Studying after 60: never too late to learn

40 years ago, going to university was unusual. Only 8.4% of school leavers went on to get a degree in 1970 compared to just over 50% now, and many older people today may feel they missed out on a major opportunity to explore a subject they’re passionate about and to develop a range of academic skills.

Undertaking degree level studies for the first time is a popular option for retirees with time on their hands and a willingness to learn. Not is it an excellent way to keep occupied after exiting the workforce and to explore areas of interest that may not have been available in the past; older students can also qualify for the same government loans as their younger peers, in most cases without the expectation that they will later exceed the annual £25,000 income threshold necessary to pay them back.

Known for its flexible, part-time and evening study, Birkbeck is an appealing choice for London’s mature learners where this year, 9% of students were 51 or older (1,026 out of 11,871), and 2% were 61 or older (291 out of 11,871). The College offers a range of workshops tailored to those who want to go to university later in life, to help them with study skills after a long time away from the books, and to offer support in using technological resources such as digital journal archives.

While a common view of a university student may be of a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed 18-year-old embarking on their studies after completing their A-levels, Birkbeck’s 2019 graduates prove there’s not just one way to do a degree.

John Alexander, BA History of Art, aged 68:
“My wife and I have spent our whole lives visiting galleries and I’ve long thought I’d like to learn more about the art we’ve always loved looking at.

“I researched the huge number of options available to me in London to study art, and quickly decided History of Art at Birkbeck would be the best as they have a great reputation, flexible hours and were happy to take me! I knew if I only went to the odd lecture at, say, a museum, I’d enjoy it but not retain the information. I need the discipline of having to write an essay or sit an exam (which was daunting at first after some 45 years) in order to force myself to focus and learn the material. It involved many hours sitting alone at my desk or visiting galleries, none of which I could have done without the patient and enthusiastic support of my wife. She said she will proudly add my graduation photo to those of our children hanging in her study.

“I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my studies at Birkbeck and have been in awe of the many inspiring students of all ages I’ve come across. This was my first degree, and I was worried that I might not have sufficient grey cells left to learn but I’ve found it stimulating and enlightening. The only problem is that it now takes me much longer to go around galleries as I see so much more in the works of art than I used to! My wife has also enjoyed learning more, almost by osmosis, alongside me! It has certainly kept my grey cells active and I would highly recommend study to anyone of any age who wants to learn more about any subject. It’s challenging, but it’s fun!”

Diana Hills, Grad Cert History of Art, aged 72:
“I decided to do a graduate certificate in History of Art because I like working towards something rather than just going along to talks for interest. I’ve always been interested in art history and the course was an opportunity to try my hand at academic writing and learn more about aspects of art and architecture I didn’t know much about.

“To me it’s never too late to learn, and perhaps older people get more enjoyment in learning new skills. As we move more and more into a knowledge based age, it’s important that people of all ages have the basics so that they can cope and at least know how to access information. Education doesn’t just need to be academic – just the ability to communicate and appreciate the variety of opportunities modern life has to offer.

“The first assignments are always tough. Everyone has their own way of coping – you have to try, get the feedback and with time you do get better. Some of my family and friends said ‘I don’t know why you’re bothering’ and urged me to give up when I got stuck on an assignment. A number of people, including my grandchildren were a bit puzzled as to why I wanted to go back to school but they soon got used to me making notes, even if they couldn’t understand why I wouldn’t use a laptop!

“To study and get a qualification is a privilege for people of any age, and while undoubtedly you may go through a bit of a rough patch, the sense of achievement when you finish, whatever your mark or grade, is second to none.”

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Everyone’s Mother

MA Text and Performance student Gaynor O’Flynn discusses her upcoming show, Everyone’s Mother, and how her studies at Birkbeck have informed her practice.

I have just started studying the MA in Text and Performance at Birkbeck and RADA and have already learned so much in such a short period of time!

I work across disciplines: theatre, film, performance, immersive, interactive, music and text. In my career I have had the pleasure to work with many amazing human beings including Bjork, Alan Bleasdale, The Verve, Anton Corbijn, PJ Harvey to name a few…

I am also founder of Beinghuman and The Beinghuman Collective. We believe in the power of art for inner and social change and have worked globally with organisations including C4, EMI, The British Council and Google.

