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My First Year as a Seventy-Year-old Undergraduate

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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