In my clinical practice, although some researchers had claimed that traumatic amnesia was common, I found that my patients had vivid memories, often ones they wished to forget. I consulted memory man Prof John Morton, FRS, him of Logogens and Headed Records fame, and we were able to show that in a dreadful ferry disaster where almost half of the people drowned, survivors had almost perfect memory for who they were with immediately before, during, and after the terrifying event. The imminent prospect of death did not cloud their recall. Given the unusual fact that I had personally interviewed a large number of survivors, we were able to test their memories against the accounts of other survivors, and cross-validate them, a rare test of the accuracy of traumatic memories.
In one of our many conversations John Morton told me about an interesting memory experiment, in which participants were asked to read out the letters of a foreign language text, presented to them upside down. I hope you will agree that this denies them the usual contextual and linguistic cues which make ordinary text potentially easier to remember, because you can get some sense out of it, but you are denied the search for meaning in this task. A year later, without having been previously warned that this would happen, they were given the same task again. They completed it faster the second time. So, John Morton noted, perhaps almost everything can be remembered, even if it is hard to retrieve. The trace is always there.
I can’t remember the reference, despite having written it down somewhere. Can anyone help me?
If traces remain of all events then it follows that I ought to be able to remember my first year university lectures, that is, remember them in the sense of having traces that should be easily summoned up by looking at the titles again. Perhaps it also means that I have always been guided by their content, without knowing it was happening, merely assuming that what I heard in those lectures was known to everyone, or at least to most people I knew. Common currency, and no big deal, but a point of unacknowledged reference, a scaffold on which conjectures and refutations can be sustained.
So, I decided to ask those who had sat through the same lectures to let me see their copies of the program. I can only find 1965 which was the year after mine, kindly sent by Marshall Colman. The Foundation Year course changed slowly, so it is probably an almost perfect match, and I can recognise most of it.
In matters of detail, I think I had forgotten Prof Gemmell’s lectures on natural selection and inheritance though I may have been guided by the content, and remember his aphorism (from the Chinese): “One mountain, one tiger”; vividly remembered some of Prof Ingram on Physics (because of the practical demonstrations); and partly remembered Prof Ian Hunter on Psychology; Prof MacKay on computation and the measurement of information; and, to my surprise, had forgotten or rejected recalling the Christian farewell.
In the matter of surveying the broad picture 51 years after the event, recalling that year fills me with emotion. The founding Professors did their very best to educate me, and even though I took notes diligently, I wonder if I appreciated at the time what I was being given. After all, this was my only experience of university teaching, and I half-assumed it was the norm. The Foundation Year was an enquiry into civilisation, a confident exposition of the Western heritage, sufficient to let students read more widely, and provide them with reference points so that they knew how to ask questions on many subjects, and a framework to understand the scale if not detail of subsequent advances. It was a starting point on a journey which allowed them to speak as easily to Carl Sagan as to Douglas Adams.
Very belatedly, I’d like to thank Prof Lindsay for founding the University of Keele, where this course was taught to all undergraduates. Five years after I graduated it was deemed too expensive, since the bold experiment took up a whole year extra year, and required not only Heads of Department to prepare and give many lectures, but a much larger number of Lecturers to run weekly tutorials and mark all our essays. It became just an option, and continues only in reduced form.
Which universities still teach all undergraduates a course like the Foundation Year? Would you like to design a one suitable for the current time?