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 June 15, 2014 at 7:55 AM||comments (0)|
At a writers group I was asked to write something on that subject. At the time, Michael Gove was sounding off as usual. So I wrote this:
I can't believe it was thirty years ago. On the morning when we first arrived we were taken to our dormitories where we changed into our uniforms and were told to arrange the few personal items that we had been allowed to bring with us in, or on the top of our lockers. The instructions about how to arrange these things were very detailed and very specific.
Instruction 1 said that we could place no more than one personal photograph of our families on top of our locker. It must include all close family members and must not exceed 25 cm in height. Instruction 2 said that we should write our names in the cover page of any books we had brought with us, and place them in the green plastic containers provided. Any suitable material would be returned to us within twenty four hours; and any unsuitable material would be substituted with something more uplifting and positive. The third instruction told us to change into our party uniforms, fold the clothes that we had brought from home neatly and place them in our lockers.
There were lots more instructions, but I can't remember much about them. All of them were given to us over a loudspeaker by a disembodied female voice. It was impossible to guess her age or anything else about her, but we all called her Teresa. I can't remember who first called her that or why we chose that name over any other. Somebody said it, and it just sort of stuck.
Teresa's final instruction was to wait by our beds until someone escorted us to the great hall where the principal would address us. In the meantime there was to be no talking. Teresa informed us that we were all being monitored by CCTV, but of course we'd all noticed that anyway. We all knew about CCTV; it was installed in all the urban areas to monitor extremists. As we got to know each other we found that nobody in our dorm lived in the urban ghettoes, but of course all of our parents had installed CCTV on the perimeters of our properties. This was so that if extremists were loitering outside, the rapid reaction forces would get there in minutes. Because we all knew about CCTV, we all knew how to evade the cameras. We were too young to realise that if we could do that at the age of thirteen, then highly trained, highly motivated adult extremists who had access to virtually unlimited enemy funding would be able to evade the system as well.
We only had to wait a short time before an elderly man wearing some sort of ceremonial military uniform incorporating three red silk chevrons on his tunic sleeves and wearing a red peaked cap opened the door to the dormitory, walked in and looked around.
"Good morning Gentlemen" he said. "I'm Sergeant Cannon, I'll get to know all your names later. Welcome to the Party Academy. I will call each of you Sir, sirs, if you will address me as Sir, Sirs. Is that clear Sirs?"
There were ten of us in the dorm, and it took a few seconds for the penny to drop, but we all got the gist at about the same time. A bit falteringly we all, not quite in unison, replied "Yes Sir".
" I think we can do better than that" replied the Sergeant. "One more time, but this time together, please Sirs. Is it clear what I said?"
"Yes Sir" we all replied, this time in unison.
"Very well done Sirs. Now if you'll follow me I'll escort you to the Great Hall where the Principal, will explain to you how you are being groomed for the highest offices in the land and how to deal with success. Please form an orderly queue behind me"
We were the last group to enter the great hall. There were, I now know, about a hundred of us in the room altogether, fifty boys and fifty girls all aged between thirteen and sixteen. We sat in groups of ten, each group accompanied by a man or woman dressed in the same uniform as the Sergeant. Our group was told to sit in the left of the hall.
It was a very long time, over an hour, before Mr Gove, the Principal entered. While we waited a military band played music by Elgar, Purcell and Vaughan Williams. One of the women in uniform introduced herself as the music teacher. She told us that from now on we would only hear music written by British musicians. All forms of music were OK; Rock, Folk and Jazz were just as uplifting as the classics, but we should avoid listening to any classics written by Bach or Shubert as they were German, and the Germans were responsible for the crisis in what was then called the Eurozone. Bob Marley should be avoided as he had a perverted idea of what a Redemption Song was. Personal redemption can only follow national redemption.
Mr Gove didn't wear uniform in those days, he only started that when he was appointed national saviour after the second financial crisis. He was a very charismatic speaker. First of all he told us why we were divided into two groups. This was necessary because the people sitting on the right needed to have extra citizenship lessons to counter the influence of the extremist ideologies that they had been exposed to in the urban ghettoes, where they had spent their childhoods foraging for food. Our group, on the left had lived in the suburbs or the country and didn't need these extra lessons. Only when the citizenship course had been completed were the two groups to be allowed to mingle. People criticise the Academy system today, but the system catapulted some of our country's finest leaders from the fetid squalor of the big cities to the high positions in industry, medicine, academia and politics that they occupy today. The people in our dorm would probably have made it anyway, but I'm proud to live in a meritocracy. I thank Mr Gove for that.
Most of the rest of what he said was about literacy. He told us which books we had placed in the green containers would be confiscated. I can't remember them all. 'Of Mice and Men' was unacceptable as it conveyed the message that people with learning disabilities might have the same value to society as those of us who were being groomed for success, and Arthur Miller was suspect because he was almost certainly a Soviet agent. In our history lessons we would shortly learn about the Soviets - during the twentieth century they were the equivalents of today's extremists. I'd never heard of Steinbeck or Miller at the time so it all went a bit over my head. But he re-iterated. Steinbeck, Miller and Harper Lee would only fill our heads with left-wing negativity. Left wing negativity was incompatible with being prepared for success. Our language was great gift. We should be careful how we use it. I've never forgotten what he said.