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 September 10, 2012 at 11:50 AM||comments (0)|
Both sets of games are over, the athletes are currently taking part in the parade through Central London, and the whole nation feels good about itself. It appreciated the generous spirit and hospitality of over 70,000 volunteer games makers, it marvelled at the spectacle of the opening and closing ceremonies and above all it loved to watch athletes from all over the world doing extraordinary things that the vast majority of are just not capable of.
How long before us Londoners go back to being our moody taciturn selves? I hope it's a long time before we forget how to smile at each other.
I'd like to say a few words about the legacy of both sets of games, but concentrating mainly on the Paralympic legacy. There are just three things that I think MUST happen:
The Paralympics: Rio must continue what London began.
I don't think that any of us would have foreseen that the paralympians would play to packed houses in every session, or that over 6 million viewers would watch the Paralympics on Channel 4 on the night that David Weir, Hannah Cockroft and Jonny Peacock all won gold medals. Most of the TV audience and many of the spectators who saw events at the venues probably had never had any contact with disabled people before, and they didn't see the athletes as disabled - just as sportsmen and sportswomen taking part in familiar events such as swimming and long jump and unfamiliar events such as wheelchair rugby and boccia.
London 2012 was the first time ever that the Paralympics received the same level of media attention as the Olympics, and the first time that all seats were sold out. However, not every country gave them the same level of coverage that we saw in the UK. In the USA, not one minute of the games was broadcast live. NBC has scheduled only four hour-long highlights programmes on its Sports channel, followed by one 90-minute round-up. And the highlights won't even be broadcast until October.
In France the only broadcaster that planned to cover the games live was TV8 Mont Blanc, a regional channel that is only available to 70% of the population. The state broadcaster France Television, which aired around 16 hours a day of Olympic coverage, earning record viewing numbers only planned to air a brief highlights show late in the evening. But when an online petition demanding greater coverage garnered 17,000 signatures in a matter of days, the company buckled under the pressure and agreed to schedule a one-hour show in a primetime slot.
So I just hope that the Paralympics didn't "peak" in London, and that Rio can find a way of showing more people just how thrilling and moving disabled sports can be.
The right-wing press must stop demonising disabled people.
The London 2012 competitors showed just how much people with disabilities can achieve. There biggest irony is of course that both sets of games were sponsored by Atos, the outsourcing contractor who is using flawed and cruel tests to deprive many thousands of disabled people of benefits on which they rely. The second irony was seeing government ministers, always quick to encourage the right-wing press to demonise people with disabilities as "scroungers" being equally quick to associate themselves with success by presenting medals.
I wonder what the press coverage will be when one of our paralympians loses his or her mobility allowance when Atos starts testing them for the new Personal Independence Payment scheme that is to replace Disability Living Allowance. Remember that the purpose of replacing DLA with PIP is to cut the cost by 20%.
The Olympic park legacy must be to provide homes, jobs and recreation for the people of East London.
Work starts almost immediately to turn the complex of arenas, pools and buildings which have become so familiar into the newly-named Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. The new-look park is set to re-open to the public in phases from July 27 next year.
The new Park will include 257 acres of open space, 6.5 km of waterways, the Orbit sculpture and observation tower, and five world-class sports venues. It is expected to host over 2,000 events each year including an annual festival of disability sport which will be one of the first events in the new park next July.
Outside the public park, there are plan to build homes 8,000 homes in five new neighbourhoods and to create 8,000 jobs in a new commercial district north-west of the park centred around the Press Centre and Broadcast Centre.
Well, those are the plans anyway. But long-term regeneration is a hard slog, and at the moment the London 2012 organisers have still to find tenants for the Stadium, the Press Centre and the Broadcast Centre. We are a nation that doesn't build remotely enough homes for our expanding population, and there has to be a lot of doubt as to whether local people will be able to afford the new homes. Let's just hope they get the balance right - it might take a long time. If you remember it took seven years for what was the Millennium Dome to re-open as the O2 Arena.
So, when some of these things take longer than we expected, we'll be able to find plenty of reasons to g back to being our traditional grumpy selves. In the meantime, have smile from me.