#3 – What did you learn today dear? -My amazing experience of attending university at 50 years young.

“Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”

-Mahatma Ghandi

I made the decision to attend university as an assist to writing a book on health, fitness, and nutrition at the age of 49. I had recently made the decision to change my once-turbulent, externally determined, and out-of-control life to a life wherein I fulfilled my lifetime passion for writing and sold some small pieces while I wrote my book. I wrote, and still write daily, about anything and everything. I had left full-time education in 1976, at the age of 16. English had never been a strong subject. Originally I opted to study sports science, as I thought that would best suit my needs at that time.

During the first year, one of the units was sociology, a subject I had never come across before. I remember the subject was difficult at first, as it seemed to have a language all of its own. My Concise Oxford English dictionary and thesaurus were never far from my side, a habit still with me today. Much of the required reading was a chore, but the subject awoke something in me. All of a sudden, all kinds of issues that had occurred in my life were starting to make some sense. Since changing my life during the last year or so, I had become well-read and had always had what Foucault would call a “critical attitude” but had never been provided with any structure or theory to my world or my way of thinking.

For my second year, I changed away from what I called the facts-and-figures subjects and changed to a sports studies degree course. I considered that the course would provide more meaning and understanding to the world and, in particular, to my world. I also took an introduction to some basic philosophy, which I found fascinating. Towards the end of the second year, the class was introduced to the thinking of Foucault, and I lost myself in the required reading. This was something I rarely did, as I normally tried to find my own related reading, finding the required academic texts often very hard going and dogmatic. I also read anything else I could find that would explain Foucault to me coherently. I actually purchased the books as treasured possessions to refer to in future projects. I have amassed quite a library in the last three years, and I often look at the change from what I used to read to my choice of reading these days as an indicator of my journey staring down at me from the shelves. I smile at some of my previous purchases.

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This was when it finally dawned on me that I was, in that moment, living Foucault’s concepts within the university – we all were. I had an excellent understanding of all of the course subject matter and yet often fell short of top marks. I was told on numerous occasions that I had to play the game to get top marks. So here I was, in the midst of power relations, myself wanting to be creative, individual, and unique but under pressure to conform. I wanted to maintain a writing style, my style, and look for unique angles to discuss. “They” wanted me to write the same as everyone else, the created object of academic writing, and stick religiously to what they had been teaching. In a strange, maybe warped way, rather than frustrate me, this made the whole degree experience so much more exciting for me. As I type this, I still feel that buzz of excitement. I’ve named it “living the learning”. I had to stay true to my creative self, and yet I wanted to do well for my degree. Marks became less important; in fact, I didn’t even seek to find out my grades. Admittedly, when I scored well, there was an immense sense of satisfaction, because “I did it my way”, to quote Frank Sinatra. I knew that if I were seeking the approval of others and looking for high marks and the recognition that can become all-too-important and I could see in everyone around me, then the path was all laid out before me. I was daily nudged, encouraged, and instructed in the proper direction. I could absorb what was needed and achieve an honours degree. Being told what to do and how to do it, with the promise of a pat on the head at the end, was not for me. Under these circumstances it did not feel as if it was my work and all the spark and natural energy for the project would have been extinguished. Following the path robot-like was not for me. I had to search for meaning, not only in my sporty lifestyle choice of bodybuilding but in all aspects of my life and particularly my degree course, including this dissertation. The following quote is particularly relevant to my university experience; ironically, most students do not look at what is happening to them in the institution in which they are developing their critical attitudes.

This ready-made character of life comes from what Foucault calls disciplinary power or governmentality … interacting with experts and authorities who are there to help me become a well-adjusted, happy, healthy productive member of society … central to this is the way it focuses attention on me, you, and everyone else as an object of both control and knowledge … not governed in a way that represses or oppresses but in a way that feels best for me.

So I was now aware that I had to actively perform subjectivity in a field of constraint. Rather than deter me, I thought this was amazing; I had choices and some control, and I could be true to myself and play the game, without suffering unduly. I knew I would compromise my scores, but I would never hand in any work that I was not proud of calling my own and that did not show in some way my individuality. (Well, maybe there were a couple of pieces that didn’t really inspire me to perform.) What then had any of this to do with a man’s search for meaning or the identity construction of a bodybuilder? Everything!

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This is who I am to begin with. A full understanding of this dissertation would not be possible without at least a mild acquaintance with who I am. I need the reader to be fully aware of the spark that the last three years has ignited inside of me. This whole voyage of the last three years has not only served to give meaning and understanding to the sport of bodybuilding but to every single aspect of my life, and it has totally changed my perspective on that same life forever. Why study bodybuilding? Bodybuilding is more than a sport; it is an endeavour that I have been enthusiastically involved with for over thirty-five years to date and aim to be involved with long into the future. It is a lifestyle – it would be called a fetish by some outside of the subculture – and I call it a passion.

It is difficult to understand the bodybuilding habitus. The learned way of looking and being can seem alien for those on the outside, who are viewing ethnocentrically. Then it seems to be easier for others to label and stereotype than to really attempt to understand. Alternatively, if a theory more or less fits, then that is the road taken. As you will see, many theories may fit more or less if you try hard enough. This dissertation is the culmination of three years of radical changes in a man’s thought processes, a reappraisal of over fifty years of living and thinking without direction. It’s a voyage from being a determined “thing” to a realisation that we create our own reality if we make a conscious effort and have the knowledge to do so.”

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The next paragraph is the conclusion of that same dissertation. I believe it sets the scene perfectly.

“This conclusion for me is concluding three years of hard work, and whilst bodybuilding has been the focus of this study, for me it is more about choices for life and how sport and our sports choices is just a part of who we are. In three years I have not only learned how to understand a coherent sense of who I am and how I am shaped by my facticity and by my choices but also how this is not only a sports skill but also, maybe more importantly, a life skill. I have much to thank Bedfordshire University for; ironically, the intrinsic value of my education that has been almost inadvertently passed to me on the side-lines is the most precious gift. For many graduates, a degree quickly becomes an object also, with attributes and a purpose of elevating them to a position above others. My degree will be just one small part of what I have learned in the last three years, and each time I look at that degree and reflect, it will have meaning and depth far beyond what that paper or the words “BA Sports Studies (1st class Hons)” can ever convey. The true self is never fixed and is a continuous becoming, an art of no longer being what I was and experimenting towards unknown futures.”

My conclusion is that the University experience is better once life has been lived a little. Much of the learning is meaningless until experience has been gained and practical examples can be found in the life lived up to this point.

Adam x

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