Let us rejoice therefore
The new academic year is around the corner. Students will soon pour into the Msida labyrinth. Most first-years will not wish to be dropped off by the “old” gate by their parents. That’s for kids, they will argue. But if their papa and mama insist – those who have not themselves had the opportunity to attend University, first and foremost – then first-years will condescendingly please them but with the paternalism of someone who has already made it. Roles are switched. The first-year becomes father or mother; their fathers and mothers become children. In any case, when they are out of the car, first-years rarely look back to wave back at their idiotically-waving parents. They dive into the crowd and pretend they came alone.
The others, those who’ve been there for a year or two, will tend to look down on first-years. You do so by feigning an air of world-weariness, of impatience with the self-important and apparently purposeful strutting of first-years around the campus. The second-years are the best in this regard. If the first-year stands erect and adopts a studious posture (armfuls of books are determinant), the second-year slouches, adopts a meticulously studied who-cares look, carries no books. Third-years and beyond don’t care what you think anyway; they’re too busy worrying. The aesthetic considerations of first-years and second-years are none of their concern.
“Ubi sunt qui ante nos in mundo fuere?” (Where are they who before us went into the world?). This, many will have recognised it, is the first verse of the oldest surviving part of De Brevitate Vitae (On the shortness of life), the student hymn sung all over Europe and beyond since mediaeval times and better known as Gaudeamus igitur (Let us rejoice therefore). The contrast between the sombre ancient core of the hymn crowned by its dead serious correct title and the jolly fun bits (where sex gets top priority) crowned by the famous title, could not be starker.
Ubi sunt qui ante nos in mundo fuere? Vadite ad superos
Transite in inferos
Hos si vis videre(Where are they who before us were in the world? Go to the heavens. Cross over into hell. If you wish to see them.)
These verses, probably from a 13th century penitential hymn, are more congenial to world-weary students in their second year and beyond than to the first-years. One academic year is, however, more than enough to realise that the out-there world is full of former students, many of whom ought, by rights, to be rotting in hell and a few who probably deserve to be in heaven after having suffered for half a dozen eons in purgatory.
The idea of the university as an ivory tower unreachable by the evils of the “out-there” world is, of course, a naïve one that the student soon learns to abandon. The second-year with a minimum of intelligence (don’t be duped by the apparent asininity, it is a survival tactic requiring great skill and constant practice) knows that whatever is in the “out-there” – in our society – is also “in here”, in the apparently “other” world of academia. The second-year has seen it all. The experience of her/his first year at University has confirmed what s/he suspected all along. Maltese society is not for the innocent.
Students in the so-called Middle Ages, especially those whose student life was about to come to an end and who were about to go into the world out there, knew that it was going to be tough. The latter – modern, if you wish – parts of the song indicate various possible life strategies one might wish to adopt in these circumstances.
In view of the shortness and brutishness of life “out-there” – of which, I repeat, they had a taste in the ivory tower – the Gaudeamus igitur suggests that one ought, first of all, to be nice to those in power. First of all kowtow to your lecturers: “Vivat academia! Vivant professores!” (Long live the academy! Long live the professors!). But the place of honour is reserved to those above the university and the professors, those who wield state power.
et qui illam regit.
Vivat nostra civitas,
Quae nos hic protegit.
(Long live the state as well. And he who rules it! Long live our city. [And] the charity of benefactors, which protects us here!) Substitute “benefactors” for the state that pays your stipendium and it all fits together nicely. Hence, the pragmatism of the third-years. Two and over years of the University of Malta have impressed upon them the necessity of bowing to those in power. It’s a certificate in your kowtowing proficiency today. It will be a government job tomorrow. Or whatever you might need and are unable to get without intercession.
Finally, because a people must be discouraged from taking too close an interest in the affairs of state and the panem et circenses trick still works, the old hymn exclaims: Pereat tristitia! (Perish sadness). In words written before universities opened their doors to women, the student is encouraged to go to Paceville.
Vivant omnes virgines
This article appeared in Dr Vella’s column in The Times of Malta on September 14, 2009. The original may be accessed at http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20090914/opinion/let-us-rejoice-therefore