Reflections on being an undergraduate in my seventies
Reflections on being an undergraduate in my seventies
In July, just one month before my seventy-third birthday, I heard that I’d been awarded my BA in History from Birkbeck, University of London. A ‘second-class upper division’ (or 2.1) to be precise. So, my student career is over. I can honestly say that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the experience and met many really interesting people of all ages who have come from many countries to teach or learn in London. How lucky we are to live so close to such a dynamic, cosmopolitan city.
Of course, the whole learning process was disrupted by Covid. In March 2020, towards the end of my second year, teaching moved online, and stayed that way until the end of my third and final year. I know that the teaching staff moved heaven and earth to make the process of mass online learning as fruitful as they could, but it’s just not the same from the student perspective. Online learning is a solitary experience. The main thing that you miss is chatting with fellow students before and after the lecture. From the teachers’ perspective, it must be even more frustrating as the teacher has so few body language clues about how his or her message is getting across. In theory, this year’s graduates should be attending a graduation ceremony in November, but we don’t know whether that too will be forced online. I will be really disappointed if it is.
In the first year of the course, students choose to study history by period, and there are nine periods to choose from, from classical times to the twentieth century, I chose to study three periods of world history covering from 1500 to the present day. My main interest is twentieth-century history, but I also thoroughly enjoyed learning about the early modern world (from 1500 to 1789), which is of course the period when Europeans first encountered other civilisations. Spaghetti Bolognese is a quintessentially European staple, but what would it taste like without pasta - from China - or tomatoes and chilli peppers - from the Americas - or basil - from Africa? What would be left on the plate?
In return for the indigenous Americans introducing us Europeans to tomatoes, peppers, potatoes, maize, and a whole host of other food staples, we gave them horses, which they found quite useful; but we also introduced them to measles and influenza, which may have killed more than forty million of them. If that wasn’t enough, we then sent thirteen million Africans to the Americas to be enslaved, but several million of them never arrived on American shores, because the journey was so dangerous. So much modern history is about slavery and genocide that it was a great relief to choose, as one of my second-year modules, a course called ‘Being Good in the Modern Age’ which is history of altruism and morality. This course began by examining why the Enlightenment philosophers considered kindness and politeness to be important, and went on to cover, inter-alia, the campaign to abolish slavery, the campaigns of the nineteenth century feminists, and, from the twentieth century, the disability rights movement, environmentalism, and the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I think that if I had to choose the course that I enjoyed the most, it would be this one.
In the third and final year I wrote my dissertation. Those of you that are already familiar with my blog will know that one of my interests is disability rights, and that I have written the life stories of my parents, both of whom were disabled by polio as young children. So, you won’t be surprised at my choice of research project, which was a study of the foundation of the British Polio Fellowship in 1939 and its work between 1939 and 1970. This charity was a self-help movement which in many ways was years ahead of its time; as most charities with this kind of ethos did not emerge until the 1960s. Writing a dissertation during various stages of lockdown is not to be recommended; the library that holds most of the relevant material for a dissertation about polio is the Wellcome Library in Central London, but at no point when I was working on this project was this library open to new readers. Other students will have had similar problems, so I guess we’re all in the same boat. Anyway, these are trivial problems compared to what many other people have had to endure during the pandemic. At least it was my final year of university that was disrupted. I feel a lot of sympathy for those eighteen-year-olds who had to endure the stress of the 2020 A-level examinations fiasco, and then go into a university hall of residence to be solely taught online. They deserved better, and it’s not the fault of the colleges that things weren’t better for them.
The question that I’m asked most often is what next? Am I interested in a master’s degree? I have to say that the answer is no. There is no government funding for the over -sixties to go further, and while there are scholarships, I think that there are many younger people who deserve them more than I do. I will carry on writing and start to update my seriously unloved and dated blog more often, starting now. But would I recommend going to Uni to other seventy-somethings. You bet I would!
|Posted on May 20, 2019 at 7:30 AM|
Looking back over the year
Some of you may know that last October, just one month after my seventieth birthday, I began a three-year degree course in History at Birkbeck, University of London. The first academic year has just ended, and I thought I’d share my reflections. Birkbeck is an adult education college, so very few of the students are school leavers, most of them are in their twenties to their fifties. At seventy, I’m not even the oldest undergraduate in the d...Read Full Post »
|Posted on July 11, 2018 at 5:00 AM||comments (256)|
On Sunday 8th July I managed to combine three of my enthusiasms - walking, human rights and literature in one event. My friend Hilary told me about something called "Refugee Tales" - a project that is concerned with the welfare of people who are detained by the UK immigration authorities in t detention centres at Gatwick Airport.
