A. Troglodyte, Some Quaint, Old-fashioned Advice: For all the talented, hard-working, extraordinary students entering college and university in the twenty-first century, College Publications, 2022, 276 pp.
“Compare the spirit which animated the youth in our universities a hundred years ago with that prevailing today. They had faith in the amelioration of society, respect for every honest opinion, and the tolerance for which our classics have lived and fought”. These are the words of Albert Einstein, from Mein Weltbild (translated as The World as I See It), who, in the 1930s, was disillusioned with the state of German universities. I believe the spirit he speaks of is just the one Dr. Troglodyte is trying to revive with his book, Some Quaint, Old-fashioned Advice. Aimed at early undergraduates, the book provides a thorough guide to the full life of the dedicated student while simultaneously guiding the reader into an appreciation of their newfound intellectual autonomy. Drawing from ancient Greeks to quantum physicists, the entire book is a nod to the academic tradition and an elucidation for a young reader seeking to prosper on (and off) campus.
There are several chapters which alone ought to make this text mandatory reading for all first-year undergraduates. The first of which delves into the true purpose of universities which (surprise!) is not primarily to educate undergraduates. According to the author, it is something more like the preservation and advancement of knowledge. Further, Dr. Troglodyte puts forth some defining characteristics of university people. University people are those who use evidence and argument to test hypotheses and theses. The theses themselves are practically irrelevant. The author cites the philosopher Mark Mercer, who claims that the sophist Protagoras, even in his denial of the objectivity of knowledge, is a university person by virtue of his ambition to present theses and engage dissenters. The chapter, entitled “Discover the Best That Has Been Thought and Said”, carries Dr. Troglodyte’s vision of a university without disciplinary divides: university people bonded more strongly by their love of ideas than repelled by their contrasting curricula.
Most importantly, though, the chapter cleanly lays bare the distinction between ideologically motivated advocacy and legitimate, dispassionate academic work—the former is antithetical to the purpose of the academy. Dr. Troglodyte refers to Sokal’s hoax to emphasize that even institutions sanctified by “peer-review” can be fallacious. It seems to me few students are aware that activism ought to be separate from research. Namely, if one’s conclusions precede one’s analyses, one is committing an academic sin. The scholarly Troglodyte goes on to discuss standards of proof and the too scarcely recited steps to developing and testing a hypothesis. As most undergraduate science programs provide ready-made experiments with manuals to boot, hypothesis generation can be foreign even to those donning lab coats.
“Beware the Fribling, Fumbling Keepers of the Age” is perhaps one of the pieces of (quaint, old-fashioned) advice that is unique to this book. Dr. Troglodyte takes up the topic of academic freedom, providing historical examples including loyalty oaths binding academicians to the ideological constraints imposed by their nation’s leaders. The quotation that begins this essay is taken from Einstein at a time when he was defending a colleague, a statistician by the name of Emil Gumbel, who was mobbed by students and consequently exiled from the University of Heidelberg. The reason? He was a nonconformist left-winger in fascist Germany. Dr. Troglodyte emphasizes the necessity of tolerance in academic pursuits. He maintains that ideas, however controversial, are to be grappled with via discourse and debate. Moreover, academic freedom in the form of freedom of inquiry, he writes, is essential for the advancement of knowledge. Universities, and all of human society, would be better off if every student had this message echoing in their minds. A. Troglodyte takes care to list the freedoms privy to university students (or the ones that ought to be).
Every page of the book is imbued with an obvious love for the university spirit—or rather what the author wishes it were. For instance, in the “Have Fun” chapter, there is an entire section honouring the tradition of campus pranks. Perhaps it speaks to the stodginess of my own academic generation, but I’ve yet to witness any campus shenanigans beyond engineering students shotgunning beers during a linear algebra lecture— certainly nothing worth applause. This brings me to the author’s words on alcohol. Referring again to the ancient Greeks, the author advocates a middle ground approach, encouraging students to enjoy their social freedoms within reasonable constraints, particularly when it comes to avoiding what’s often called “burnout”. Dr. Troglodyte provides several handy prescriptions for the self-diagnosed ergophobic in an entire chapter dedicated to the subject.
I found one section in “Have Fun” to be incomplete: Sex. Now, I praise the author for having the courage to write anything about this, but he (or she? or they?) neglects to note the apparently high number of sexual-consent related conflicts on campuses and the consequences one might face for simply being accused of impropriety. Several universities in Ontario charge students a mandatory “sexual violence prevention fee”, which goes towards “supporting the Equity, Diversity & Human Rights Office in creating campus initiatives on ensuring a respectful and inclusive learning environment, including the prevention of sexual violence”. I won’t pretend to understand how exactly Laurentian spends the thirty dollars per student. Perhaps this is a recent feature, but many if not most universities have severe policies regarding sex which don’t tend to include limitations on disciplinary action. Western University is even mandating sexual violence and prevention training for all new students. It may be that sexual assault is something to be particularly aware of on campus, but it is certainly the case that one should tread carefully in sexual relationships to avoid being exiled from campus altogether.
I wish I had been given this book in my final year of high school. Dr. Troglodyte’s advice is sincere and accurate. He writes as if he were speaking to a “talented, hard-working, extraordinary” student, backing up his claims with sources from every corner of the academy. His book should be required reading for every new undergraduate irrespective of their chosen discipline. Dr. Troglodyte even goes into rudimentary set theory, which was quite surprising. Some Quaint, Old-fashioned Advice is a loving gift from one academic generation to the next. Take these institutions and protect them. They are delicate and dissolve at our peril.