1878 - Mark Twain
The Students of Heidelberg
The summer semester was in full tide; consequently the most frequent figure in and about Heidelberg was the student. Most of the students were Germans, of course, but the representatives of foreign lands were very numerous. They hailed from every corner of the globe - for instruction is cheap in Heidelberg, and so is living, too. The Anglo-American Club, composed of British and American students, had twenty-five members, and there was still much material left to draw from.
Nine-tenths of the Heidelberg students wore no badge or uniform; the other tenth wore caps of various colors, and belonged to social organizations called "corps." There were five corps, each with a color of its own; there were white caps, blue caps, and red, yellow, and green ones. The famous duel-fighting is confined to the "corps" boys. The "Kneip" seems to be a specialty of theirs, too. Kneips are held, now and then, to celebrate great occasions, like the election of a beer king, for instance. The solemnity is simple; the five corps assemble at night, and at a signal they all fall loading themselves with beer, out of pint-mugs, as fast as possible, and each man keeps his own count - usually by laying aside a lucifer match for each mug he empties.
The election is soon decided. When the candidates can hold no more, a count is instituted and the one who has drank the greatest number of pints is proclaimed king. I was told that the last beer king elected by the corps - or by his own capabilities -emptied his mug seventy-five times. No stomach could hold all that quantity at one time, of course - but there are ways of frequently creating a vacuum, which those who have been much at sea will understand.
One sees so many students abroad at all hours, that he presently begins to wonder if they ever have any working-hours. Some of them have, some of them haven't. Each can choose for himself whether he will work or play; for German university life is a very free life; it seems to have no restraints. The student does not live in the college buildings, but hires his own lodgings, in any locality he prefers, and he takes his meals when and where he pleases. He goes to bed when it suits him, and does not get up at all unless he wants to. He is not entered at the university for any particular length of time; so he is likely to change about. He passes no examinations upon entering college. He merely pays a trifling fee of five or ten dollars, receives a card entitling him to the privileges of the university, and that is the end of it. He is now ready for business - or play, as he shall prefer. If he elects to work, he finds a large list of lectures to choose from. He selects the subjects which he will study, and enters his name for these studies; but he can skip attendance.
The result of this system is, that lecture-courses upon specialties of an unusual nature are often delivered to very slim audiences, while those upon more practical and every-day matters of education are delivered to very large ones. I heard of one case where, day after day, the lecturer's audience consisted of three students - and always the same three. But one day two of them remained away. The lecturer began as usual - "Gentlemen," - then, without a smile, he corrected himself, saying "Sir," - and went on with his discourse.
It is said that the vast majority of the Heidelberg students are hard workers, and make the most of their opportunities; that they have no surplus means to spend in dissipation, and no time to spare for frolicking. One lecture follows right on the heels of another, with very little time for the student to get out of one hall and into the next; but the industrious ones manage it by going on a trot. The professors assist them in the saving of their time by being promptly in their little boxed-up pulpits when the hours strike, and as promptly out again when the hour finishes. I entered an empty lecture-room one day just before the clock struck. The place had simple, unpainted pine desks and benches for about two hundred persons.
About a minute before the clock struck, a hundred and fifty students swarmed in, rushed to their seats, immediately spread open their notebooks and dipped their pens in ink. When the clock began to strike, a burly professor entered, was received with a round of applause, moved swiftly down the center aisle, said "Gentlemen," and began to talk as he climbed his pulpit steps; and by the time he had arrived in his box and faced his audience, his lecture was well under way and all the pens were going. He had no notes, he talked with prodigious rapidity and energy for an hour - then the students began to remind him in certain well-understood ways that his time was up; he seized his hat, still talking, proceeded swiftly down his pulpit steps, got out the last word of his discourse as he struck the floor; everybody rose respectfully, and he swept rapidly down the aisle and disappeared. An instant rush for some other lecture-room followed, and in a minute I was alone with the empty benches once more.
Yes, without doubt, idle students are not the rule. Out of eight hundred in the town, I knew the faces of only about fifty; but these I saw everywhere, and daily. They walked about the streets and the wooded hills, they drove in cabs, they boated on the river, they sipped beer and coffee, afternoons, in the Schloss gardens. A good many of them wore colored caps of the corps. They were finely and fashionably dressed, their manners were quite superb, and they led an easy, careless, comfortable life. If a dozen of them sat together and a lady or a gentleman passed whom one of them knew and saluted, they all rose to their feet and took off their caps. The members of a corps always received a fellow-member in this way, too; but they paid no attention to members of other corps; they did not seem to see them. This was not a discourtesy; it was only a part of the elaborate and rigid corps etiquette.
There seems to be no chilly distance existing between the German students and the professor; but, on the contrary, a companionable intercourse, the opposite of chilliness and reserve. When the professor enters a beer-hall in the evening where students are gathered together, these rise up and take off their caps, and invite the old gentleman to sit with them and partake. He accepts, and the pleasant talk and the beer flow for an hour or two, and by and by the professor, properly charged and comfortable, gives a cordial good night, while the students stand bowing and uncovered; and then he moves on his happy way homeward with all his vast cargo of learning afloat in his hold. Nobody finds fault or feels outraged; no harm has been done.
It seemed to be a part of corps etiquette to keep a dog or so, too. I mean a corps dog - the common property of the organization, like the corps steward or head servant; then there are other dogs, owned by individuals.
On a summer afternoon in the Castle gardens, I have seen six students march solemnly into the grounds, in single file, each carrying a bright Chinese parasol and leading a prodigious dog by a string. It was a very imposing spectacle. Sometimes there would be as many dogs around the pavilion as students; and of all breeds and of all degrees of beauty and ugliness. These dogs had a rather dry time of it; for they were tied to the benches and had no amusement for an hour or two at a time except what they could get out of pawing at the gnats, or trying to sleep and not succeeding. However, they got a lump of sugar occasionally - they were fond of that. It seemed right and proper that students should indulge in dogs; but everybody else had them, too - old men and young ones, old women and nice young ladies. If there is one spectacle that is unpleasanter than another, it is that of an elegantly dressed young lady towing a dog by a string. It is said to be the sign and symbol of blighted love. It seems to me that some other way of advertising it might be devised, which would be just as conspicuous and yet not so trying to the proprieties.
It would be a mistake to suppose that the easy-going pleasure-seeking student carries an empty head. Just the contrary. He has spent nine years in the gymnasium, under a system which allowed him no freedom, but vigorously compelled him to work like a slave. Consequently, he has left the gymnasium with an education which is so extensive and complete, that the most a university can do for it is to perfect some of its profounder specialties. It is said that when a pupil leaves the gymnasium, he not only has a comprehensive education, but he knows what he knows - it is not befogged with uncertainty, it is burnt into him so that it will stay. For instance, he does not merely read and write Greek, but speaks it; the same with the Latin. Foreign youth steer clear of the gymnasium; its rules are too severe. They go to the university to put a mansard roof on their whole general education; but the German student already has his mansard roof, so he goes there to add a steeple in the nature of some specialty, such as a particular branch of law, or diseases of the eye, or special study of the ancient Gothic tongues. So this German attends only the lectures which belong to the chosen branch, and drinks his beer and tows his dog around and has a general good time the rest of the day. He has been in rigid bondage so long that the large liberty of the university life is just what he needs and likes and thoroughly appreciates; and as it cannot last forever, he makes the most of it while it does last, and so lays up a good rest against the day that must see him put on the chains once more and enter the slavery of official or professional life.
A Tramp Abroad
First edition 1880