Halcyon Days

thumbnail_img_3968I commenced at UQ in 1974, having taken a gap year to travel through India and the UK.

There was never any question I would go to UQ.  My father taught there in the Education Faculty, five of my older siblings had preceded me and one more was to come.   University was not so much a choice as a rite of passage.

For me the big question was what to study.  My parents, in the tradition of upwardly mobile migrant families, would have preferred I studied law or medicine but neither objected when I instead chose History and Anthropology.

I was a successful student but it was only in my honours year that I could claim to be a conscientious one.  My first three years were spent reading well beyond my courses and participating in student politics.

Campus life was about long debates on the big issues of life, hours spent in the ‘refec’ where a single cup of coffee could get you through a long discourse.  Parties were even longer and an active social life in those days did not cost much.  Vacations were for casual employment to pay for the rest of the year.

It was an uncomplicated and quite leisurely time.  No one spoke of stress.  We took ourselves and our causes more seriously than either justified.  We were opinionated and certain of our stance on every issue.

I was of the generation that did not think much about what employment awaited after university.  We just assumed something would turn up and indeed it did.

UQ was a much smaller place then.  The ‘refec’ was the gathering place.  Politics was front of mind.  Ideology was more prominent and ideas the currency of conversation.  In that sense it was very much a liberal education in the old meaning of the word.

In between we did actually learn a lot even if much of it was outside the lecture theatre.  At UQ I learned to read and think in a more disciplined way, to construct an argument, and to understand that knowledge often resided in a grey zone where conviction and doubt co-existed.  But at the time there was not much room for doubt.  We knew exactly what was wrong with the world and how to fix it.  If I met him today, I would find my university self deeply annoying.

A smaller campus meant more interaction with students who did not share your tutorial or lecture.  It meant being exposed to a range of views.

It also meant space to develop lasting friendships.  I courted my wife at UQ where she both worked and studied.  And now, returning to Brisbane after thirty-eight years, I have resumed friendships from university days as if I had never left.

We had the luxury of time, for many of us the only period in our lives when the demands of a daily schedule did not dominate our days.  Of course we wasted much of it but that was the great thing about being at university:  we could afford to do so.

Nostalgia is an unreliable prism.  The lived life is rarely the replica of the remembered life.  But in my memory, those four years at UQ were halcyon days.


Mr Peter N Varghese AO, BA (Hons), H.DLitt Qld. Chancellor, The University of Queensland, Brisbane.