baffled

I’ve written here about babies who do not cry because they are institutionalised and about toddlers who do not speak because nobody has ever shown them how.

Maybe that is why I am particularly furious today about able bodied university students who live in a democratic society and do not speak in their seminars.

I am halfway through a part time degree in English. I enrolled full of enthusiasm, expecting to have stimulating conversations with other people who love books and reading. It was the fulfilment of a 25-year ambition.

Three years on and I am beginning to think I might have to stop going to seminars. I can no longer cope with the long silences that follow almost every question posed by the tutors.

I have tried to be patient and to make allowances for the fact that my fellow students are young and perhaps shy. But nobody is a fresher now and I have run out of excuses for them.

I simply cannot understand why anyone would pay for a university education and then fail to participate in the learning process. Yet week after week I sit in seminars where only one or two people speak unless virtually forced to by the tutor.

Take Wednesday, for example. Fifteen minutes into a seminar on Virginia Woolf’s Orlando – arguably a landmark work in English literature – the tutor despairingly announced that he felt as if he was pulling teeth. It’s not as though the questions were difficult. ‘What did you think of this book?’ is hardly threatening, is it?

I wish I could take my silent fellow students to meet some of the people I encountered in my years as a teacher of English as a second or other language.

They would probably like Yasmin. A refugee from Yemen, she was one of the most intelligent women I have ever taught and one of the hungriest for learning. Her eyes filled up with tears when she told me how her parents had forced her to leave school at 14.

Or take Munira. Munira was raising eight children on her own, all of them under 11 years old. But she never missed a class and always handed in her work on time. ‘My ambition is to go back to my country and be a teacher,’ she told me. Unfortunately her country, Somalia, is gripped by famine right now and I’m guessing nobody is going to school there.

It wasn’t just women, either. There were several Kurdish men in my literacy class. The reason they could barely read or write was that when they were children, the Iraqi authorities banned them from school because they were from the ‘wrong’ ethnic group.

And if all this seems too far from home, how about my mum? Her ambition as a teenager was to do biomedical research, but back in the 1940s her school told her that ‘girls don’t do science’. She’s 76 now but she still speaks of it with regret.

My fellow university students make me want to weep with frustration. Their lack of engagement is such an insult to thousands of people around the world who would literally give their right arms for the chance of decent education.

They also devalue the learning experience for everyone. It took over an hour to get nine things on the whiteboard that people thought were interesting about Orlando. Next week I might just go to the library and read instead. The problem is that then I wouldn’t be participating either – but at least I would be learning.