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 January 17, 2012 at 9:20 AM||comments (0)|
Do the proposed changes to Disabled LivingAllowance send us back to the 1930s?
Readers of “Live Eels and Grand Pianos” will be familiar with the stories of Kathy and Charlie Bradford,and the financial struggles that they had to finance the cost of their disabilities. Here are two extracts about their lives in the 1930s. The first extract is about Charlie:
“Charlie was an activist for the rights of the disabled as earlyas the 1930s. He was asked by the Shaftesbury Society (a Christian charity) to helpset up a ‘cripple parlour’ - a kind of self help group – in Edmonton. The group wrote letters to MPs about the financial consequences of disability. He (and countless others like him) couldn’t afford to buy their crutches, leg irons and wheelchairs, so the society gave them lists of wealthy individuals they could write to, to ask them for financial support. In other words he had to write begging letters.”
And this extract is about Kathy
“Kathy was a talented needlewoman. She left school at fourteen and worked as a tailoress until she married. Her first job lasted one year, as did her second job and then her third. When she was sacked for the third time she asked her employer why she was being dismissed, and she was told that the boss had found out that due to her disability, the employer would have to pay extra national insurance contributions, backdated to the day that she started.
National Insurance in the 1930s was a payment made by the employer to the government to provide compensation for its employees in the event of an industrial injury, and no doubt some government actuary had decided that disabled workers were a higher risk and had to pay higher contributions. Kathy’s employer said that he couldn’t afford to pay that. Somebody else could do the job more cheaply. She had to go. She therefore came to an arrangement that she would reimburse the firm for the extra national insurance stamps . She did this for ten years until the start of World War II, and she recorded all the payments she made in a series of notebooks. In 1938 she attended one of the first meetings of what became the British Polio Fellowship, a self-help organisation for people with her disability. A few years later the Polio Fellowship submitted these notebooks as evidence to the Beveridge Commission, and the national insurance rules werechanged.”
Kathy andCharlie always worked, but the extent of their disabilities prevented them fromearning very much money. It wasn’t until the Chronically Sick and HandicappedPersons Act was passed in 1970 ( by which time Charlie was 64 and Kathy 58) thatthey received any form of state benefit that recognised that because of theirdisabilities they had higher expenses than able-bodied people in similar situations.This meant that they could afford a telephone for the first time.
When they first applied for Attendance Allowances (the forerunner of Disability Living Allowance) they mentioned that they needed a telephone and why they needed it. They were first of all turned down on the basis that Claremont Street (where they lived) “is not an isolated place”. They appealed and in the appeal they mentioned that Charlie often fell down in the house and couldn’t get up without help. Because they didn’t have a phone, Kathy often had to stand at thedoorstep to ask passers-by to come into the house to pick her husband up. They won the appeal and the Attendance Allowance made an immeasurable difference to the quality of their lives.
If theproposed cuts to DLA go ahead then there is a grave danger that we will return to those times. Churches and charities will be compiling lists of “benefactors”to whom “the needy” can write to for support, and thousands of people who currently lead active and fulfilled lives will become isolated. Some of the changes may be counter-productive, as many people who use DLA funding to payfor transport to work and assistance at work will find themselves unable towork, and claim other benefits instead.