Earlier this year I attended a workshop at The Actors Centre with Colin Watkeys. Colin is an amazing director and educator and Founder of the Solo Theatre Festival, who for over 20 years directed the late, great Ken Campbell who the Guardian called, “a one-man dynamo of British theatre.”

In the workshop I developed a solo show called, Everyone’s Mother. Loosely based on my own life experience. When The John Thaw Initiative announced the 2019 theme was, ‘Motherhood’ I applied and was selected! The award offers a platform for artists to take creative risks and get vital feedback whilst the work is still in development.

The work will be performed at The Actors Centre, Soho at 8pm on 18, 19 & 20 November 2019 as part of the ‘Motherhood’ season. Tickets are only £7/ £5 concessions and are available here.

I have already had amazing support from my MA tutors, especially award-winning writer and dramaturg Paul Sirret who read my script and said, Wonderful… very evocative… on the page it works beautifully”, and will be attending to see if that transfers to the live, stage context!

As an integral part of each performance is audience feedback so I would really appreciate support from fellow students on the night. I will be keeping in character for the audience feedback so it is a great opportunity for any writers, academics, editors, journalists, actors, producers, dramaturgs or directors to engage with a work in progress, in a unique way.

I am also offering a prize, worth £500, for the most constructive written review after the show – a day long Beinghuman Masterclass, in our Somerset Warehouse in Frome, where the team will look at your creative business and practice.

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Postguerres: what follows war?

Dr Fernando Gómez Herrero, Honorary Fellow in Birkbeck’s Department of Cultures and Languages, reports back from an international conference in Barcelona which focused mainly on the contemporary history of the Spanish Civil War and World War II.

Pablo Picasso’s ‘Guernica’ (1937). The artwork illustrates the violence and chaos of the Spanish Civil War and brought worldwide attention to the conflict.

Inside graffitied buildings at the University of Barcelona by the elegant Las Ramblas, I addressed the topic of intellectual life and the aftermaths of war in relation to three noted figures, mostly in the second half of the twentieth century. I brought “Dos Carlos,” so to speak, to the small-space of the Iberian peninsula, mostly during the Franco Regime but also after. Does any of this conservative and authoritarian thought, in complicity with early Nazism, remain alive today vis-à-vis the still prevailing orthodoxy of the “liberal West”? Symptoms of the loosening of the “liberal order” are easy to detect in different institutions, politics, university and mass media to name a few inside disparate national climates such as Brexit vis-à-vis the European Union, Trump America, etc. This international conference had three languages in unequal relationship (Catalan, Spanish and English) and the focus was mostly on the contemporary history coming out of the Spanish Civil War and World War II. Are we witnessing a turn to the Right, a revolt of the masses, even a Right-bound populism (what some authors call the “great Regression,” H Heiselberger for example)? Can we learn anything from the geopolitical situation of the following three figures of uneven visibility and uncertain impact?

These figures are: Carl Schmitt (1888-1985), Enrique Tierno Galván (1918-1986) and Camilo Barcia Trelles (1888-1977), not to be mistaken with his brother Augusto Barcia Trelles (1881-1961), also an interesting figure for another time and place. I addressed internationalism in relation to big-spaces and small-spaces, Grossraum and Reich, legal order and disorderly war, vis-à-vis the legacy of the Monroe Doctrine and the rise of the universalist-liberal ideology denounced as imperialist already by 1939 by Schmitt, sitting uncomfortably on the side of Nazi Germany losing WWII. This ineluctably dangerous thought emerges from the demise of imperial European hegemony, whilst marking differences from the Anglophone world and always keeping distance from the Left tradition emanating from Soviet Russia. Schmitt had plenty of (intellectual) life in him after such defeat finding refuge in the Iberian peninsula for four decades. This presentation developed the significance of such small-space for the historical geopolitics emerging from the middle of the twentieth century (we can think of the scale that goes from city of Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain, Europe, the West, etc.).

What are we to understand by the ominous sign of “war”? A permanent condition of being? Severe, harrowing test indeed big-time-big-space form of politics? Is there a way out of such politics? Law? Peace? What follows “total war”? Is international law the next chapter of significant difference? Or the first chapter that will be inevitably followed by disorder? What notions of “space” do we see emerging in between 1939 & 1945 and after? Schmitt’s spatialization of social energies: still convincing or useful methodology? What is missing? What is not to be touched with a ten-foot pole? What is the Spanish rendering of the alleged German scholar? What are the differences among these three European authors? Who are they turning to, conversing with? Their blind spots? Where is this Europe –and the liberal West with it– going in the 1950s between the two superpowers (U.S. and USSR)? Towards an inevitable debilitation? This presentation handled some of these burning issues. I played off the contrast with Anglophone environments.