The United Kingdom is the only European country that permits indefinite ...Read Full Post »
|Posted on January 23, 2018 at 6:15 PM||comments (0)|
On a bitterly cold, snowy day one March I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau. We were on a short break in Cracow at the time. I was in two minds whether to go or not; one part of me said that this not a tourist attraction, and treating is as such devalues the horrors that went on there. But another part of me said that I should see what went on; If we don't try to understand what happened, it can happen again.
All Auschwitz visits are guided. Joachim, our guide told us about the hi...Read Full Post »
|Posted on November 30, 2017 at 10:25 AM||comments (528)|
Charles Dickens first published A Christmas Carol in 1843 and since then his name has been indelibly associated with Christmas. This novel is credited by historians with reconstructing Christmas as a family centred festival of generosity.
I have my own childhood memories of Dickens at Christmas that I'd like to share with you, and I'd also like to share with you a tale of the remarkable generosity of a man I've probably never met, Mr J.G. Street. I have no idea what t...Read Full Post »
|Posted on November 13, 2017 at 6:40 PM||comments (0)|
Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, 1994-95
Few cities have such a strong sense of both time and place as Jerusalem. This is not only because of its religious importance, it's also because it has been continually inhabited, conquered and reconquered since the iron age.
More than three thousand years ago Abraham sacrificed his son Isaac in Jerusalem. King David conquered the city in about 1000BC and made it his capital. Since then it has been conquered an...Read Full Post »
|Posted on May 12, 2017 at 10:40 AM||comments (1)|
Two days in Cape Town
At the end of March Marilyn and I visited Cape Town. One Monday morning we took the ferry to Robben Island, the bleak outpost in the Indian Ocean where the Apartheid regime, like the British Empire and Dutch empires before it incarcerated its political prisoners.
Read Full Post »
|Posted on March 9, 2017 at 10:15 AM||comments (1)|
The first thing that Elliott Roosevelt did when he arrived at the Democratic Party's convention in Chicago in 1932 was to make sure that the curtains were fully drawn across the front of the stage. He had to ensure that the audience of thousands were not in a position to sneak a view of what he had to do in thirty minutes time.
Satisfied that his actions would not be visible, the twenty-two year old son of the former governor of New York then introduced himself to the sound ...Read Full Post »
|Posted on February 15, 2017 at 5:55 AM||comments (22)|
In March 1942 George Orwell wrote in his diary: " All propaganda is lies, even when one is telling the truth". In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries declared "post-truth" to be the word of the year. Here are some examples of Post-truth:
• Obama founded ISIS
• George Bush was behind the 9/11 attacks
I wonder what Orwell would have had to say about this subject?
Since Donald Trump's election as President of the United States...Read Full Post »
|Posted on January 12, 2017 at 8:55 AM||comments (21)|
Most of the scenes in George Orwell's Animal Farm take place in the Big Barn of Manor Farm, Willingdon. Orwell never states in which county Animal Farm is set, but it is almost certain that Wilingdon is based on the tiny Hertfordshire village of Wallington, near Baldock, where Orwell lived on and off from 1936 to 1944.
Small villages and towns such as Haworth and Hawkshead are today almost entirely defined by their connections with the Brontes and Beatrix Potter, but Wall...Read Full Post »
|Posted on October 21, 2016 at 9:05 AM||comments (0)|
I am a member of the Boxbourne U3A Creative Writing and Poetry Group, and am dlighted to tell you all that we have just published our second volume of short, stories, poems and memoirs - Tales2Tell.
Tales2Tell costs £4.50 plus postage, and is available here. All proceeds will be donated to Macmillan Cancer Care.
Read Full Post »