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 20, 2019 at 7:30 AM|
Looking back over the year
Some of you may know that last October, just one month after my seventieth birthday, I began a three-year degree course in History at Birkbeck, University of London. The first academic year has just ended, and I thought I’d share my reflections. Birkbeck is an adult education college, so very few of the students are school leavers, most of them are in their twenties to their fifties. At seventy, I’m not even the oldest undergraduate in the department. One of my fellow students is eighty-two! So I’m pleased to say that I do actually fit in, which was one of my concerns before I started.
In the first year I’ve chosen to study three modules from a choice of nine; the Early Modern Period (1500-1789), Modern (1789 to 1914), and Contemporary (1914-2008). We study World History, which means we learn a great deal about slavery and genocide - both of which increased in scale exponentially as a result of the discovery of the Americas in 1492. Both subjects can be harrowing, man’s inhumanity to man seems to know no bounds. Thirteen million Africans were sold into slavery between 1500 and the mid-1800s, and in the twentieth century about fourteen million people were murdered in Eastern Europe by Hitler and Stalin. This number does not include another twenty million who died in combat, just those who were murdered because they were the wrong ethnicity or religion or were victims of famine caused by government policy.
I can honestly say that I’ve found almost every lecture to be stimulating and enjoyable; the quality of the teaching is first-class. I particularly enjoyed writing an essay on the birth of the welfare state, a subject which is very dear to my heart, and when, in 2021 I will have to write a dissertation then it’s quite likely to be concerned with this subject. Last week I had to sit three three-hour exams where the answers had to be hand-written. After writing by hand for three hours I can assure you that your wrist hurts. Since I bought my first computer about twenty-five years ago I haven’t hand-written anything longer that a birthday card or a post-it note. I won’t get the results until July, and I only hope that the markers can read my writing!
Why study history?
We are living in a period where political optimism in short supply. Some of our politicians who are extolling the virtues of a “no-deal Brexit” recall the period of World War II with nostalgia. Why anybody should be nostalgic about a period where over 30 million people died escapes me. George Orwell – in “Nineteen Eighty-Four” wrote:
“He who controls the present controls the past. He who controls the past controls the future”.
Orwell was warning us all against unscrupulous people who try to influence us with false narratives about our past. At least one British politician has claimed on Twitter that after World War II Great Britain received no money from the USA in the form of Marshall Aid; all of it went to the continent. At Birkbeck you learn the objective truth – Britain was the largest beneficiary of Marshall Aid. In one lecture last winter we saw a picture of a Soviet-era war memorial in the Eastern Ukraine. It had been recently vandalised, because it stated that World War II began in 1941. People in that part of the Ukraine consider that it began in 1939. The people who believe that it began in 1939 and those who believe that it began in 1941 support different sides in the current conflict in this region.
That’s what Orwell meant and that’s why I study history. It helps to understand and challenge the power of “fake news”.
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