I have three degrees and all my studies were free, apart from a few insignificant charges. Why is this so? It’s because I am 86 and belong to the Silent Generation. That placed me before the neocon John Sydney Dawkins put a hex on university learning. As Labor Education Minister 1987-91, he decided to make education a business instead of a right. Lucky me. I had no hellish university debt to pay off while I was raising children and getting a home.
I believe my category, the Silent Generation, those born between between 1928 and 1945, gets its name inter alia from the McCarthy era, where we were too afraid to speak lest we be declared communists.
I always wanted to go to university. I was disappointed not to qualify when I did the Leaving Certificate. I passed but didn’t matriculate. That left me two choices. I could do the exam again or wait until I turned 25 when I could apply for university entry.
Fate intervened to give me another place to study. There was a desperate need for teachers in the late Forties, thanks to the Baby Boomers (1946 -1964). My pass was good enough to get me into Bathurst Teachers College, so off I went.
Two years there and three years primary teaching gave me my Teaching Certificate. I was only 22 then.
Three years later, at the required mature age of 25+, I tried my luck as a correspondence student with the University of New England. My destiny at this time was not written in the stars.
Circumstances were not exactly conducive to part time study. I was teaching in a very isolated, one-teacher school: nineteen pupils, no electricity, no water laid on, a pit toilet and no weekend accommodation. I spent my weekends with my parents, seventy odd miles away in Raymond Terrace. Each of the summer Saturdays (I confess) was spent playing cricket for Stockton in the Newcastle cricket competition.
My first attempt at studies took me into English and Psychology. I was very naive still and as I have already said, very isolated. No company to discuss problems. No easily accessed library. My failure was written on the subway walls. I did so well in one psych essay the lecturer posted it to all the other students doing the course. But my exam technique didn’t exist.
To sit the exam I had to go into the nearest town. There I was in the hands of a minister of the church. A lovely man with a lovely wife. I was given tea and biscuits using superb crockery.
That wonderful invigilator was a stickler for the rules. I was the sole candidate, working alone in a room. When my reading time began, he rang a little bell for me. Ten minutes later he rang me the little bell again to announce the beginning of writing time. Ten minutes before the end of examination time he rang the bell again and announced the warning. Finally the bell proclaimed the end of the examination. Those two people are a happy memory of a not so happy time.
My teaching went well however, which was very important to me, and I earned a very good inspection report. With cricket I was chosen in the Newcastle representative team. So I was not completely forlorn.
Things changed when I married in 1961. My wife Judy had a degree from Sydney University. She changed my life in so many ways. I was a virgin bachelor, 28 years old, with so much to learn about life, when we married. Somehow our togetherness helped me gain new confidence to try again to study.
Off I went to the University of Newcastle administration. I was interviewed by Professor Brin Newton-John, of Bletchley Park fame and father of Olivia. He gave me my chance. Another landmark in my life. He was gently encouraging and somehow I felt more confident after talking with him. I enrolled in English I and Psychology I.
So I was a university student at last, at the age of 28. But was I going to succeed at last? I was standing on shifting ground. Part time status, teaching in the day and studying at night. I was not sure of myself. Lectures and seminars were a vivid adventure. I was quite nervous. I was what was called “provisionally matriculated.” To confirm my place in the university I had to pass in those two subjects. No room for failure this time.
My lecturers were god-like creatures to me – so aware of so much. So knowledgeable. So interesting. Some other part-time students and I formed a team to help each other during that first year. It was Warren, Norman, Valerie and Royce. We discussed lectures and seminars, found talking points to consider and filled in any gaps for each other due to absence. It was a good plan and made a difference, certainly for me. Later in life I discovered that Valerie married Brin Newton-John. By a strange twist of fate my wife Judy taught their children at Fort Street just before she died.
English did much to lift my spirits as a student. It touched my soul. During that first year I became a different person. I befriended Chaucer, the Romantic poets, and a number of more recent stars including Ernest Hemingway and Eugene O’Neill.
Psychology changed my life as well. I was surprised how much time was devoted to statistics. One psychology lecturer played a mean trick on some of us. We were given a test in a lecture and half the group (me included) were told on the test paper that the test would count towards our final mark and the other half were told it was merely practice and would not count. A nice little controlled experiment, but not so nice for some of us who found the test very hard.
Chaucer was a different story. I loved the sound of his language. I learnt of his importance when he chose to write in English in the fourteenth century. I also loved his stories. I laughed at the Miller’s Tale, the Wife of Bath’s Tale taught me about women’s “soverainte” (“mastery”) in relationships, and the Pardoner’s Tale was to me an exposé of the human trend towards ruthless self-interest.
A passion for words and their meanings became part of my makeup during that first year. I learnt for example, that Chaucer’s horses moved at a leisurely canter because they were going to Canterbury. I remember doing an essay based on the Oxford Dictionary’s pages dealing with the word “commonwealth,” which was originally written as two words: “common weal.” That memory includes visions of big dictionary pages telling the history of the word and making me realise that words in dictionaries are potent, alive and changeable things.
Assignments on semantic change were significant focuses of study. I found this most interesting. I remember King Lear describing himself as a “foolish fond old man” when “fond” meant “foolishly affectionate.”
