Richard Gordon
Richard Gordon

The Old Man and His Course…..

This is my very first blog.  So by way of introduction, I’m publishing an award-winning article I wrote about Jewish Studies for the King’s College London Post-Graduate Fresher’s magazine:

The Old Man and his Course

 “Are you faculty staff?” I was occasionally asked during my KCL Post-Graduate Taught MA in Jewish Studies 2011-2015.  As a grey-haired old man in his 70s, I was not surprised.

At the initial seminars when we introduced ourselves, most of my fellow students were true post-graduates continuing their higher education or professionals, such as a Brazilian priest, enhancing their careers or Reform Judaism Rabbinical students for whom the MA was a necessity. Then there was me; recently retired from a lifetime as an IT developer, computer consultant and business man. I stated this and then explained that as I could not play golf and my wife had an arm-long list of things for me to do around the house, I felt that the KCL MA would be a safe, relaxing, easy option. How mistaken!

OK, thanks to the eclectic choice of modules on this KCL course, it was an opportunity to delve deeply into Jewish history, thinkers, philosophers, biblical archaeology and Talmudic tradition. It was also expensive – there are no grants for retirees and my children accused me of spending their inheritance! Unlike the University of the Third Age, however, this course made strong intellectual demands and, if successful, you finish with a degree.

The first problem was actually being accepted for the course.  KCL asked how someone, with a scientific (undergraduate degree in Physics) and technology background, would cope with a demanding, essay-based, humanities degree?  I replied along the lines of humanities, schmanities, you think that science and technology exclude interest and involvement in “humanities”?  This assumption is like the AA’s view that its members are exclusively motorists, whereas many are parents, environmentalists, and all are also pedestrians!  The computer industry is inherently people-related both in terms of users and because people run the businesses.  When devising computer-based solutions or analysing problems, you have to understand and investigate the underlying requirements and causes.  Then you have to marshal, reference and present facts and arguments in a structured, coherent, concise and, hopefully, interesting and persuasive manner.  How is this different from writing an academic essay?  As they accepted me to do the course part-time, they also replied, “You’ll see!”.

They were right.  In science and technology, ideas stand or fall (like bridges) according to their underlying validity.  In the world of arts, humanities, theological and religious studies, for every “fact” there are numerous interpretations and opinions.  For every learned academic proposal there’ll be other equally learned academic counter-proposals (occasionally quite vituperative).  As a Masters student you have to plot your path through this minefield of ideas and, in an essay, propose your own view based only on sustainable arguments.  You thus have to have read widely before you can even write the first line.

So much for my thoughts of a relaxed sail through this course; enjoying seminars with my feet crossed, easily picking holes in airy-fairy academic arguments.  Instead it was very tough.  Just how do you come up with an original viewpoint?  As an example, I had to write an essay on Martin Luther, the Protestant Reformer, examining his changing, and eventually extreme, views on Jews.  There are academics that have devoted a lifetime to this very subject and here am I, a poor Masters student, having to justify my own distinct view in just 4 weeks – tough indeed!  Some topics were easier – an in-depth study of the Book of Esther: view it as Persian history, a crime story, a satire on Court life worthy of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, a Jewish morality tale…..

As an elderly family-man student I at least had no worries about student digs, or a social life, or commuting costs (I’ve a Freedom Pass!), or dinner in the evening.  Instead I could enjoy the benefits of student life – 10% off at Rymans, reduced theatre tickets and beer in the student union bar.  At KCL in particular, I could appreciate its wonderful central London location, history, chapel, and (possibly inadvertent) thoughtfulness: the Theology & Religious Studies department floor (when I started) connected directly with Tutu’s the student union nightclub!  Above all, for me, was the opportunity to participate in the voluntary additional weekly lecture for the AKC designation with a yearly exam but no need for much additional study.  During each of your study years there’s a terrific range of topics and insights on wider issues than your particular field.  In my time I enjoyed the religious aspects of Bach’s music, the morality of punishments for alleged cowardice in WW1, and an unforgettable old-style lecture on Talmudic logic by a professor who paced up and down the theatre holding us spell-bound whilst he kept having to run back to his computer to switch to the next PowerPoint slide.  He finished to a standing ovation!

Socially I benefitted from increased street credibility with my friends’ school children who could empathise with this old man behaving like a young laid-back pupil rushing to submit his homework with just minutes to spare.  My own children were less sympathetic. My daughter who was a medical student at King’s ensured our college paths never crossed; and my son, at a different university, refused to let me give him a hard-time about not concentrating on his studies. Whilst I would be offered a seat on packed tube trains, I got no such deference from the college authorities who would not accept old age as an excuse for missing a deadline.  However, via my doctor, I submitted a successful plea for a time extension on the grounds that the stress of studying had exacerbated my, already high, blood pressure.

Though many of my friends could not believe that I had willingly submitted to the torture of essay writing and, admittedly few, exams, I am proud now to be able to join the ranks of esteemed KCL alumni.

About the Author
Richard Gordon, retired computer consultant and business man with a degree in physics and a post-graduate diploma in Jewish Studies from KCL; interested in Jewish affairs, history of Zionism, and Israel (married to an Israeli and his son and daughter have followed his example)
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