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 May 30, 2013 at 11:05 AM||comments (0)|
On October 1st 2010 I was in Tiananmen Square, Beijing. There were twenty-three of us, all British tourists, and we were accompanied by our tour manager, a young man from Shanghai, and a local guide who was in her late thirties. Our tour party happened to be in the square on China National Day; the first day of a week long holiday that celebrates the Communist victory in the civil war of 1945-1949.
According to our guide, over 300 million Chinese people make journeys in that week. That’s more than half the population of the European Union. Some people will take time off from their factory jobs, lock up their new skyscraper apartments in sprawling cities such as Shanghai and Beijing and return to the rural villages where they grew up. Back home they will be re-united with their parents, and very often the children that they’ve left behind. Other people will travel from far-flung cities and villages to celebrate their national identity right here in the square. Estimates of the number of people in the square this year range from half a million to a million.
Beijing has sixteen million citizens living in an area the size of Belgium. The city is built on a grid-iron pattern with all roads running either strictly north-south or strictly east-west. And Tiananmen Square is the one square kilometre rectangular bulls-eye in the very centre of the city. It wasn’t always there. Prior to 1949 it was a sprawling mass of homes, offices and workshops that was demolished by Chairman Mao in order to create a theatrical space where the communist victory could be celebrated. To the north is the Tiananmen Gate leading to the Forbidden City where the Emperor used to live. Above the Gate is a huge portrait of Chairman Mao. To the east is the Hall of the People, to the south is Mao’s mausoleum and to the West lays the Monument to the People’s Heroes.
Some of the visitors have come from rural villages. They’ve brought picnics with them and squat down in any free space they can find to eat pot noodles. The whole crowd is making its way north, so that each individual can be photographed with Mao’s portrait in the background. Considering how large the crowd is, it’s remarkably quiet. In the background, we can hear piped patriotic music being broadcast, but the volume is low. The picnickers are very careful to pick up their own litter and carry it away with them, and there are no particularly strong smells that I can recall.
If Katie Melua’s song is correct and there are nine million bicycles in Beijing, then there are even more cameras. Practically everybody carries a compact digital camera. Some people have never seen Europeans before. Our party attracts attention. As we move slowly towards Chairman Mao people clamour for us to stop, so that they can have their photographs taken with people who look like westerners they’ve seen on TV. They’re fascinated by our blue eyes, big noses and above all by our height. We oblige the photographers willingly, but we have little choice. The crowd is moving so slowly that we couldn’t escape their attention if we wanted to.
I can’t help noticing how young most of the people are. There are a few old people dressed in the drab uniforms of the Mao years, but at least three-quarters of the crowd must be under thirty. Whenever these young people pose for a photograph they adopt highly staged poses; arms outstretched, exaggerated smiles, silly expressions, pointed fingers. Some of the younger children are in ethnic or regional dress, and many others are dressed in a cacophony of styles and colours – stripes, checks, plaids, browns, blues and pinks. A lot of the teenage boys are androgynous with dyed bouffant hair. Their girlfriends are dressed in a plethora of (probably fake) designer labels such as D&G, Burberry and Abercrombie and Fitch.
Two thoughts occur to me. The first is that I have never been a part of such a large crowd before, and probably will never be again. I am just one in a million. The second is that I’ve heard somewhere about China’s ‘one child policy’. Does this mean that hardly any of these young people have brothers or sisters? It seems incomprehensible, far-fetched.
I’m intrigued, because I was an only child myself, and have always felt something of an exception. According to popular myth in the West, only children are spoiled, self-centred and lonely. While I don’t agree with these stereotypes I wonder what the effect is on a society if all the children of a given generation are singletons?
I ask our tour manager about the one child policy. He corrects me. China has a ‘family planning policy’, not a ‘one child policy’. This means that the state does indeed restrict the number of children that married urban couples can have to one, although it allows exemptions for some rural couples, ethnic minorities, couples who have re-married after divorces, or parents without any siblings themselves. It doesn’t apply in Tibet. Couples who breach the policy are fined, and may also be sacked from their jobs.
He tells me that parents who have given birth to handicapped children may try again – but only after four years. My parents were seriously disabled from their early childhood as a result of the Polio virus, and I’ve always felt strongly about how people with disabilities are treated by society, so this disturbs and confuses me. What constitutes a disability? Does the child have to be born with it? What happens if they contract it later? Why four years and not three or five? What is the official value of a person with a disability?
