Compendium  Academic ambivalence

Two undergrads with a strong view of the future and the past

As the trees of our fair downtown campus lose their fresh and vibrant summer hue to the warm, glowing radiance of autumn, the passage of time becomes an inevitable presence in the minds of all who pass beneath them. At least, it seems that way to U2 History Major Rand Trilby, a tall, pale, rangy fellow in dark clothing, who smells of pomade and cigarettes. He meets me one cool, windy day on the terrace outside the library.

“I just don’t know what to think of my department’s direction,” Trilby says, squinting out over the railing. He sighs, removing his round-framed glasses and polishing them clean on a handkerchief from the pocket of his black pea coat. “I’m just sick of this lack of confidence in modern history, you know?” When asked to clarify, Trilby cites his recent homework assignment, Emmanuelle de Savoie’s Li-Brie-té, Égalité, Fraternité: Cheese Production and the French Revolution, a book whose author made frequent use of such phrases as “it is believed” and “some evidence suggests” to modify her historical claims.

“I found my trust in the author completely compromised. I need to be taken confidently into the past. What is she trying to accomplish by questioning herself at every turn? What is she trying to convey to the reader?”

“If the writer doesn’t believe his words, how am I supposed to?” Rand makes careful eye contact with your humble McGall Weekly correspondent as he says this, plainly striving to endow his statement with the deliberate self-assurance he sees as lacking in his chosen field of study.

Trilby stares out over the ledge once again, scratching thoughtfully at a constellation of short, scrubby hairs upon his chin that might politely have been called a beard, were he seven years younger. He believes that de Savoie’s style of “wishy-washy” writing is only a symptom of larger problems within the field of history, many of which he has been tracking for nigh-on two years. He bemoans a fractured, impotent discipline with no focus, no thrust, no energy. Some of his ideas meet with approval, especially those that involve confident statements of fact – birth and marriage rates, publication dates, et cetera. But too often he feels pressured to apply one of several ideologies (he says this word the way most people say “cockroach”) to said facts and figures, which he feels is an affront to his carefully neutral viewpoint. What use is Marxism or queer theory, even the very concept of intersectionality, to one so triumphantly objective?

“It’s like they’re trying to make us all feminists or something. And there’s always someone who tries to bring race into things…” Rand heaves a sigh, heavy with the weight of rational detachment. “Stuff like that just makes things complicated.”

Rand smiles to himself, as if at a private joke. “This is beside the point, but I also found de Savoie’s prose a tad too meandering. That didn’t do anything to earn my support. Is it too much to ask that we all own a copy of Strunk and White? Read a little Hemingway, maybe? No one reads Hemingway these days.”

“I shouldn’t have even come to university,” he continues, wistful longing evident in his voice. “What am I learning here? I should have sailed around the world or learned to hunt or started a brewery or something. Shit, man, I should be living.”

Many of Rand’s opinions are shared by fellow scarf enthusiast Anne Oubliette, a U3 student pursuing a double major in History and Literature. She joins us at our perch at the railing about halfway through our discussion, and is kind enough to provide her own perspective on the current state of Arts education at our fair university.

“The romance has just gone out of history,” Oubliette laments. Just this past week she was required to read several papers focusing on figures who weren’t of noble blood. Not even a drop.
A self-described “old soul,” Oubliette has read, at her estimation, upward of two dozen historical fiction books about Anne Boleyn, and a similar number focusing on Cleopatra. She had a masquerade-themed party for her Sweet 16, and keeps a detailed list of historical figures with whom she’d like to “have a torrid two-week affair.” Said list includes but is not limited to Lord Byron, Mark Antony, and Henry VIII, but like, when he was young and looked like Jonathan Rhys Meyers.

“I’m just glad that McGall still has such a strong European history focus. It’s great that they keep that at the forefront. If I went somewhere else, I might have to study, I don’t know, Asia or something.”

Oubliette joins Rand at the railing as he rolls a cigarette, casting her eyes upward, to the leaves slowly losing their chlorophyll. “I’m worried about this generation,” she says, sounding every bit like the person who believes themselves to be an old soul I know her to be. “In these uncertain times, if we don’t have a strong vision of our past, how will we face the future?