We are experiencing something of a technological meltdown chez Farrow. My laptop seems to have joined the husband’s phone in silicone heaven so there will be something of a hiatus until the children have swept enough chimneys to raise funds for a new one.
For some inexplicable reason, touch typing on a tablet just doesn’t seem to work too well for me, it’s so interminably slow that by the time one reaches the end of a sentence, the train of thought is lost.
So. No mobile phone and no laptop. Whatever does one do? I suspect this is rather providential as it means that I can get on with some serious reading minus distractions. Regular readers might remember that last year’s tumultuous events together with an unplanned pregnancy meant that I had to defer my degree only weeks after I had started the first year, the sickness was rendering concentration impossible and tiredness making it impossible to keep up to speed with the vast amounts of reading. Though it was a tough decision, it was undoubtedly the right one, Felicity was born via section, five weeks before the first year finals. It was never going to work.
This is a bit of a now or never moment in terms of the elusive degree. One of the biggest mistakes of my life was not going when I had the chance – it’s a long and unedifying story. My only sadness is that last year I had an Oxbridge offer, my dream was tantalisingly within my grasp, but at the time I had a then 5 month old, my husband was in ministry in Brighton, my daughter was settled in school here and it was just unfeasible. All of which makes me sound like a dreadful snob, I really am not, the quality of teaching at my university is top line and two of my tutors are very big names in their fields. It’s just in order to qualify for entry, I had worked jolly hard, undertaking a Foundation Course at Oxford University’s department for Continuing Education, which is the first year of a degree split part time over two years. I had combined it with a full time job as well as pregnancy, childbirth and weekly commuting to Oxford with a newborn baby, no mean feat and by some miracle scraped a first. Being something of an aesthete I felt like a successful Jude thrust into the playground of Sebastian Flyte. When people talk about the privileged at Oxford, that was certainly not my experience in terms of fellow students, especially the mature ones. There was an enormous diversity of backgrounds, one of the most successful people in my class was a young Muslim immigrant who combined the course with his cleaning job in the small hours of the morning, who was routinely scored marks of above seventy and who was awarded a full-time place at the end of the course.
The feeling of privilege came not from backgrounds but actually from one of appreciation and gratitude and perhaps this is what is sometimes mistaken for elitism. Oxford is an architectural delight to behold, combine that with exposure to some of the sharpest academic minds and latest ideas, resources that are second to none, walking down famous streets, dreamy spires, lush quadrangles and cloisters together with the assumption that you are worthy to be amongst these terribly clever people and it’s a heady mix. There is also a huge amount of pressure to achieve academically and an aura of undoubted competition, particularly in my class, where we were informed in no uncertain terms that any offers would be entirely dependent upon marks and applications could not be discussed until after the first year exams. I thrive under academic pressure, even if I did experience the odd mini meltdown and appreciated every single moment. Perhaps this pressure combined with the knowledge that you are considered to be an academic achiever is what gives Oxbridge graduates something of a veneer of confidence and invincibility which is often perceived as entitlement? Of course one cannot deny that Oxbridge does have a certain cachet and kudos, whilst a top job is not guaranteed by any means to graduates, there can be no doubt that one’s life chances are massively improved.
I guess I am rueful, knowing precisely what it is I’ve given up, but family life does entail sacrifices, being a spouse and parent (of whatever gender) requires selflessness. It’s not so much that where I am now is inferior, it’s just not quite the same, a campus university, although an extremely pleasant one, has a very different feel and of course there are no tutorials.
I had been giving serious consideration as to whether or not to return, given the demands of two young babies, but the forthcoming rise in tuition fees have given added urgency. My institution, unsurprisingly will be charging the full £9k in fees from next year and thus it’s now or never, although I am one of those who would be considerably better off under the new proposals; I already qualify for every single additional grant, the university has awarded me a bursary and I will receive heavily subsidised childcare, without which this just would not be feasible. Under the new system my final loan would be less and I would be re-paying in smaller chunks, but nonetheless I don’t want to delay any further. Given I have a confirmed place on a course at a University whose typical offer is AAA and this year’s unprecedented scramble for places, it would be unmitigated folly not to proceed.
Why am I doing this? For multiple reasons, in the current job market, the lack of degree is being used as a filter when there are huge volumes of applications, regardless of skill-set. I am also fed up with various condescending attitudes I have experienced by virtue of not having those two letters after my name, whereas the reality seems to be that my reasoning skills, critical thinking, lexicon and general knowledge exceed those with better prospects and paper qualifications. A Level grades have lost their impact. Even my dog seems to have 4 As and in my day an A* simply didn’t exist, I was once asked at interview why considering my A levels, my GCSE results weren’t better, numbering mere As and bereft of stars. I am still relatively young and in my 30s, but several career doors are closed. I am considered too ill-educated to enter teaching for example. Effectively I have little other choice career wise.
So minus the temptations of twitter and the net last night, I settled down to some serious reading and finished book 2 of Paradise Lost. I wouldn’t recommend it as a bedtime read; thoughts of a hybrid consisting of half woman and half fish giving birth on an hourly basis to rabid dogs who gnaw at her intestines and Sin and Death building a bridge in Satan’s wake to enable easy access from Hell to Earth through Chaos, certainly focussed the mind during night prayer. Reading reminded me of the predominant and most important reason for my degree: I have a passion for the subject and I enjoy learning. Rather too much I should imagine, in an ideal world a combination of literature, languages, history, theology, philosophy, politics and economics would be perfect. In an ideal world I’d never work again, I’d spend all the time when the children are at school ensconced in a comfy chair and surrounded by bookcases. But when I had a lightbulb moment, recognising all the cultural references that have become part of our everyday unconscious vernacular, when I read about earth being suspended from heaven via a golden chain and other worlds being formed out of “his dark materials”, I experienced the ripples of pleasure and recognition and felt just that little bit richer. When as an avowed proponent of a very small state the following lines gave pause to re-consider my opinion:
“Unacceptable, though in Heaven, our state
Of splendid vassalage; but rather seek
Our own good from ourselves, and from our own
Live to ourselves, though in this vast recess,
Free and to none accountable, preferring
Hard liberty before the easy yoke
Of servile pomp. Our greatness will appear
Then most conspicuous…”
And I found myself prompted to ponder on questions of politics, philosophy and theology, via the medium of literature, I realised that not to study would be doing myself and my children an enormous disservice.
Perhaps the loss of a computer will be a beneficial development. Too much surfing leads to to incomplete knowledge and lack of objectivity. In the meantime, I’ll continue to keep my nose to the academic grindstone, as at heart I am something of a Rita. I cannot look at my copy of Blake without lapsing into “oh you can’t dooooo Blake without Innocence and Expeeerience can you”. Nor can I resist the urge to answer every question with “put it on the radio”. And when I find myself considering whether or not Sidney was the ultimate proto-feminist and whether Stella was the new Orpheus, I cannot work out whether to be enormously self-satisfied or whether I am indulging in irrelevant academic pretentiousness. If nothing else, the next three years might well give a little more self-insight in that regard?