Wednesday 30 May 2012


Graduating at 90, as I did this year with an MA from the University of Buckingham in intelligence history, might invoke the expression “late starter”, but such things do not necessarily happen suddenly, and are often the culmination of a long process. My higher education formally began when I was in my 60s (I left school at 14 in 1935), as I had not previously had an opportunity to study before my retirement and the advent of the wonderful Open University. But long before then, first working in the Temple as a barrister’s clerk, and then joining the wartime RAF, my eyes were opened to a broader culture than that offered by my south-east London street. An innate curiosity and a seemingly insatiable thirst for knowledge accounted for the rest. In short, I have come late to formal higher education, but have lived a lifetime of learning. But how did my decision affect me? And would I advise other retirees to do the same?

Well, I’ve had no material gain as a result. On the strength of my BA in psychology, there followed a volunteer job as a drugs counsellor. There were significant disadvantages to acquiring my two undergraduate degrees – six years of constant hard work entailing virtual obsession with the course for most of the year is bound to affect domestic relationships. It did, but we survived – even though the divorce rate among Open University students is rumoured to be above average.
However, I think the spiritual and intellectual benefits far outweighed the disadvantages.

Indeed, I was not really looking forward to attending my first seminar, worried about what to expect, but I needn’t have been – my fellow students (about 20 of them) immediately put me at ease. Two nice young ladies moved apart and offered me a chair between them. What a relief. The camaraderie between students is well known, and it was very much in evidence here. I made many friends among them, and they seemed to treat me no differently than any other, except for one big Kenyan lad who insisted on calling me “sir”. Their average age was in the mid-20s, and I am still in touch with some of them. The University of Buckingham attracts more than its share of students from all over the world – there were Americans, Chinese, Nigerians – and meeting them and enjoying their company was an unexpected bonus.

The most memorable thoughts I have of the university experience (which I sorely miss), were the wonderful seminars, especially when my old-fashioned, non-PC views would sometimes cause a friendly uproar among the students. I did enjoy that.
When asked at the time of graduation what I had hoped to achieve, my answer was to delay the onset of senility, if it was not already too late. My more polite friends tell me that all the studying worked, and that my faith in exercising the mind was justified. One of the many bonuses is that documentaries and educational broadcasts, which previously might have gone above my head, have been transformed from boring discourses to exciting and enjoyable events – although it can be a little disconcerting when you watch a historical programme and realise that you were present at the events, causing you to be re-involved more intimately and yet more objectively than when they originally occurred.

I am not aware of any deep-seated reason for undertaking the MA. Presumably a continuing wish to learn exists, and a chance to put it into practice presented itself when my wife showed me an invitation from the University of Buckingham to apply for a master’s course on the history of intelligence with Bletchley Park studies. She said it seemed right up my street, and that as we had recently discussed the need for a new direction – why not take it? The relevant background was that my last job was at Hanslope Park (I am a qualified electronics engineer), an organisation that took over from Bletchley Park at the end of the war. These circumstances rekindled my dormant curiosity. I applied and was accepted.
So would I recommend a return to formal learning past retirement? Emphatically, yes.

 Source: guardian

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