The essence of the independent mind lies not in what it thinks, but in how it thinks.
This edition of The Aidan Project blog is something of a public service announcement for would-be mature students. It is for those of you out there who have considered taking the leap into higher education but, for whatever reason, have put it off. If this does not speak to you in this context, then I hope you may still find my reflections interesting for what they are.
I took the academic plunge in September of this year. Now, although I may sometimes be treading water, I have not drowned. And if you are reading this, you are doubtless someone with an open mind, so I am quite sure that you would not drown either. What follows are my reflections on my first three months at University.
The First Semester
This week, I complete my first semester at University. Having made the decision to enroll only a matter of weeks before the course started, I can honestly say that only four months ago, the idea of writing a reflective blog on the experience of my first semester would have sounded unlikely. However, I cannot definitively say it would have sounded completely ridiculous, because if truth be told, I have considered becoming a mature student for several years. Nevertheless, this foray towards a degree in History did all come together somewhat spontaneously; that is to say, it all fell into place and felt correct only in September 2016.
I was 34 when the course started, and have turned 35 since. Jumping back into education for the first time since I left school was a nervous proposition. Thankfully, I am not only far from being the only person on my course in the position of entering University later in life, even if I were the only mature participant, I now realise that this was something I had concerned myself with unduly. If you are passionate about the subject, you already have something in common with your fellow students straight out of the gate. Age is trumped by interests.
Progress? What Progress?
There is browsing, and then there is reading. Overcoming one of my main concerns upon joining my course, I have now become much better disciplined in reading, and maintaining concentration whilst doing so. Prior to becoming a student, my time at home would be spent doing multiple things at once; on my laptop, scrolling through Twitter on my phone, watching documentaries, listening to a podcast or audiobook. This was a difficult cycle to break. Now, whilst I fidget and will often wonder what nonsense Donald has tweeted, I stay the course and get my reading done. And I have learnt to enjoy it.
With a strict schedule of work, gym, University attendance and home studying, I have adapted to the feeling of being pulled in multiple directions. I am at peace with my commitments, because I have ensured that all can be accomplished if you plan ahead…and sacrifice a little sleep.
The Lessons of Learning
Any piece of text your lecturers will ask you to read, no matter how seemingly confusing, can be made sense of if you approach it in the right way, with the aforementioned open mind. You may have to read the text several times. You may have to put it down and resume later. But, more likely than not, you would not be asked to read the text if there was no purpose in doing so. I assure myself that, with a bit of patience, the point of the text is there to be found, hiding in plain sight.
Indeed, sometimes the most interesting texts have the dullest introductions. Persevere and get through it. A journal article assigned to my class regarding 18th century Parisian boulevards was desperately dull for the first several pages, yet it now stands out in my mind as one of the most interesting things I have read during the first semester. The article was not merely about boulevards. The point of the article was the emergence of a rising consumer culture, which could not be more relevant to understanding the rise of the Western market society. The text was not difficult. I did not need to read in between the lines, I just needed to read the lines themselves beyond an introduction that had not immediately gained my interest.
University lectures have taught me, above all else, that it does not matter what you think, but how you think. Within some degree of reason, you can read from the bible of Karl Marx or Adam Smith, but this is less important than the role of critical thinking and keeping an open mind. Debate is healthy; always listen to the views of people with whom you disagree. Challenge your perceptions and you will do well.
Discussing current events, such as Brexit, the conflict in Syria, and the US election, has been the most interesting aspect of the course. I think it will be fascinating in hindsight for me to say that when the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, or when Donald Trump became President-elect, I was a student, discussing the potential implications of what was happening. Being a student of history when significant events happen can almost make you feel like you have inside information because you are housed within such accessible historical context.
As a historical event, the French Revolution is the most interesting aspect of history that I had not quite appreciated the significance of before becoming a student. I could tell you nothing regarding Maximilien Robespierre in September, yet I have spent hours since reading and writing about him, and here I am writing about him once more. The case of Robespierre is, to me, so remarkable, as he achieved so much in such a short period of time, yet he remains so little known when these achievements are considered. Perhaps the shadow of Napoleon is to blame. I will share an essay with you all regarding the French Revolution early next year, and not merely the streamlined, academic, 2000 word version, but the epic Director’s Cut edition. Or perhaps I should say the Guillotine’s Cut.
