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 27, 2013 at 6:45 PM||comments (0)|
In June last year I reviewed "Breath in the Dark", Jane Hersey's childhood autobiography. Jane was born into the ultra-orthodox Jewish community of Cheetham Hill in Manchester. Shortly after the birth of her younger brother her father abandoned the family, leaving three children in the care of their mother Annie. Annie simply couldn’t cope. She suffered from depression, asthma, diabetes and a compulsive eating disorder. She was addicted to prescription drugs and spent most of her life asleep on the sofa. When Jane was just six years old Annie depended on Jane to cash the National Assistance money, blag the doctor or the chemist to give her more amphetamines and to sell the second hand clothes that the community provided to pay for food.
Her childhood was non-existent. She was socially isolated, physically and emotionally neglected, and sexually abused by her father on the few occasions when she came into contact with him. By the time Jane was thirteen her mother had died and Jane was already showing symptoms of mental illness, including traits of OCD and Bulimia. She was regularly being fired from badly paid dead-end jobs partly because she had missed so much education that her work-skills were limited, but also because her social skills were almost non-existent. She simply didn't fit in anywhere. She was without a friend in the world.
Jane's first book ends abruptly when she is sixteen. Almost on a whim, she leaves the ultra-orthodox community of North Manchester to take a job as a chambermaid in a hotel in Windermere in the English Lake District. "Full Circle" continues her story from the age of 16 to the age of 28.
The cycle starts to repeat itself - she's fired from one job after another, fellow workers steal from her because she's too gullible to notice, her odd behaviour gets worse and worse. She's sexually abused and ends up living in Liverpool, married to the father of her son. It's a shotgun marriage, her husband regularly beats her to a pulp and his working class Catholic family are anti-Semites. Chillingly, her father-in-law describes seeing "The Angel of Death” in the bedroom, because. “She's a Jew." It's hard to believe that words like that were spoken in England in the 1970s.
So she flees the marital home in Liverpool and returns to Manchester with her baby son. At one point she takes a room in a brothel because she's too innocent to know why the landlady has taken her in. The landlady takes Jane's social security payments. Finally she returns to the ultra-orthodox community that had let her down so badly in the first place. The same cast of characters - relatives, social workers and community leaders who proved unable to help her in "Breath in the Dark" are still unable to come up with the help she needs. Things are complicated because she has "married out" to a gentile. This leads many members of the community to ostracise her, and one solution that is tried a few times by community leaders is to marry her off to old widowers who need to be taken care of. But her behaviour is too bizarre even for that plan to succeed.
She has sporadic contact with the mental health services. A middle aged Jewish psychiatrist describes her as being "of low intelligence". A more sympathetic psychologist explains to her "Someone shows you kindness and you reject them. Another rejects you and you smile.....You have things the wrong way round."Finally a psychiatrist gets to the bottom of Jane's problems. " She needs a mother. She's never been nurtured."
By the time Jane is twenty eight she's coping -just - by doing cleaning jobs and collecting glasses in pubs, and bringing up her son who's now at junior school. Then she meets the man she's now been married to for many years, and finally gets the consistent and regular psychiatric help she's needed for all of her troubled young life.
The psychotherapeutic community she is given a place in at the age of thirty recognises that she is far from being "of low intelligence" and shows her how to use writing as a form of therapy. "Breath in the Dark" and "Full Circle" are the result. They are both deeply disturbing and harrowing books to read, but they do show positive outcomes are possible even for the most distraught, abused and alienated children of our society. I wholeheartedly recommend these books.
"Full Circle is published by Matador Publishing, price £7.99 ISBN 978-1-78088-429-5. An e-book is available from the Kindle stores.