The Sorbonne In Time Of War

By John Hill

[The Nation; March 16, 1916]

To the Editor of The Nation:

SIR; Perhaps a few words about conditions in the Latin Quarter, and more especially at the Sorbonne, as seen by an American student, may be of interest to some of your readers who have lived here in days less turbulent. I hasten to add less turbulent for France, for in the history of the Latin Quarter one would have to go back many years to find a period more peaceful. Indeed, the place might well appear unknown to those whose memory recalls the feverish intensity of life and frequent violent outbursts of days gone by.

Like almost all the rest of Paris, the Quarter is dark at night and extremely, quiet. Many of the cafés and restaurants are closed; some shops are closed for the "duration of the war;" many, many pensions have ceased operations, and signs for rooms and apartments are innumerable. All libraries are closed at night, but all theatres and cinemas are open—and doing good business.

The Quarter is quiet because the students are so greatly diminished in numbers. Accurate statistics as to the exact enrolment are not available, but an index to the general, conditions in that respect, and the effects on scholastic life produced by the war, is furnished by a comparison of the following figures of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes: In 1913-14 there were enrolled 473 students, of whom 187 were foreigners; among them 39 English, 30 Germans, 19 Russians, 17 Americans. In 1914-15 the total enrolment was, 202, of whom 57 were foreigners; 15 Russians, one Englishman, and one American, This year the total number enrolled is about one hundred, and I am told that the foreign representation is about the same as last year. So far as I have been able to ascertain, the writer is the only American representative.

The native element which kept up the enrolment last year is diminished by the calling of new classes to the colors. The same effect is, of course, felt everywhere else, though perhaps not always is the decline in percentage so great, on account of the fact that the Ecole des Hautes Etudes is attended for the most part by older students, who would be the first to go. The above figures are especially interesting for the light they throw on the foreign representation, always an interesting feature of life in the Quarter. They are valuable precisely because the Ecole des Hautes Etudes is extremely popular with foreign students, and the number enrolled there gives an idea of their representation. He who was wont to listen to the babble of many tongues would find them strikingly absent now. Tiny notices posted on the bulletin-boards in the Sorbonne read in substance as follows: "Germany [and there is one for each enemy], being declared to be in a state of war with France, no person of German nationality will be admitted to the Sorbonne."

For the foreign students who have the courage and for the French who have the good fortune to attend, work goes on peacefully enough. Full and regular courses are given, and one cannot but admire the splendid determination of the French professors not to let learning and scientific progress be stifled by the war. Serious intent is dominant; courage and conviction are at all times manifest. One is interested to see what effect the war has thus far produced on the thought and intellectual work, as reflected by the "public courses" given by the professors. These courses, a feature of university activity for the most part lacking in our American institutions, are here numerous and instructive, and, I may add, extremely popular. In nearly all there is an effort to connect the work in one way or another with the present-situation. Some fields, of course, as history and economics, lend themselves immediately to such an application. In others the applicability is not so manifest.

The lectures of M. Denis on "The Origins of the War: Europe since 1907," are attended by enormous crowds that overfill the hall. Courses in foreign languages and literature also connect themselves with actual events, as, for example, M. Hauvette's course on "Le Sentiment national dans la littérature italienne," which has demonstrated an almost hereditary opposition in Italy to the Teutons. And, likewise, the course of M. Morel-Fatio, "De la xénophobie et surtout de la gallophobie dans la littérature espagnole du XIVe siècle à nos jours," has served to explain clearly the feeling that exists in certain elements in Spain to-day. At first sight, the connection of the courses given by M. Lefranc, a great friend and admirer of America since his two long visits there, is not so obvious. Yet, in explaining Montaigne and Rabelais he has been able brilliantly to show that they expound a philosophy admirably adapted to actual needs, and he has shown that these two authors occupy preeminent places in the favorite literature of the "poilus" in the trenches. Professor Bédier's work on the "Chanson de Roland" has just commenced. He has translated the entire poem, and is editing it in its Old French form, and there have been many dramatic moments when he read before his class at the Collège de France some of its impressive lines.

And so examples might be multiplied. Some points common to almost all may be noted in passing. Nearly every public course serves as a base of attack, directly or indirectly, against some phase of German activity; which shows that the French have not grown indifferent to the horrors perpetrated by their enemies. But sometimes one is amused at the way the subject is dragged in. The character of the audience, too, serves as ground for observation. The auditors for the most part are women and elderly men; the animated youth of ordinary times is busy elsewhere getting itself inscribed on the Livre d'Or de l'Université.

One other note often remarked in the courses should interest Americans especially. That is the frequency with which one hears most favorable and flattering allusions to Americans and American scholarship. One meets such utterances most frequently and unexpectedly, and there can be no doubt as to the sincerity of the sentiment, for it is expressed on occasions when no Americans are present, or when the speaker is entirely ignorant of their presence. There is not the least doubt that those of the French who really know us have a genuine love and sympathy for us, and they take pleasure in manifesting such feelings. Certainly the war has contributed and is contributing still to strengthen the intellectual bonds uniting the two sister republics—as the French love to say. The welcome accorded to Professor Grandgent, Harvard exchange professor this year, was testimony to the fact. He was most cordially received, and his lectures, which have just come to an end, were followed by an attentive and sympathetic audience.

From the above it can be readily seen, I trust, that no American student need feel hesitation about the conditions for work here. If he comes, he will find a cordial welcome and all the facilities of ordinary times at his disposal. There are no military regulations to frighten him and make life a nightmare; in fact, if he be so inclined, he can lead the most normal student's life possible anywhere.

© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013

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A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald

The Headlong Fury