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 March 26, 2012 at 4:55 AM||comments (0)|
Last night BBC1 broadcast the story of Laurence and Adele Clark as their second son Jamie was born. Both Laurence and Adele have Cerebral Palsy. One of the early scenes shows them taking their older son Tom, aged six to the swing park.
Being taken to the swing park as a six year old by two parents in wheelchairs is one of my earliest memories too. But that was 58 years ago, so I wanted to see what’s changed in just over half a century. The wheelchairs are far more high-tech and the playground equipment is much more brightly coloured, but it’s still newsworthy when two people with disabilities decide to have kids. There was no TV to speak of in 1948 so my birth was only reported in “The People” and the “Sunday Express”.
Laurence was in the operating theatre when Adele gave birth to Jamie, but the presenceof any dad - let alone a dad in a wheelchair - in that room was unthinkable then. But just as Laurence was about to go in, a very embarrassed (male) midwife asked him if he would mind transferring from his power wheelchair into a hospital wheelchair – “it would be better for us”. I can’t imagine the reasoning behind this; Laurence very politely and firmly declined this request and the midwife’s body language showed that he was only going through the motions at somebody else's bidding. He was clearly relieved when Laurence stood his ground.
One scene showed Adele talking to Tom about the imminent arrival of his new brother, and it was very interesting to see how he understood and accepted his parents’disabilities in such a matter of fact manner. I can’t remember having these discussions with Kathy and Charlie at six, but I do remember that as a nine year old I accepted my parents’ disabilities in just the same way. It would be very interesting to see a follow up program in a few years time and talk to Tom again.
I felt for the two grandmothers who featured prominently in the programme. Their childrens’CP was of course the result of difficult births, so it must have been very stressful for them to wait for Jamie’s arrival, and the relief they must have felt when a healthy baby arrived was obvious.
I couldn’t help contrasting Laurence’s and Charlie’s working lives. They couldn’t be more different as Laurence is a stand-up (or should it be sit-down?) comedian, whereas Charlie worked on an assembly line. Charlie’s work was hard physical labour, but his hours of work and his level of income were far more predictable than Laurence’s. One of the most moving parts of the programme was when Laurence had to leave his young family to spend a month at the Edinburgh fringe. I was about to write that there were no opportunities for people with disabilities in the performing arts in the 1950s but then I remembered that one of the most popular entertainers of the time was Michael Flanders, a polio survivor like my mum and dad who performed in his wheelchair.
Towards the end of the programme Laurence and Adele mention that there are still people around who don’t think that parents with their degrees of disability should have children. Nothing new there then.Adele pointed out that her children will always get the love and attention they deserve. She didn’t think that her life should be viewed as “triumph over adversity”; all she was doing was leading a normal life. These are sentiments that my mum and dad would have agreed with completely.