Thursday, June 21, 2018

Oxford University versus The University of Life Janette Miller

Oriel College Oxford University - Wiki creative commons

I have always felt jealous of anyone who is clever and privileged enough to receive an Oxford/Cambridge education. Now as a 75 year woman who has had to go through life with no formal education at all, and most women of my age had to do this, Lady Di is a good example, she got just two GCEs  and had to be Princess of Wales, I envy anyone male or female who has achieved and survived this exalted education.
If I had been a boy, my father who had the very best education money could buy would have seen to it that I went to decent schools and had I been bright I should have ended up at Oxford or Cambridge but in 1947, instead of the North London Collegiate that was at the bottom of my road I was sent to the local convent to be taught by Irish 18-year-old nuns who could barely read and write themselves and had no idea how to teach. I survived the first two years where I discovered that although everyone else could see God I could not and it was not until I was 7 that I got the hang of reading.
I had heard of a university but I could no more imagine going to one than flying to the moon. I was lucky because I self-educated right from the age of 5 as in 1945 my grandfather had one of the first televisions and Lord Reith who ran the BBC went in for Educate, Entertain and Inform and so I had seen most of Shakespeare, Ibsen, Wilde plays by the age of 11 not to mention operas and ballets. I had also seen Belsen and GB Shaw in an interview in 1949. When I could read I started on my grandfather's library but this self-education meant I had absolutely no formal qualifications at all. The only thing I knew positively about Oxford was that its colour was dark blue and it always lost the boat race.
I did learn Latin which in those days was necessary for university entrance. The nuns were good at Latin. At the age of 12, my father decided that as my educational standard was so low, I could not spell and one mark was taken off GCE O levels for every incorrect spelling so my chances of passing anything was nil. He thought all my brains must be in my feet. As I was good at ballet I was removed from the convent and sent to a ballet school in London, Portman Square just behind Selfridges at the age of 12. This was a secular specialist school which gave children the opportunity to be employed in professional productions as well as providing a basic education.  Basic English, arithmetic (no algebra or geometry), French,  history, and art for three hours a day. The rest was taken up with ballet, tap, drama etc and the chance to be on the stage and get paid if you were fortunate.
You can see my chances of an Oxford education were very minimal. I so admired my clever friends or anyone who got masses of O levels and A levels and who went to universities of any kind. I had no idea of how they did it or what they did when they got there. I was told it was magical and for many the years at Oxford was the best thing in their lives. They got into jobs of which I could only dream, the BBC,  publishing and politics and I could only look on.
I was not alone. Most of my ordinary middle-class girlfriends were in the same boat. They became secretaries, nurses and teachers and the aim was to marry well. A teacher, a lawyer or a doctor, doctors who went to Oxford were the prizes as there were so few of them and strangely these clever men really had no choice but to marry us as there were so few female graduates and those that were available were generally blue stockings. Educated men had to put up with uneducated wives.
In May 2018 at the age of 75, I watched a YouTube Blog MollyatOxford of a charming, intelligent young woman who was studying Classics and English at Oriel College Oxford. She was doing the very thing that I dreamed of doing all those years ago. In 1964 I met a gorgeous Oxford educated GP, Oriel/St Mary's at Queens Ice rink in Bayswater. Doctors like ice-skating. It is splendid exercise, can be done alone and at any time. For 8 years I was just a pair of skates on legs and a useful ice dancing partner until one day he found out what I did for a living. He was amazed, took me to the opera at ENO that night and I married him a year later.
The first thing Miles did was to take me to Oxford and show me his college which was Oriel. I got a brief tour, just two quads and the staircase to his room. The delightful Oxford blogger did a much better job than my husband in this area but Miles was good on punts. My Oxford blogger has not ventured out in that area as yet. I became his Lady and overnight I had to be accepted by this privileged group of highly educated people. I still think some of them raise an eyebrow as to why a brilliant Oxford scholar should have chosen a ballet dancer as a partner and I bet none of them thought our marriage would last because I was considered uneducated.
As I said at the start until now I had no idea of what went on at Oxford or how they taught.  My husband did medicine which is taught in a different manner to say that of Classics. It is usually a big secret so unknowingly my Oxford blogger, Molly has given me the opportunity to find out what I missed all those years ago. I found it riveting to see what Molly was doing between with her life between the years of 16 to say 23 getting all her O levels and A Level qualifications and compare it to what I was doing during those same teenage years with none. For a start just being a woman would have kept me out of my husband's college as Oriel was the last bastion of misogyny to fall. Took until 1990ish for women with qualifications to be admitted.

