Robert Southey on university life

Letters of Robert Southey

Interesting news item about the publication of the letters of Robert Southey, one time poet laureate.

Letter 60 includes a couple of interesting observations on higher education:

I know nothing so unpleasant as leaving the friends we love & — yet such is the state of society that life is hardly any thing than continual parting. you are an exception — but observe the general tenour of life — school & college occupy what ought to be <the> happiest ages — then comes business & perhaps the opportunity of happiness when the relish is gone. Universities might certainly be made useful institutions but at present they are pernicious to individuals & to the nation at large. the morality of Oxford you know how to estimate but with respect to the polishing which I know I want but fear I shall never attain — is it to be found there? steel receives its last polish from a womans hand I believe — & my rugged ore requires the same management — this I shall never meet with. three years must be spent in studies which lead to nothing — & the remainder of my life in forming theories of happiness which I never can practises. Edmund Seward says very truly that a man who indulges himself in literature merely for self amusement deserves no more respect from the public than the glutton or the voluptuary. this is very true but selfishness is deeply implanted in the human heart so deeply that even the strong hand of Philosophy cannot root it up. you & I may indulge ourselves in theories of reforming the taste & morals of a corrupt age & perhaps our theories are not wholly visionary — but is our disinterestedness such as might prompt us to this against our inclination?

And further critique:

To me the radical defect of the universities appears this — the association of men with only men. the total absence of that sex from whom only we can receive the last polish. the intercourse in this country is much too distant & of course Man becomes more brutal when the tablecloth is removed the women retire with the dishes they have dressed…