Saved by the Bell

Bells regulated daily life in European monasteries, then European churches, cities, and universities. New World colleges were fashioned after those of the Old World, and so bells found a home on our campuses. I love this depiction below of the college bell in the lives of Yale students in the nineteenth century.

Under the elms five minutes before the clanging of the remorseless old sentinel in Lyceum belfry! What a fluttering and sometimes cutting of leaves! What a racing through the whole lesson to catch some cue which will enable colloquy men to save an inglorious fizzle, and philosophicals to make a triumphant rush. What varied expressions of countenance! Here smiling complacency, there scowls; this man whistles, that one swears; here the serenity of indifference, there the serenity of despair. Now the bell begins to ring. What slow and toilsome ascent up the narrow stairs! What a sudden bolting into the recitation room as the last stroke dies away, and the door closes with a slam behind the last loiterer, and upon a division meekly expectant of the hour’s worse contingencies.*

I am always struck by the intimate relationship the students had with the college bell. To them, the sound of the college bell is the sound of authority—to disobey its bidding is tantamount to disobeying their superiors. The college bell was controlled by the university administration to direct the students to their next daily event: meals, chapel, classes, curfew. They revel in their precious free moments before their class, and as soon as the bell starts ringing, they slowly make their way to the classrooms. I can easily envision a bunch of impish teenage boys intentionally walking as slowly as possible to the classrooms, only to dart to their seats at the very last moment, right when the last bell stroke decayed. They could have only pulled off these shenanigans by knowing very well the timing of the college bell ringing. The closest equivalent to today would be high schoolers dashing to their seats during the class bell. I don’t know of any colleges or universities that still ring bells to direct students to classes and such, only of bells that ring at designated times (on the hour, every 15 minutes, etc.). Do you know of any?

* John Addison Porter, ed. Sketches of Yale Life: Being Selections, Humorous and Descriptive from the College Magazines and Newspapers. Washington, D.C.,: Arlington Publishing Co., 1886.

4 Replies to “Saved by the Bell”

  1. UT Austin’s Calhoun and Parlin halls signal the beginning and end of each class with a bell ring. This was very handy for me, when I taught, since I never wore a watch. In general, though, it reminded me of high school, and added an overtone of low-level despair to my day.

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  2. “The closest equivalent to today would be high schoolers dashing to their seats during the class bell.”

    This is exactly what I was thinking as I was reading this. Do high schools today still have bells or is everything, like, an app on the kids’ phones that tells them when to go from class to class? I feel like there are no bells in high school any more. And why couldn’t those bells be even remotely mellifluous when I was going to school? They were aggressively dissonant.

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  3. I’ll have to ask my nieces and nephews in high school about bells used in their schools. I didn’t think that they have been done away with completely. It seems like it would still be the most effective way to keep everyone in the building on the same exact schedule.

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  4. According to my nephew whose a senior in a Michigan high school, a bell-like tone over the intercom system announces the end and beginning of classes. So bells live on digitally in that high school.

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