Stuck in the middle with youth

It's a funny thing to worry about a statistics assignment after 20 years of writing columns for national newspapers. "Run one regression model in which the amount donated is the dependent variable and age is the explanatory variable. Write down the regression equation [3 points]." It's a very long piece of work, extremely precise, unpaid - and nobody, save one bored tutor, is ever going to read it. As if to underline the gulf between this new life and my last, I have to hand it in in person, all the way to the university even if it's snowing, with a signed form promising that I haven't stolen anything from anyone else. Journalists steal everything - facts, ideas, other people's lives; that's why academics hate us (that, and their belief that we get everything wrong).

Clever girls

I am in the middle of everything: middle-aged, in Middle England, mid-career - and in the midst of an essay crisis. You aren't supposed to have essay crises beyond the age of 21.

Having returned to university after two decades, I have found that the best thing is the students. Their enthusiasm is contagious. One forgets how jaded we all are, those of us with kids and mortgages and jobs. These 21-year-olds glow with life (the girls do, anyway; I am not so sure about the boys). They work hard, have serious plans and are seriously clever.

It isn't how I remember being 21. They have real interests - not the ones we used to pretend to have on CVs: "reading", or "cinema"; "summer working in a kibbutz". They're interested in subjects such as political disengagement among European youth. They spend their holidays working for voluntary organisations, and weekends interviewing protest marchers in central London.

And they think better than I do - or perhaps just differently. My first essay was marked up for being "beautifully written" and then down for being polemical: "Please consider what evidence you have for any far-reaching conclusions." It is like trying to harness an ill-disciplined pony.

In academia, you do not have opinions and you do not exaggerate. You narrow. You narrow and you narrow until there seems only one possible explanation for something - and then you conclude that it seems likely that this is the cause. You are very careful before you claim to know anything at all; whereas we journalists make careers out of claiming to know everything.

After a career of it, my mind feels starved of facts; you would think it should be the other way around. So I sit through hours of lectures, gulping it all in. These academics possess a lot of good facts, hidden away behind arcane jargon in obscure media. The more obscure the journal, it seems, the better.

For instance, fact: women won the past century. The average housewife has gained 40 hours a week over the past 100 years, while men's overall working hours have stayed the same. Even working women do OK: if you take into account the hours that men now spend working in the home, working women and men can boast roughly the same hours, 50-55 each. At least, in Denmark. Which is probably more equal than the UK. That's the trouble with academia; there is always a qualifier.

New friends

So now we women can do statistics assignments. Or bake cakes. Unaccustomed to the school run, I slink around the school gates, dodging mothers bearing pieces of paper saying things like: "11am - trestle tables; Bob to help. 3pm - teas. Cakes?" I do not wish to be unhelpful, but nor do I wish to bake cakes for school fetes. Why can't fathers bake cakes?

My first statistics test came back with a mark of 68.75 (statisticians do not do things by halves). Hours and hours of agonising work
I spent, trying to gain 71.25 in the second and tougher assignment, in order to get a distinction - around 35 hours of my life, I reckon, for one assignment that forms half of one-sixth of a Master's degree in social policy, which I do not in any way need, in competition with brilliant 21-year-olds. It is pure indulgence - the joy of learning something new.

I start work at 5am, sometimes 4am. The middle of the night is a good place to contemplate the middle of one's life, the sun pinkly trying to lift itself over the South Downs. And if the familialism of the German welfare state, a slight uplift in Italian fertility levels, or even a logistic regression of the effect of gender upon charitable donations keep my thoughts company, they are welcome, too.

These are new friends I have - these facts, these startling 21-year-olds, these academic papers. None of my old friends really believe it. Sometimes, I'm not sure that I do myself.

This article first appeared in the 15 March 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Falklands II