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 October 3, 2012 at 11:40 AM||comments (0)|
Ever since I was about eighteen (that's almost fifty years ago) I've written down the author and title of every book that I've read. I write these details down in my best handwriting in a high quality A4 notebook that has gilt-edged pages, a marbled cover and a silk place finder.
Marilyn gave me the current book as a birthday present in 1993. I know this because I wrote that information down on the first page of the book. Then I duly transcribed all the entries from a previous notebook into this one. I read between twelve and twenty-four books a year so there must be about 850 entries in it. I start each year on a new page and the page header just tells me the year, and each new year is double underlined.
I hardly ever write anything in this book other than the author's name and the book title. There are only a few entries that give any more information; in fact there are so few that I can remember what they are without opening the book. Here's an entry I wrote in 1994:
"The first book I read this year was John McCarthy and Jill Morrell's 'Some Other Rainbow'. [This book tells the story of McCarthy's kidnap by Islamic Jihad terrorists in Lebanon in April 1986, his five years in custody and Jill Morrell's campaign to secure his release]. I began reading it on May 20th 1994 while I was on a return flight from Tel Aviv to London. By co-incidence, earlier that day I had visited Jerusalem, only three or four weeks after Israel signed a peace treaty with the Palestine Liberation Organisation. I had seen the PLO flag flying in East Jerusalem!"
I was in Tel Aviv on a business trip, and my customer had taken me to Jerusalem to see the historic city on a day off. I remember how shocked he was to see the PLO flag flying there, and I also remember how optimistic the Israelis that I met were about this peace treaty. I didn't meet any Palestinians, but I assume that at the time they too would have been optimistic about change. I'd brought 'Some Other Rainbow' with me, and of course the reasons for McCarthy's incarceration was inextricably linked to the Palestine problem. How wrong we all were to have so much optimism.
But why do I write all these book titles down?
I think that there are three reasons. If I dip into this notebook It's like dipping into a family photo album. Looking back on 1975 I see that I read three works by Solzhenitsyn and the first two books that I ever read by John Le Carre, and I recall that at the time I was backpacking around North America. I will always associate 'The First Circle' and 'Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy' with a drizzly72 hour Greyhound Bus journey across the empty and flat Canadian Prairie. If I look back to more recent years I will always associate Chimamanda Ngozi Adichi's ' Half of a Yellow Sun' and Dave Eggers's 'Zeitoun' with the tour of China that Marilyn and I made in 2010. When I recall where I was when I was reading a particular book I also recall the places I was in and the people I was with. I don't really need any more memory aids than the names of the author and the book. My notebook gives me a sense of time and place.
The second reason is that occasionally I look through the book to see if there's anything I want to re-read. I studied 'Wuthering Heights' for A level in 1966 and in 1998 I decided to re-read it as a result of looking back at my notebook.
Thirdly, every few months I look at what I've read over the past twelve months and ask myself if I'm restricting my reading to a limited range of voices. Those of us who read in English are a privileged lot. We can read works in our language by writers from all over the English speaking world; and in this sense of course I mean the UK and Ireland, the USA and Canada, Australia New Zealand and South Africa, but I also include India and Nigeria. And we can read books in translation. I use the list to decide what book to buy next. Have I just read three novels by middle-aged English white men one after the other? If so, my next book purchase might be travel literature, history, popular science or biography; or another novel by a woman from a different culture. So my notebook helps me to hear a wider range of voices, which, in turn, helps my own writing.
So I'm going to continue writing down every book I've ever read.