I don’t know what to make of any of this. On one hand I think it’s an appalling, sinister intrusion into people’s private lives that may have all sorts of unintended consequences; but on the other hand it may very well be true that this policy has contributed to better healthcare and greater prosperity for many millions. Since the policy was introduced in 1979, China’s population has increased by over 300 million, and we’ll never know what would have happened without it.
The policy was of course introduced as a response to famine. Between 1958 and 1961 the Great Leap Forward Famine killed about thirty million people. In this period Mao Zedong reorganized Chinese agriculture on a collective basis. Private farming was prohibited. Those engaged in it were labeled as counter revolutionaries and persecuted. Millions of peasants were ordered away from agricultural work to join the industrial workforce. Rationing was introduced, in some cases leaving rural Chinese with less than of 250 grams of grain per day. It took years to recover. By 1970, food production was still only 70% of the 1958 level.
Mao blamed sparrows for eating the grain, and official policy was to eliminate these enemies of the people. Peasants were ordered to bang pots and pans and run around to make the sparrows fly away in fear. Nests were torn down. Eggs were broken. Chicks were killed.
Despite Mao’s share of the responsibility for the famine he is still revered, though not considered infallible by any of the guides we met. Our tour manager said that in his opinion the Cultural Revolution was the greatest disaster to hit China in modern times. But Mao wasn’t wholly responsible. Mao was a great hero who was misled in his later years when his faculties were no longer what they were. He recommended us to read Jung Chang’s ‘Wild Swans’ if we wanted to understand modern China. I asked him whether it was available in Chinese. No, it isn’t. He’d read it in English. It was given to him by one of his customers. Most people have never heard of this book and couldn’t get hold of a copy if they had.
We’re now making our way through the Tiananmen Gate to the Forbidden City under the Chairman’s watchful gaze. I can’t help thinking of the time, twenty one years ago that I first heard the name of this place. I was watching the now iconic TV images of a solitary student carrying two shopping bags who had stopped a line of tanks that had been sent to crush a demonstration. Our guide has been telling us what a happy occasion today is, how thrilled everybody is to be in the square, and what we have seen confirms that. So I ask her whether she’s ever seen this famous, more sinister image? Is it ever seen in China?
She tells me that she has seen it, and that she was one of the students in the square that day. She adds “Of course, we didn’t really know what we were protesting about.” At that point the whole crowd has to move to the right to get through the security turnstiles of the Forbidden City, our guide has to count heads and make sure that all her party are following her, and I didn’t get to continue this conversation.
I originally wrote the above piece a few days after we left Beijing. at the time I was prepared to give China the benefit of the doubt - the "family planning policy MAY have contributed to better healthcare and greater prosperity for many millions.
But earlier this month, Penguin published "The Dark Road" by Ma Jian, translated by Flora Drew. This is a very bleak, profound and disturbing fictional polemic against the one-child policy and a repressive, brutal and corrupt bureaucracy. Ma Jian is a London-based Chinese dissident and writer who spent several months posing as a vagrant and a journalist researching what happens to Chinese peasants who "go on the run" to avoid the consequences of the one child policy.
Meili, a simple peasant girl married Kongzi, a village school teacher when she was just sixteen. they have a daughter, Nanaan, who is two years old at the beginning of the story. Because Kongzi is a direct descendant of Confucius, it's very important to him to have a male heir. He's determined to impregnate Meili enough times to make this happen, despite any objections she may have, and more significantly, despite the attentions of the Fertility Police.
To escape the persecution of the state fertility agencies, The family flee their home and live on the margins of society. They eventually make their home in Heaven Township, a polluted dystopian community where unwanted electronic equipment is sent from Europe to be recycled. Virtually all of the recyclers are illegal immigrants in their own country, many of them, like Meili and Kongzi are fleeing from the Fertility Police.
Meili becomes the victim of forced abortion, imprisonment and rape. The novel hints at still more darker forces such as the adulteration if infant feeding powders with toxic chemicals, the selling of unwanted children to foreigners, the deliberate maiming of healthy girl babies so that they will attract more sympathy as beggars, and cannibalism. Ma Jian is highly critical of Kongzi, who is determined to produce a male heir despite the consequences to his wife and daughter, but even more critical of the brutal, corrupt and repressive Chinese state.
Near the beginning of the book, Kongzi remarks "If a panda gets pregnant the while nation celebrates, but if woman gets pregnant she's treated like a criminal." Nearer to the end, Meili observes "Men control our vaginas; the state controls our wombs.” This book is certainly not for the faint-hearted, and had caused me to think again about China.