends.

Such persons seem—if their public bragging is anything to go by—to spend their free time constantly searching for their next fix, be that fix alcohol, drugs, or the pleasures of the bedroom, and it appears to be a matter of competition to see who can come up with the most crude and ribald account of the previous evening’s debauchery.

Mr. Meyers, having noted this tendency among the students of whom he wrote in the 1990s, asked this pointed question: What does the average 19-year-old student of today, easy and libidinous, equally familiar with sex and drugs, equally unfamiliar with religious convictions or political ardour of any kind, have in common with his counterpart of seventy, fifty, or even thirty years ago?

Good question. Only thirty years ago, dear Kevin, the world was a different place. I am still a young man—well, youngish—and I have seen the change in my own lifetime.

Now I will be accused of generalizing, and in fairness I must agree that there are many admirable and upstanding young men and women at the university who do not deserve to be bracketed with the yobs. But the yob element is so pervasive, both within and without the university, as to be ubiqitous; and of course they make more noise than quiet, well-mannered and properly brought-up studious types, and so attract more notice.

The weather this November has been mild and generally pleasant, with the result that the students sit out in the courtyard every day; the noise of their recreations typically starts around 10am, and continues without a break until the Arts Café finally closes in the evening. I find myself longing for colder weather, and the return of the rain, both of which will help to keep them indoors. I have grown tired of hearing about their menstrual cycles, and their emergency contraception, and the casual encounters they enjoyed the previous weekend, and the blinding fits of vomiting that so-and-so suffered having had a few too many. Is there not anything better, more worthwhile, more intellectual to talk about than this, for goodness’ sake? After all, they are supposed to be studying at a third level institution.

And that is the end of my peevishness for today. It is now time to depart to the country...

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