The Oxford Undergraduate experience is considered the pinnacle of education and will lead on to an enhanced status for the rest of their lives so what makes it so special?
Getting to Oxford as an undergraduate seems to be the major obstacle and major achievement. It is a long hard academic slog, many are called but few are chosen, but once there it really seems to someone like me who worked my way through the teenage years a really cushy existence and about two hundred miles from reality. How can this cosy isolation arm you for life in the real world? Where is the real world?
Only short terms, 8 weeks in very pleasant surroundings and accommodation, all food found for four years of the most formative years of one's life. For Molly, her life consists of writing an assignment a week and a few exams at the end of the first year with the next set of exams three years down the track. No travelling involved, a social life provided if you care to partake, some lectures to attend, a tutor to give you hints and put you on the right track and really no responsibility at all while one lives in this enchanting atmosphere and architecture. The life of a student under these circumstances is very gemütlich indeed! The only fear is not handing in the assignment on time.
It is learning for the sake of learning as most of what students has been well trodden before and the opportunity to find something original in Classical texts that are over 2,000 years old is highly unlikely.  Molly had not studied Latin at school so coming to Oxford unprepared in this area and expected to do translation in her first set of exams must have been daunting. My Latin was possibly better than hers at first and I am no Latin scholar although I do enjoy it now. I know how it feels to behind in an essential subject. Oxford ought to have warned her of this. How can you translate if you don't know the language? Takes years to really learn Latin.
Next thing that surprised me was Molly's weekly search for books. Really two days of each week were taken up in the hunt for the set texts. What a waste of time and energy. Surely Oxford should supply these books online to its students. This would give the undergraduate more time for study and less foraging around. Actually, this book weekly book search shocked me. Molly seemed to have little time left for socialising which is an important part of university life, for life after university perhaps the most important part. Molly rarely attends the lunch so possibly does not gain as much as she should in this area as she does not meet students from other disciplines on a daily basis to broaden her knowledge of real life if there is such a thing in Oxford. Does Molly get out on a punt a  la Dorothy L. Sayers?

By Molly's age, I had mixed with princes and spent time at the local Labour Exchange with the unemployed. I was often one of the unemployed.  I had travelled the length and breadth of UK on a train. I saw the poverty and hopelessness of the way many citizens lived. Bradford was an awful wasteland in 1964 and still is today. Glyndebourne, where I wined and dined, was very different. I became an Equity deputy and I admired Venessa Redgrave and Glenda Jackson with whom I worked.

The May Ball, which I had been lead to believe was the height of sophistication looked disappointing too. In a tent with earphones. Now Sandhurst  Ball was quite something in my day. Very elegant. I had expected the May Ball to be like that. First night of theatrical productions in the West End are good too with lots of champagne and flowers whether they are successes or not.
Socialising is so important and seems to be getting lost in hunting for books and essays on time. For me, rehearsals were the perfect time to meet and talk with cast members and musicians and management. You get to know them well on long train journeys too. I learned from the best this way and as I was interesting to talk to and had original ideas I was accepted. Molly doesn't seem to meet anyone above her on a daily basis. Only a tutor once a week. It seems very limited to me.
Molly's sole day trip to London was a highlight of her week but she went to a Harry Potter Exhibition! Admittedly she did go to the Ashmolean and has a student ticket for Radcliff Camera for her book search but after school, I could go anywhere. I lived at the Wallace collection and National Gallery and while working on the opera The Turn of The Screw for TV for six weeks I had the British Museum every day at lunch. She went on a family holiday to Croatia and spent one holiday as an intern for work experience.

My life was so different. 