L-R: Giovanni Cattini (Universitat de Barcelona), Fernando Gómez Herrero (Birkbeck and University of Birmingham, U.K.), Marcio Orozco (Universidad Panamericana, Mexico), Nick Sharman (University of Nottingham, U.K.).

Schmitt’s are strong words about the obfuscation and the falsification of the original Monroe Doctrine, also about the opportunistic use of messy geography emerging, the thinness of content and the doctrinal incongruence mobilized by the victors of WWI. There is insistence on the extension of the rule of the exception also in international law, that is nonetheless still monopolized by the Anglo Zone and paraded as triumphant narrative in the liberal West. Schmitt speaks of the universalist-imperialist principle of expansion in the Anglo Zone, the Americans picking up the legacy of the British Empire. Yet, international law will fly low in the United Nations in the following decades. There are also eerie sections about the elimination of the minority law in Schmitt, and we all know what that meant. His rejection of the ideals of assimilation, absorption and melting pots is blunt (it is important to remember contemporaneous Latin American thought experiments about “cosmic race” (Vasconcelos) and “transculturation” (F. Ortiz)). How did the Spaniards receive this profoundly uncomfortable thought in the 1950s and beyond?

It turned out that “Don Carlos” found refuge and community, circulation and outlet, even admiration in the Iberian peninsula, particularly Spain, in the final four decades of his long life. His daughter Anima Schmitt de Otero, who settled down in Franco Spain, acting as translator, representative and connector with several authorities and colleagues in legal and international studies. The Instituto de Estudios Políticos, Madrid gave him accolades. Manuel Fraga Iribarne (1922-2012) was among those “friends,” yet kept the figure of German intellectual at some distance. Among these “friends,” we have to include Tierno Galván whose article “Benito Cereno and the myth of Europe,” published in Spanish in 1952, recreates Schmittian’s Melville novel of a decrepit Europe giving way to some type of liberal American barbarism. What do we make of this article now 50 years after the publication of Sociología y Situación? There will be progressive distancing between Tierno Galván and Schmitt, as registered in Mehring’s extensive biography of the German intellectual. How are we to interpret today the gesture of the sociologist? Is the former Socialist Major of Madrid in the early moments of Spanish Democracy holding his own? The presentation answered some of these questions.

There is a second line of thought, which we may wish to call the Catholic international relations soon after WWII. Barcia Trelles, international-relations expert, managed to transition from Spanish-Republic and stay publicly active in the Franco Regime. He played a stellar role in the XIX World Congress “Pax Romana” (Spain, June-July 1946), event satirized by the English Catholic and conservative novelist Evelyn Waugh in his novel Scott King’s Modern Europe (1947), in honour of Francisco de Vitoria (1483-1546). What do we make of such initiatives in our own times? This paper contextualized and presented highlights of Barcia Trelles asking whether his vast scholarship remains of interest. Is this a third way? How are we to take the Catholic claims of a certain internationalism theoretically neither West nor East? Do we buy them? Schmitt praised Barcia Trelles’s formulations of land and sea in his magnus opus Nomos of the Earth. Is there evidence of a correspondence? American internationalist James Brown Scott (1866-1942) is in identical Vitoria circle in Spain bringing such legacy closer to the liberalism Schmitt denigrated. What do we make of it?  Where to stand? Does law follow war, or is it the other way round? Isn’t it true that we live now in low-standing moments of international law in our convulsive times and foggy wars of uncertain end?

