Look Back to the Future

Mike Press
6 min readNov 23, 2023

Our new book looks back half a century and draws lessons for the future.

“Boris Johnson was “bamboozled” and “confused” by the scientific modelling and data presented to him during the pandemic, the UK’s Covid-19 public inquiry heard on Monday” — Financial Times, 20 November 2023

Fifty years ago a degree course welcomed its first intake of students at London’s Middlesex Polytechnic. BSc Society & Technology aimed to provide an inter-disciplinary learning experience that bridged physical and social sciences. Underpinned by philosophy, the programme addressed real world issues through modules in fields such as ecology and industrial conflict, and through nine months of work experience. Linear programming and organisational theory added to a mix that aimed to create ethical change makers who were scientifically and technologically literate. But did the course succeed in this aim?

Our book provides part of the answer. We asked over thirty people who graduated from the course over the decade that it existed why they did the course, what they remember from it, and how it informed the rest of their lives. I am one of them and was part of the small collective who pulled this book together. We did not set out to undertake an academic inquiry into the value of a long dormant poly degree. To be honest, our project began as an exercise in re-establishing old connections between a loose network of retired folk — a convial activity for Third Agers. But we did manage to track down and get contributions from around a quarter of the course’s graduates. Recent news events suggest that there are perhaps lessons to be learned from an education that aimed to produce policymakers who were not ‘bamboozled’ by science or ‘confused’ by data. So yes, there are some broader conclusions to be drawn — but its roots in a very specific time and political culture must first be acknowledged.

The book captures a moment in history — then follows the lives of those whose ideas, aspirations and values were formed within it. The Polytechnics were created as part of the Wilson government’s social reforming zeal of the late 1960s. They provided an approach to higher education that was at odds with the elite universities of the time, and which the latter took some decades to catch up with. Modular course structures were developed that enabled cross and inter-disciplinary learning, a broad diversity of students was encouraged, there was an emphasis on vocational learning and non-traditional teaching methods. By 1973, many of the new Polys had hit their stride — among them Middlesex in north London.

There was a spirit of innovation at Middlesex Polytechnic. All of its degree courses were four year ‘sandwich’ programmes with work placements, but they also embedded philosophy within the courses. Questions were asked in Parliament about why a mere Polytechnic employed the second largest number of philosophers outside Oxford University. Much of the teaching was based on project-based and collaborative learning, often focussing on real world problems. And all of this came together in BSc Society and Technology, which also reflected the growing critical interest in ecology, social action, feminism and radical technologies. Contributing to this was the wider student community at Middlesex which was highly political and a culture of activism in north London that was focused around housing.

What was the value of the Polytechnic approach to education and the radical approaches to inter-disciplinary learning that it enabled? This book tells you through the personal stories told by thirty two former students and three of those who taught them. Half a century on from their student days, looking back in most cases from the position of retirement, they reflect on what they learned, how they made their lives and what it meant to them.

Stories are told by individuals who applied their learning and inspiration to a range of careers that include setting up a world leading medical product design consultancy in California, social work, public health, education, management, publishing and IT management, project planning, community development, sanitation engineering, film production, international development, service innovation, running an aviation business and establishing IT departments in Botswana’s schools. Clearly the breadth of studies encouraged a breadth of interests and ambitions, and in many cases a confidence to work across diverse fields and, in a whole variety of ways, to be innovative.

The inclusive nature of the course — and indeed the entire Polytechnic system — not only created opportunities for individuals who would otherwise be denied them, but formed a community that proved vital to the students’ personal and intellectual development. The experience of one individual who had “attended a primary school where everyone had failed their 11+” was by no means unusual. Another described his time at Secondary Modern school “where nothing was expected of you, so I did very little.” Life before the course was described by many in terms of dead end jobs, failed exams and low expectations. The course provided a personal alchemy: “It let me escape my upbringing, it showed that another way of being was possible, and it introduced me to some interesting people, some of whom I am in touch with fifty years on.”

BSc Society & Technology was an experiment — one that failed at the time in terms of attracting sufficient student numbers to ensure its survival in the colder climate of Thatcher’s education policies. But half a century on we can assess whether the experiment worked in terms of enabling its students to make worthwhile, productive and fulfilling futures.

One person succintly pulls together benefits that are scattered throughout other contributions, describing how the course “encouraged me to think, discuss and question; encouraged tools to organize and communicate my thoughts; exposed me to many different disciplines; challenged me to seek out new information for projects.” Another emphasises the value of interdisciplinary perspectives: “I still find value in the connecting of dots that this course helped me to see.”

The variety of benefits and life experiences in this slender volume more than establish the success of the course in educational terms. The demands on higher education and the challenges facing our planet perhaps demand that we explore how elements and approaches from this course can be adapted for the future.

In part, this is because BSc Society & Technology was about breaking down barriers between the sciences and humanities, encouraging critical views of technology, and promoting approaches to innovation that put people first. But also, and perhaps most importantly, it was about creating an inclusive space where individuals could understand and value themselves better: “One of the hangovers I have as someone with my background is the fear of being found out. A self perception ingrained early in life that others are better and more able. Whilst emotionally I was always expecting to be found out as someone who should not really be there at least I could intellectually understand where this negative and debilitating feeling was coming from.” It provided ways of dealing with imposter syndrome before imposter syndrome was a thing.

When you start a project like this, you never quite know how it will turn out. It exceeded our expectations. In its pages are some wonderful and surprising stories. Yes, it says something about a particular course and about Polytechnic learning — but it also says something about how people make their lives and — many years on — how they make sense of it all in a collaborative way. That sense of how people learn from each other and inspire each other is a recurrent theme. It’s people who make educational experiences, and how those people care for each other. As Dan Reik says in his contribution: “My classmates changed my world view from being a factory worker to being something else entirely.”

Look Back in Candour by The Society and Technology Collective is available from Amazon: https://amzn.eu/d/hN6JTht