Boston Solutions Incorporated
Copyright© 2021 by Lazlo Zalezac
Professor Sigmond had just finished taking roll. He was an older man in his early sixties and quite severe looking (he had a nose in the shape of a tomahawk). Even though this was only the second class of the summer session, he had already demonstrated that he would not tolerate any nonsense from the students.
He looked down at his roll sheet and asked, “Mr. Osfeld, why do you think Marie Antoinette was so hated?”
Without the least bit of hesitation, Stephen answered, “I don’t know.”
“What do you mean, you don’t know? I’m asking for an opinion,” Professor Sigmond asked getting ready to cut Stephen into shreds. He hated students that couldn’t even form their own opinions about the material.
“No. You’re asking for speculation. We haven’t been presented with enough information on which to form an opinion,” Stephen said while he nudged the textbook in a dismissive fashion. The entire class tensed up when Stephen gave his answer. They were sure that he was about to be put through the meat grinder.
Rather surprised by Stephen’s answer, Professor Sigmond asked, “What information are we missing?”
“Quite a bit. All the book has given us is a few newspaper reports, some quotations that were attributed to her that were never uttered by her, and a repetition of speculations by other authors,” Stephen said.
“Interesting. Please continue,” Professor Sigmond said with a smile. It was hard to tell if he was smiling because he actually liked the answer or a great opportunity to crush a student was at hand. All eyes in the classroom turned to watch Stephen.
“Who hated her? Were there motives beyond a visceral negative emotional reaction to the woman? If so, what were those motives? Was she actually working in opposition to their plans? Was she being used as a pawn in a grander game? What behaviors did she exhibit that contributed to her being hated?” Stephen said. “There are a hundred more questions that I would need to answer before hazarding an opinion on why she was so hated.”
“Are the answers to your questions in the textbook?”
Stephen answered, “No.”
All eyes in the classroom turned to Professor Sigmond to see his reaction to Stephen’s answer. They were surprised when he said, “You sounded like a historian there.”
“Thank you,” Stephen said.
“However, I am sure that there are some who would object to you saying that the book presented a repetition of speculations,” Professor Sigmond said.
“Really? I noticed when I read that section that there were no attributions to the sources from which those statements originated. There was no justification for those statements given in the book. To me that speaks of intellectual laziness and reduces the significance of the judgments made from expert opinion to author speculation,” Stephen said.
“Very good,” Professor Sigmond said. He reached into his pocket and removed his pen. He wrote down an A for the final grade for the class next to Stephen’s name. He felt that his answer was worth an A. It was his opinion that his job was to teach students how to think about history and to form opinions based upon knowledge rather than repeating trite answers given by others.
He turned to the class and said, “I hope that you noticed a few key points of our young colleague’s observations. First, understanding the situation goes beyond reading a few sources. You have to investigate the full context in which the events occurred. This involves asking and answering many questions beyond the primary question.
“Second, even when reading an article one has to take care in distinguishing whether something is a verifiable fact, a scholarly opinion, or a commonly repeated popular speculation. This is particularly true when dealing with sources such as newspapers, memoirs, and popular books. I shall not even mention the internet.
“Third, the statements that individuals make are colored by their attitudes. When someone writes that so and so did such and such and that it was a horrible thing, you have to ask why they say that. It is not sufficient to know what they said, but why they said it. Motives should be suspect.
“It is unfortunate that I chose to ask my question of Mr. Osfeld so early in the class since his answer has effectively cut off further discussion of the material I wanted to cover. Instead of assigning a paper on Marie Antoinette, I’m going to ask you to write a paper about the influence of the Fourth Estate in the French Revolution. It will be due next class.”
The whole class groaned. One of the students looked at Stephen and said, “Thanks a lot. I was ready to write a paper about Marie Antoinette.”
The class continued for another hour and forty five minutes. At the end of class, Professor Sigmond said, “Class is dismissed. Mr. Osfeld, would you mind staying after class for minute?”
“Sure,” Stephen answered. He made his way up to the front of the class.
Once the classroom was empty, Professor Sigmond asked, “What is a common mistake that modern people make when looking at the past?”
“Making judgments based on today’s attitudes rather than on the attitudes of the time,” Stephen answered.
“Yes,” Professor Sigmond said. He smiled and said, “I don’t think there is any need for you to come to the rest of the classes.”
“Thank you,” Stephen said.
“However, I will need some sort of artifact from you to justify giving you an A in the class. I would like you to write a paper on a proper approach to understanding history.”
“Sure. When do you want it?” Stephen asked thinking that it would be a relatively easy assignment.
“By the end of the semester,” Professor Sigmond answered.
“All right,” Stephen said. Given that amount of time he figured that the expectations would be pretty high regarding the paper.
“You wouldn’t happen to be a history major, would you?”
“No. I’m a political science major with a minor in physics,” Stephen answered.
“That is an interesting choice of major and minor. Why did you choose that?”
Stephen answered, “Magus recommended it. He said it would ease my studies when I went into law.”
Professor Sigmond frowned and said, “I didn’t realize that you were one of the students who utilized the services of Magus.”
“I’m not a client. I work for him,” Stephen said.
“Oh,” Professor Sigmond said impressed. “I’m pleased to learn that you aren’t one of those students who have gone to him in the hopes of forcing a professor into giving them an A.”
“Magus would never force a professor into giving someone an A,” Stephen said.
“I know that,” Professor Sigmond said with a smile. “I think a lot of students discovered that over the past school year. I think it is a particularly cheap lesson at only ten dollars.”
He started packing up his lecture materials and then paused. He said, “There is an interesting little book that came out a couple of days ago. It is titled, ‘My Grandmother.’ It is basically the life of a common woman as seen through the eyes of her grandson. I was thinking of assigning it to the class as an extra credit project. You might want to read it. In a way, it will be a very novel source for a future historian who wants to understand modern times.”
“I edited it,” Stephen said.
“Really?” Professor Sigmond said. “You might mention that to your English professor.”
“I’ll do that,” Stephen said.
Professor Sigmond picked up his material and said, “I look forward to reading your paper.”