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 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, sales of Orwell's "1984" have rocketed to the top of the best seller list in the United States. 1984 gave birth to a number of memes that have entered our consciousness, including of course "Big Brother", "Room 101" as well as "doublethink" - where a person can accept two contradicting beliefs as both being correct. The phrase "Orwellian" is used to describe an idea or action that is destructive to a free and open society.
Much of Orwell's writing is concerned with distortions of the truth that were made for political reasons. In his own lifetime he witnessed Stalin's Russia, where political opponents were put on trial, and at those trials the victims falsely confessed to heinous crimes, usually as a result of torture, or in response to threats of actions against loved ones.
Also in the USSR, the famine of 1932–33 affected the major grain-producing areas of the Soviet Union, leading to millions of deaths in those areas and severe food shortage throughout the USSR. While this was going on, official soviet sources denied that the famine was taking place, so any discourse on this issue was classified as criminal "anti-Soviet propaganda". The results of the 1937 census were kept secret as they revealed the demographic losses attributable to the Great Famine. Official statistics showed continually improving crop yields. Both of these events were parodied by Orwell in "Animal Farm".
A few years after Orwell's death, exactly the same events were replayed almost identically in China, during the "Great Leap Forward" famine of the 1950s, where it is believed that as many as thirty million people starved to death, and Mao's Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s, where millions of people were persecuted in the violent struggles that ensued across the country, suffering a wide range of abuses including public humiliation, arbitrary imprisonment, torture, sustained harassment, and seizure of property.
What seems to be the most worrying difference between our time and Orwell's time, is that the offences against the truth that Orwell satirised were committed by totalitarian states which could not remotely be considered democracies; while today's offences are being committed by individuals and political parties who claim to be democrats, in societies with a long history of democracy.
A few weeks ago, Donald Trump's press secretary, Sean Spicer, accused the media of underestimating the size of the crowds for President Trump's inaugural ceremony. Spicer claimed that the ceremony had drawn the "largest audience to ever to witness an inauguration, period – both in person and around the globe." But as many sources immediately pointed out, that claim was false. Spicer then falsely accused the press of altering images of the event to minimize the size of the crowds. He said floor coverings over the grass were to blame for a visual effect that made the audience look smaller, and stated they had never been used before; however, they had been used in 2013 for the inauguration of Barack Obama. Spicer took no questions after his statement. Later, he defended his previous statements by saying "sometimes we can disagree with the facts". He was then defended by Kellyanne Conway, another Trump mouthpiece, who told NBC's Chuck Todd that Trump's inauguration crowd numbers could not be proved nor quantified and that the press secretary was simply giving "alternative facts". Todd responded by saying "Alternative facts are not facts. They are falsehoods."
Kellyanne Conway went on to invent a series of so called facts so egregious and so dishonest that the USSR and Chairman Mao would have been proud of her. In a television news interview where she was attempting to justify President Trump's immigration ban, she referenced an event allegedly perpetrated by Iraqi terrorists which she termed the "Bowling Green massacre". She described it as an attack carried out within the United States by terrorists who had been admitted as refugees. These are the words Conway said:
"I bet, there was very little coverage—I bet it's brand new information to people that President Obama had a six-month ban on the Iraqi refugee program after two Iraqis came here to this country, were radicalized—and they were the masterminds behind the Bowling Green massacre. I mean, most people don't know that because it didn't get covered."
The reason that it didn't get any press coverage was, of course, it never happened. Just like the huge increases on food production during the famines of Stalin and Chairman Mao never happened. This is pure fiction dressed up as history.
Is it happening in our country? To some extent. My own view is that the EU referendum campaign included lots of alternative facts, mostly but far from exclusively on the "out" side and most notably the claims that 1): sixty million Turks would become eligible to come to the UK, and 2): £350 million would be able to be invested in the National Health Service each week.
If claims like this are not challenged, our democracy is in danger. There is nothing unique about our society that means that totalitarianism cannot succeed. Challenge false claims when we hear or see them. Remember, as Orwell said, " All propaganda is lies, even when one is telling the truth".