9 June 2011
I failed with some style in my first year at university. My twin brother and I were the first in our family to attend university and we took failure in our stride just as easily as we took success. Oh well, that is what happens we supposed. We bounced back and I have long since described the four year approach to the first three year degree as strategic and based on the view that allowing the concrete to set well in the foundations led to many a good building.
It is a complex business being the first. My subject choices through secondary school were relatively random and the only assistance I got at home was a single comment at the beginning of the third year secondary when my Mum said that “Dad wonders if you should be taking a subject that is related to getting a job.” This was when I determined that I would do music as a subject – at that point the only music I had was what was learned in a brass band having missed out on tuition on the bagpipes for various reasons which would have allowed us to follow in our father’s footsteps or is that fingerprints (with grace notes)?
I can recall no discussion about careers around the dinner table or indeed about subject choice. We selected subjects on the basis of what we thought we could manage and what we thought we might like. So Form 5, the School Certificate year and here I was taking English, mathematics, Latin, Music and French. I passed School Certificate in the days when you needed 200 marks in your best four subjects including English with 32 marks to spare. I wondered if I should perhaps ease back a little to avoid burnout.
Latin got dropped in subsequent years. So when it came to university, subject choice for the first year was based on what? Well that was simple; I wanted to go to the new fledging university in Hamilton (still a branch of Auckland University and only in my second year to become the University of Waikato) and had no appetite for leaving Hamilton at that point. So I chose subjects from the literal handful that they offered – French, English and History, declining to do geography. Yes, that’s it folks when it came to choosing university subjects in Hamilton in 1964!
It was in History where I came unstuck. Our Mother was very interested in history but it was New Zealand history and there I was becoming acquainted with Japanese, German and US history. And having not been taught at school to write a history essay my efforts were what might be described as hesitant. I blame no-one for this because it simply was how things were.
You see, there was never any doubt about both the job I was headed towards and the fact that I would get one. I had applied for and secured what was called in those days a Teaching Studentship – you got paid wages to go to university to be a teacher. Yes someone decided that at the age of 17 I was likely to be satisfactory teacher which was either an act of faith or a sign of desperation for teachers which were in very short supply in the 1960’s. We were bonded year for year to teach at the end of our education and training.
So it was with an incomplete degree that I headed off to teachers college in Auckland. I arrived late to be given a stern talking to by the principal of the day (I had been completing National Service in the army so he was on shaky grounds). I was given a ticking off by a respected principal of a prestigious school when I went there on teaching practice – what do you think of coming here with an incomplete degree? My suggestion that he should think of it as a BA -1 was clearly not a path to pursue. At the teachers college I was advised sternly (for these were pretty stern days) that I must enroll in Education at Auckland University. I could see no sense in this as I was at Teachers College where I had a not unreasonable expectation that they would deal with Education on the way through. I enrolled in Anthropology 1.
Of all the papers I did, these were the best. This was the only time in my first degree that New Zealand was mentioned. Maori Studies had progressed only as far as appointing a lecturer and Anthropology dealt with those topics. Dr Ranganui Walker taught a course that introduced us to dimensions of Maori, both modern and ancient, that my education had studiously declined to do up to that point. Rev. Bob Challis taught a course on Pacific Islanders in New Zealand and opened our eyes to the phenomenon of migration to New Zealand. Dr Les Groube in the physical anthropology course took us up to Orakei Basin for an archaeological dig on the pa site there. And there was a course on Aboriginal society in Australia. This stuff was close to home and excited me more than anything else I had studied. There was also a course on monarchies in African societies that I suppose we did because of a lecturer’s PhD studies.
It was the only paper in my first degree in which I scored an A pass. Finishing on a high note has always been a good philosophy in study as well as sport and most other things!
By the end of my first degree I no longer thought of myself as a first generation student. Twelve of the fourteen members from the next generation of our family completed a university degree. We simply expected them to succeed.