Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Orange and Apples: Cambridge

With midterms coming up you might be ready to run away to another country. In that case, how does time in the United Kingdom sound? David Sayers, a graduate student in Near Eastern Studies and former undergraduate at Cambridge University, compares the two institutions.

Cambridge and Princeton have a lot of superficial similarities. They’re both underdog rivals to better-known institutions: one of them to Oxford, the other to Harvard. They’ve both got gothic architecture: one of them real, the other fake. They’ve both got chapels: one of them the largest in the world, the other the second-largest. They’ve both got collegiate systems: one of them evolved over the centuries, the other instituted by fiat to rival unsavory dining establishments. You catch my drift. It’s hard to come from Cambridge to Princeton for the first time and see more than a pale imitation of the former place in the latter. If you happen to spend some time in both places, however, that first impression quickly evaporates.

Perhaps the greatest single difference between Cambridge and Princeton lies in the relationship between university and town. In Cambridge, the university is the undeniable core of the town. It occupies the center, all roads lead to it, and much of the town caters to it and its students in the form of shops, pubs, clubs and even the kebab vans that pull up on market square at three in the morning to feed ravenous partygoers. The centrality of the university also breeds its own animosity, however: the famous hatred between town and gown, courtesy of which, again at three in the morning, I received the first proper beating of my life at the hands of a group of townies whom, in my freshman innocence, I had dared to ask which college they attended.

Such a thing would never happen in Princeton, not because the relationship between town and university is so good, but simply because there is none. Only the Communiversity fair brings town and gown together --- oh, I don’t know, every term? every year? --- across the otherwise stygian divide that is Nassau Street. It’s not so much that you can’t cross Nassau Street as a student, but that once you’re over there, there’s simply nothing there for you. Sure, there is the Princeton Record Exchange, the biggest secondhand music store on the entire East Coast. But if you’re looking for an affordable place to drink with your friends, a clothing store that has anything other than what a 50-something WASP U.S. suburbanite might want to wear or, God forbid, a club, I wish you better luck than I’ve had.

I won’t even try to compare the two places in terms of academic excellence. If you’re lucky enough to be in a position to choose between two institutions like Cambridge and Princeton, it really comes down to apples and oranges. What you should ask yourself is what kind of environment would suit your character and goals better. Cambridge is diverse but distracting. During my time there I performed in plays, edited a newspaper, got kicked out of bars --- and had an average grade to show for it. That didn’t stop me from getting into Princeton, a place that is introspective but inbred. Here, I can’t wait to escape to New York on the weekends, but academically, I’ve never done better. And who knows what that might get you into?

If you're a former Tiger who is now pursuing graduate studies elsewhere or a Princeton grad student who attended undergrad outside the Orange Bubble and would like to contribute a comparison send an email to


Andrew Stella said...

Just a few things, courtesy of Orange Key. Cambridge does not have the largest chapel in the world, it has the largest *college* chapel in the world. Also, since 1959, Princeton's is #3 behind Valparaiso University.