What I learned about college from Frankenstein
I’ve just cracked the spine of Frankenstein — I’ve got a kind of classics book club going with my 17 yr old — and besides an immediate and lengthy debate about the introductory character, a 28 yr old ship captain, lamenting to his sister that he lacks friends (be on the lookout for some subsequent Medium post called: “since Frankenstein’s day, we still haven’t solved the problem of straight male friendship; maybe if we did we’d have fewer monsters”), we got into a deep discussion of what college was like back then, based on descriptions in the narrator’s opening chapters.
To attend college in the 1700s meant your family (or some nice old patron without heirs) paid for you to not-work for as many years as studies held your interest. The choice of college was more about proximity than anything else (to extended family or to the close friend of a parental unit — somewhere you could turn up at your Christmas breaks so you didn’t clutter up the family estate with your books). You picked, you paid, and you showed up. (Or, as indicated in other classics, you didn’t pay first but just showed up in the lecture halls and eventually someone would foot the bill or you’d run off to Paris, a scoundrel.)
College in the 1700s was like today’s intellectual resorts (think Chappaqua, now famous for Salman Rushdie’s lecture that ended in an assassination attempt) or private clubs, with daily classes/activity schedules that you can attend or skip as you like, and visiting scholars that might pique your interest one day but be fully ignorable for the later talk-back section. Like these resorts, colleges had no agenda for the student other than allowing them to follow their whims or inherent passions.
“Sorry that lecture conflicts with my beer pong tournament.”
No one watched over them. There was no list of requirements, nor even a signup sheet where you might indicate that you were going to show up to the seminar. In Frankenstein, the titular character meets a professor randomly, dislikes him and goes to visit a different one, whom he likes better and starts therefore to visit his classes. Young Frankenstein is unusual in that he studies more than just the…