Schmitt has been a strong point of reference among social scientists and “humanists” from the Right and the Left in the two-to-three decades, at least in continental Europe, including to a lesser degree Britain, and U.S. foreign-affairs circles, expansively the Anglo-dominated North Atlantic. I am insisting on this visibility three decades after his demise. I took into consideration Writings on War (Polity, 2011) edited by Timothy Nunan, spanning 1939-1945. I took into account Tierno Galván’s article on Melville’s Benito Cereno and a selection of texts by Barcia Trelles in the 1930-50s located at the British Library. I was fortunate enough to find a rare book in the Ramblas during my visit: Cardinal Points of International Relations of Spain (1939), which will be incorporated in future works. I said a few words about the said Pax Romana conference. I quickly included references to Miguel Saralegui’s Carl Schmitt, pensador español (Trotta, 2016) and the monumental work of Reinahrd Mehring, Carl Schmitt: A Biography (Polity, 2014). The Spaniards also deserve a place at the discussion table. Reconstruction of their intellectual efforts also interrogates our moments of insights and persistent blindness.

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Arts Week 2019: When a mathematician, a musician and a poet collaborate and converse about symmetry and asymmetry

Miranda Siow, a Birkbeck alumna, shares insights from the Arts Week event that explored symmetry and asymmetry in maths, music and poetry.

View of Dr William’s Library and Euston Church from the central gardens in Gordon Square

Birkbeck was like my first home in London. It began with a conversation on a beach in Melbourne. One of my best friends asked me what I would do if money was no object. After puzzling over her question for several minutes, I concluded that my dream was to travel. ‘What about travel writing?’ she said. The thought had never occurred to me. I returned to London, bought a guide to travel writing book and tried an evening class called Introduction to Creative Writing at Birkbeck. I loved the writing class and rediscovered my passion for stories. I never read the travel writing book.

For years, I studied literature and creative writing at Birkbeck. My studies took me to other institutions to explore the arts and creativity, including achieving my dream of a Masters in English Literature. Last month, I found my way back to Birkbeck through an event entitled ‘Symmetry and asymmetry: maths, music and poetry.’

2 Temple Gardens, a Victorian Building overlooking the Thames

The history of symmetry is even older than the library, church and central garden which also reside in Gordon Square, where we gathered that Friday. Symmetry is often attributed to the Italian renaissance. It celebrates beauty, art and proportion. Symmetry and asymmetry involve balance, harmony, or disrupting these. Sarah Hart was brimming with enthusiasm and knowledge about triangles, crystals and the laws of symmetry. Shapes were folded, sliced and converted. An array of slides showed us triangles, polygons, polyhedra and spheres. We discovered symmetry in sea creatures and in Escher’s Angels and Demons.

Did you know that our world is full of symmetry, not just in poetry, architecture, art and nature, but also in the answering phrases in Bach’s compositions? I didn’t appreciate scales when I practised them as a child. Iain Burnside played the keyboard in that small room that sunny evening. His music had a beautiful simplicity. We heard Dante’s sonata and Conlon Nancarrow’s study number 21. He discussed inversions, inevitability, perfect fifths to perfect fourths, major into minor, tritons, inversions and death how bitter thou art.

Poet, Fran Lock introduced us to gurlesque, rhymes, secret metaphors and metrical patterning in heartbeats. There’s symmetry in behaviour, families and crowds. We desire order in fashion, bus lines and voting. Symmetry can be a constraint. We may break the pattern and seek imperfection, which has its own beauty.

Spring flowers in bloom

After the event, I’ve become more conscious of symmetry and asymmetry in the buildings around London and the vibrant flowers in bloom. The way a path is designed or the branches of a tree stretching out like open arms previously did not warrant a second thought. I have a fascination with how we see the world, the idea of conspiracy theories and different perspectives. Like them, symmetry and asymmetry provide another way to look at things, with a new lens and dimension.

St Paul’s Cathedral dome

I hear songs on the radio and it’s a game of tones. Tunes have a character with progressions and echoes. Some refrains are more dominant and powerful. Patterns and motifs are pleasing to the ear. We need only look up into cathedral domes or even the clothes that we wear to see patterns and motifs. Maths, music and poems have propelled into my life on and off throughout my childhood, teens and adulthood. Now, I also see an abundance of symmetry and asymmetry around me.

Clothes from a catwalk show at London Fashion Week Festival September 2018

Birkbeck’s final day of Arts Week was a serendipitous homecoming. I’ve found symmetry in my life, from my first Birkbeck writing class to blogging about this Birkbeck event. After more than a decade, I’m even living again in the same building as when I first moved to London. I wonder what my life would have been without that conversation on the beach, Birkbeck or creative writing. If I hadn’t done them, I might not have had the pleasure of an evening with a mathematician, musician and poet.


Photos by Miranda Siow


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