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Heidelberg's 600th

MOVE over, Harvard. The oldest college in the United States observed its 350th birthday last month with some rather exuberant (by New England standards) celebrations. But Harvard's 350 years pale somewhat in comparison with the 600th anniversary the University of Heidelberg marks this Saturday.

Not that the Ruprecht-Karl University, as it is more properly known, entirely escapes one-upmanship itself. It's not the oldest university in Europe -- the University of Bologna goes back to the 11th century. Nor is Heidelberg, which admitted its first students Oct. 18, 1386, even the oldest university in the German-speaking realm: Prague and Vienna were there first.

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But Heidelberg is the oldest university in today's West Germany, and it has enjoyed particular prestige over the years as the leading German center of learning.

Morever, Sigmund Romberg's popular 1924 operetta ``The Student Prince,'' set in Heidelberg, has guaranteed this romantic city on the Neckar, with its colorful traditions of student life, a place in Americans' collective pop-cultural memory.

Like Germany itself, the university has had its tragedies over the years. It was the focus of bitter sectarian strife at the time of the Reformation. And in the 1930s the Nazis, eager to subvert Heidelberg's prestige to their cause, purged Jewish professors and replaced them with Nazis. Tellingly, the university motto, ``To the lively mind,'' was changed for a time to ``To the German mind.''

But over the years Heidelberg has had a tremendously positive influence, direct and indirect, on learning and on educational traditions. The list of notables who taught or studied there ranges from Luther to Hegel to Mark Twain to Helmut Kohl, Germany's chancellor.

Here's to another 600 years.

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