Summer school

The past week has been about as far from ‘Louise in Senegal’ as you can get, but a week at an Open University summer school is so far removed from normal life that it has to be worth describing here.

Several people seem to think these weeks must consist of a continual orgy, whilst my friend Garry asked me if it would be full of ‘sandal-wearing beardy-weirdies’. The answer to those questions is no, but the second does have an element of truth.

Some of the students do not really have the capacity, confidence or the social skills to attend a regular university (the 45-year-old man still living with his parents, those with physical disabilities or mental illnesses), others are mulling a mid-life career change (the taxi driver wanting to teach science, the accountant with vague ideas about wanting to save the environment…), many are finally catching up with the further education they missed due to early marriage and motherhood, and others are keeping their minds active in retirement. Increasingly now, they are joined by younger people who have realised that getting their degree from the OU allows them the opportunity to get work experience at the same time and to avoid the enormous debts of other students.

The varied backgrounds, and the lack of experience of formal learning of some, can make for great group discussions as people bring a totally different perspective to things with some off-the-wall (but by no means stupid) responses to questions. The tutors are equally varied; I spent part of yesterday evening in a quite surreal voluntary session on Evolution, where a real life mad professor rambled on about Darwin’s wife and house, and anteaters (wish I could remember quite how he got on to that subject!) and hardly mentioned evolution at all. He finally listed the four principles which drive evolution, which, if I’ve remembered them correctly are
• limited resources (insufficient for all individuals to be able to survive)
• competition between individuals for those resources
• variability in the characteristics of different individuals meaning that some are more able to adapt and survive
• heritability of some of those characteristics
When he finished, someone sitting near me (I admit it – a sandal-wearing beardy-weirdy) put his hand up to ask “What about ants?”

Actually it was not a bad question (as of course ants do not compete, nor often have variable characteristics, but work together as a team to support the queen and her offspring) but by this time most of us were struggling to suppress our giggles so the room erupted into a series of snorts and splutters as most of us tried desperately to maintain some semblence of being mature adults.

Actually many students regress during these summer schools to their late teens anyway, staying up until the early hours drinking cheap beer in the student bar with a bunch of almost-strangers. I have to admit I have been really boring this time, avoiding all of that socialising as I still remember how exhausted I was by the end of my previous summer school. Indeed I am typing this whilst my fellow students are living it up at the final night student disco.

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