I worked full time for a living and learned on the job. You have to be better than the best. There are no second chances in the West End and London Theatre. This started young. At 12, I got up at 7am, walked a mile to the station, took the tube from Canons Park, Changed at Wembley Park for Baker Street, then walked or took a bus to Portman Square all by myself. Ballet class was at 9.30 am followed by another vocational subject. After lunch, school till 4.30, the English was excellent. I can parse my way out of a paper bag. Then off to the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden for the ballet performances. This usually finished at 10.30 pm where my mother would come up and take me on the long journey home. Ballet dancers have to be ready for professional work at 16 and some become ballerinas at 18. Life is short in ballet. Ballet dancers are brilliant, know how to work and deferred gratification. Very different from Oxford essays. I did this for two years.
At the age of 12, I was out in the world doing voice-overs for commercials. Huntley & Palmers Biscuits relied on me on TV to sell Ginger Nuts!  At the age of 14, I was chosen to be in The Royal Ballets first performance of Petrushka in 1957 at a Gala Performance. The two children were something of a hit and I spent the next two years with the Royal Ballet where I met everyone from Margot Fonteyn, Fredrick Ashton to Sir Malcolm Sargeant.
In 1958 at 15 I was chosen by Benjamin Britten for the first performance of Noyes Fludde at Aldeburgh and then in 1959 for his opera as Flora in the "Turn of the Screw" live on British Television and at Aldeburgh. Because of my knowledge of opera and ballet, I got to know Britten well and in fact all my papers of that time and my score signed by all the cast I have left to the Bodleian Library. I deserve a PhD for my take on why Flora is so important in her own right and not as a back up for the boy! I can tell you Britten never told me all this. Britten would not have dared.  I had to work it out myself. Britten admired me for doing this.

I have three O levels which I taught myself as I had to change to a school that did not do GCE's. I had a brilliant headmistress who taught me the three English Lit books in just three weeks. I got 87% and the remark that "as my spelling was so bad we would never know your true academic value". Yet I am considered uneducated. Many of my schoolmates were in the same position. One Jackie Collins went on to have quite a career. She never passed anything.
At 17 went to the Guildhall School of Music and Drama where at 18 I won the Production Prize but could not get a job as BBC did not employ women and preferred male graduates from Oxford and Cambridge and yet I was really good. I met this obstacle constantly but eventually, I did sell a ballet series to BBC. I had to go to New Zealand to do this 16 years later.
Spent next two years working my way up in musicals, eight performances a week starting with a major tour of "Stop the World I want to get off" around 14 of the major towns in England including The Oxford Royal. Visiting these towns was a great educational eyeopener.  We travelled by British Rail on a Sunday, for 14 weeks. These journeys were again and eye-opening experience. We were paid a pittance and the work was never ending. We had no day off.
Then I had to do pantomimes as a principal girl. This is the University of Musicals and stage productions. Sometimes 12 shows a week for over two months in the  bleak provencial cities. Very hard work. I also did drama, films and TV productions.
By the age of 24 I was starring in the West End. For a year it was 8 shows a week. We had nightly audiences of over 2000. The responsibility for quality performance was enormous. You don't get a BA for doing this and yet you should.
My workload makes Molly's weekly essay and life experience look like an afternoon picnic on a sunny summer's day. It is so isolated from real life.
However,  Molly is officially recognised as educated and I am not. Her BA from Oxford for a few essays will trump my University of Life any day of the week. I am just astounded at how easy it is Oxford graduates to succeed in life. My husband was an example. He was given an MA Oxon for just completing his medical degree. Not an essay in sight!  Everything was given to him on a plate including a wonderful pension. Artists do not get pensions as Margot Fonteyn found out.
Up until yesterday, I envied Molly and her sojourn in Oxford.  Surprisingly, I think the University of Life is far richer than the Oxbridge University version. At a pinch I could do what Molly does very easily, I should have to revise my Latin and use a spell check but don't we all. There is no way that Molly could do what I do or have done with her education which seems so limited.  I was lucky not to be able to spell and sent to a ballet school but I should have liked a PhD and a pension of my own and to be recognised as educated in my own right.
I was lucky to experience Oxford second hand via my husband who always said there is only time in life or the best and he chose to marry me. I suppose that is a compliment. However, if I had been given the opportunity to go to Oxford when I was Molly's age I think I should have taken it and look what I should have missed.