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 April 13, 2012 at 4:40 AM|
I was asked by a writing group do write a piece on the subject of “My Name.”
My name is Andrew Bradford and I quite like my name. When you look at it, it’s both symmetrical – each part has two syllables - and it’s alphabetically progressive– A is followed by B. Unless you bring my middle name, Charles, into it of course, but we’ll ignore that. Because I worked in IT in the City for years and worked with concepts that were ordered and logical I quite like having a name that has a sense of order to it.
I’m called Andrew after my mother’s grandfather, Andrew Kennet Bridgeman. I never met him; he died donkey’s years before I was born. He was born in Cambridge in 1857, and there is a River Kennet that flows though Cambridge and Suffolk. I believe that that’s where he gets his middle name from. He was in the Grenadier Guards for about forty yearsand fought in the Boer War as well as loads of colonial skirmishes, mainly in India. He and his wife Elizabeth had seven children, some who were born in England, one each in Canada and Ireland and two who were born in India. The two children who were born in India both died there as children.
As I write, I’m looking at a sepia photo of my great-grandparents. It shows Andrew, Elizabeth and their five surviving children, three of whom are teenagers, but that was before that word was invented. The second youngest girl must be Beatrice, my mother’s mother. She’s holding a vase of flowers. It was taken in the early 1890s, by A&G Taylor,’Photographers to the Queen’, of 62 Ludgate Hill.
Andrew is every inch the Victorian patriarch. Ramrod-straight back, wing-collar, hair parted in the middle, piercing eyes – I imagine they’re blue - and a waxed moustache. I hadn’t looked at this picture for years, and I’m disappointed that he’s not wearing a fob-watch on a chain,because if you’d asked me to describe it from memory I would have told you that he was wearing such a watch.
I have a silver fob-watch and chain, but of course I never wear it because three-piece men’s suits are quite out of fashion. My daughter has borrowed it because a few years ago it was a cool fashion accessory for a young woman. Perhaps I’ll get it back one day. I inherited my watch from my Dad –come to think of it I’d borrowed it from him years before he died. I borrowed it when I was in my twenties and three piece suits were in fashion.
My Dad’s watch was a twenty-first birthday present from his Mum, Letitia Bradford. But she never got to give it to him personally because she died suddenly, a few days after she’d bought it, and a few months before his birthday. So it had great sentimental value to him, and has the same value to me, because it connects me with my grandmother.
I don’t remember any grandparents. Two of them died before I was born, one shortly after and the fourth, my mother’s father, walked out of the family home one day and was never seen again. It was only when I had children and saw the relationships that they forged with their grandparents that I realised what I’d missed out on. I really would have liked to have known more about my Dad’s mother Letitia, who died in 1927 when she wasonly fifty. All of my cousins on my dad’s side are much older than me and remember their grandfather well, but nobody from my generation remembers Letitia, or knows very much about her.Letitia was Irish. All the other ancestors that I know of are English, and I think that by knowing so little about her I’m missing a part of my heritage. Her mother was born in Cork in 1835 so I’m fairly certain that she must have come to England to escape the famine. I presume that I have distant relatives all over the English-speaking world whose ancestors made far longer journeys for the same reason. But there are no photos and no memories of those people.