Pray, do not mock me. I am a very foolish fond old man, Fourscore and upward, not an hour more nor less. I fear I am not in my perfect mind.Act 4 Scene 7
I remember too my discovery that once the word ‘clue’ had nothing to do with Sherlock Holmes but referred to a ball of string. You can find similar unexpected meanings here in a contemporary resource, to help you taste the spirit of my earlier semantic adventures. There is also an excellent talk on the power of words.
With psychology I was sane enough. I moved with the spirit of investigating the human mind. Statistics challenged me but I survived. Life is just a radical equation after all.
As for the meat of the subject, my lecturers seemed to belong to the supporters of Spearman’s General Intelligence or g factor. Gardener’s multiple intelligence theories (the ones I lean towards today) had not yet arrived.
My study time then was actually a golden age of the Behaviourists (alas) and I gave them the respect as a student they didn’t deserve. John B Watson and BF Skinner were part of that experience. Things are different today, as you can confirm from more recent research.
So much to learn. That was the experience of mine in a university of the Sixties! It’s still true isn’t it? Teaching had to come first however, and took up so much of my time and energy. I was a primary teacher in Maitland, and journeyed down to Newcastle after school for the lectures. I did the university assignments at night, often working to dawn or further when essays were due.
I did well in an essay for psychology questioning the categorisation of humanity into races. The English essays went well too. Wordsworth, Blake, Shelley, Keats and Coleridge became new idols. I understood their revulsion concerning the factory system and other aspects of their nineteenth century life, and I shared their rebellious spirit. Here is a contemporary site I have just visited. It reminds me of those days Romantic, and takes me a little further.
One strong memory I have is how I identified with the solitary wanderer of Romanticism. Here is one of the many poems I read. Not the most significant poem, but one I remember well.
The end of that first year came so quickly. All of the assignments were done on time. Then loomed the exams. I will never forget that anxiety. To my credit, at last I had good examination technique. I planned the time and no more leaving out whole questions.
Waiting for the results was a major agony. But I had a wife this time to share the burden. Wonder of wonders I passed in both subjects.
So I had arrived. Seven more subjects to complete. Each year to be a separate challenge.
Year 2 saw me studying English II and History I. The journey to knowledge continued.
I remember being swept away by the majestic imagery of Milton’s Paradise Lost mainly, but also by Paradise Regained. Coleridge’s claim that Satan was the real hero of Paradise Lost was quite but not completely convincing. The description of the war between the Satanic forces and the angels is so vivid and imaginative (Book 6).
My contact with lecturers continued to inspire me. Harri Jones in particular, an expert on Dylan Thomas, was a source of real influence. A lovely person, so knowledgeable in English and a little inclined to be tipsy in the late evening of his lectures. I got to know him a little better and gave him a lift in my car. He left his hat behind but I returned it later. I was very sad to learn, some years later, that he was drowned, falling into the sea I believe. His teaching of Under Milkwood was so interesting, as was that play’s radio genre.
I read James Joyce’s Ulysses right through. That was a major effort but a great enlightenment. We were told that some people regarded the whole work as a gigantic lyric poem. I loved the experience of the stream of consciousness.
What a brilliant idea Joyce had! To portray the continuous process of thought. I also learned that authorised printing of the book would require a large black dot after the last words, indicating the final moment of Bloom’s awareness.
History was another adventure. I had failed the subject in the Leaving Certificate. I also failed at teachers college – my only failure I think. I had a thing about the subject then, just after the school failure. Studies at this level were a different matter.
I remember the Peterloo Massacre very emotionally, and Shelley’s passionate poem inspired by the massacre. The last stanza of the poem is very moving:
I suppose it is all my teaching of the underprivileged that makes me feel that way. Here is a good print of the poem if you have the time and energy to read all of it.
We dealt with the great reforms in England during the nineteenth century.
1832 and the Great Reform Bill was a major point of study. I learnt it was a significant event, but not as great as it sounded. Many more changes were needed. There is a neat summary of it here. Goodbye to rotten boroughs!
1867 was our next focus. “One man one vote” was still a distant dream despite the changes of this time.
As for women, they still had a long time to wait: until 1928 I seem to remember. Yes that’s right.
I recall my fascination with the Chartists. Idealism has been around for a long time.
I love chocolate, although I am not supposed to eat it these days. Maybe that is partly why Seebohm Rowntree’s study of the poor of York in 1899 moved me profoundly. It led to the beginning of the welfare state in England.
Sport was another reason I was now beginning to feel at home at the university. Regulations demanded that because I was a student, I had to leave the Stockton cricket team and play for Newcastle University. I made many university friends in the cricket side of things.
Also I was chosen to represent the Newcastle Cricket Association against South Australia, Western Australia and the Cricket Club of India and I was also selected in an Australian Universities team. I was awarded a Blue by the university. My skill on the cricket field helped my confidence quite a lot, but far outstripped my ability as a student. Nevertheless I kept doggedly on with my studies.
And what about the second year of exams? Wonder of wonders, I passed again.
I will share some more of my journey in my next post. Au revoir.