One event, not in a lecture, seminar or book, has stuck with me for the important lesson it provided. It was an understanding gained back in the hazy days of our induction week, which is ancient history now. During a trip to a local historical mansion, a lecturer pointed out what to most people would be seen as an unremarkable toy soldier from the past. This toy soldier, it was explained, was actually that of a Russian soldier, which is indicative of Britain’s political alliances at the time. The toy was a valuable lesson to look beyond the aesthetic of primary sources. As another lecturer advised the class in November, sources can be interesting for what they did not even intend to reveal.
Academic writing was something I was looking forward to embracing, even if I was not quite sure how to approach it. I feel I have a unique, be that positive or otherwise, writing style, but the feedback I have from my lecturers has made a huge difference already. I now use full stops, rather than long, flowing chunks of text without end. Good for the markers of my work, and good for you, the dutiful reader of my blog. Indeed, it was my desire to hone my writing skills that led me to launch The Aidan Project.
I have learnt to carefully skim a piece of text for the main principles, extract them, and then make a note of them to explore them in greater depth at a later time. I am less tied up with ceaseless note taking at the expense of actually getting any meaningful reading done. I suggest you make a note of that.
I have learnt the differences and merits of being a Niall Ferguson style, big storyteller, or a micro historian, delving into otherwise obscure parish records. Through the past several months, I have come to realise that I am a storyteller. I see storytelling as not only my primary interest in my quest to gain a degree in the subject, but also an obligation. I want to inform others, and to do so in an engaging manner.
During my reading, I have certainly found it challenging to understand the mindset of human development which experienced an Enlightenment, yet still continued to engage so tragically in slavery and Social Darwinism. More confusing still is the fact that inspirational thinkers and exceptional scientists continued to believe in God. Many incredible people behaved in a way that we would find morally reprehensible today. Ironically, I am indeed confused and perplexed by the Enlightenment. I feel many people are quick to point out that we cannot be moral relativists, which has some merit. However, for me, this dodges an imperative to investigate a difficult concept. Perhaps the truth is just too frightening? Much, much more reading to do. The truth is out there, somewhere.
There is also a strange irrationality that I think is inbuilt into many students, which while probably a good thing, is still difficult to rationalise. I have been preparing for my essays since the day I received my course handbooks. Now, despite being a veritable determinist, who knows it is simply impossible that I would somehow fail to hand my assignments in on time, the deadlines remain ominous. Perhaps this is not so irrational after all. Perhaps it is that very same inbuilt anxiety that forces me to complete the essay, which makes sense as, after all, I am a determinist. And yes, this is philosophy, not history. Sorry about that.
When I consider what I have become more confident about at University, put simply: I am more confident in simply being a student. Whether my work is good, bad or indifferent, the physical work itself to me was always less of a concern than adapting to actually being a student. I have adapted and I consider myself as a confident student, something I always wanted to be. I was just not ready to be a student when I left school.
When I started the course, I put the odds at 50/50 that the pressures of work would cause me to make a difficult choice and to consign my studies to history before the journey had really begun. I am now confident that I will finish this degree in some distant year, and will get to wear a fabulous hat, if only for a day.
I jumped back into the pool of academic learning at 35. I was not the person I am today at 18. I would not have enjoyed University as a teenager. I also do not think University would have enjoyed me then, either. But lessons outside of University have now led me providentially into lessons within it. The timing was right.
My advice, especially if you, like me, were not suited to University when all your friends were – or thought they were – is to think of it as like passing a driving test. If I had somehow passed my driving test at 21, I may well have immolated myself in a spectacular fireball shortly thereafter. In other words, had I even been able to stomach University at the conventional age, I would probably have wasted my degree anyway. Timing is everything. Let timing and circumstances be your only considerations, not the fear of being older than your classmates.
I am, to be sure, definitely learning new tricks.